A Maryland Bounty

March 20, 1991|By Carleton Jones

Many more people today are reading the labels on packaged foods. The three Cs -- cholesterol, calories and the counts of vitamin percentage -- are among the fascinations that consumers have embraced, along with sugar and salt content information.

What they don't read, generally, is usually in very small print: the origin of the food geographically. Actually, you can stock your freezer, fridge and pantry with a virtually all-Maryland series of foodstuffs.

It'll be food that is seasonally frozen, canned or otherwise packaged in local and regional centers. A side benefit, an economist would say, is that you'll be helping to keep assembly lines and jobs moving in the state's food industry -- a recession-era plus. The range of Maryland foods in type and size is relatively unknown to the public and somewhat remarkable. Included in the list is the world's largest spice firm (McCormick & Co.), the country's largest importer-distributor of olive oil (Pompeian) and one of America's best known personality-type food industry names (Perdue), ranking perhaps second only to Colonel Sanders or possibly third after Orville Redenbacher.

At the other end of the scale come the relatively tiny, traditional brands -- like Mrs. Manning's, whose canned hominy contains the exact address of the Clinton Street company in East $H Baltimore.

A recent head count by the state's economic development department lists more than 150 companies directly concerned with packaged food production, not counting markets, jobbers, distributors, orchards, egg farms or other generic businesses concerned with getting food on the table.

Among the largest groups are 16 fish packers, 17 frozen food purveyors and 16 firms engaged in seafood packaging. Together, this group, involved heavily in low-cal, high protein types of oceanic and bay largess, numerically make up the largest single food production operation in the state.

At one time, canning was far in the lead as a type of Maryland food production, and there are, according to the state head count, 18 firms engaged in canning local products. Packaging Maryland's corn crop (both white shoe peg and golden types) and its vaunted Eastern Shore tomato explosion is extensive. Together, the two vegetable "basics" make up a highly visible supermarket shelf item.

So do the new "boutique" items. The gourmet boom has created an almost wholly new food world in the state, specialty firms that provide finishing flourishes for cooks. Among them is Riderwood's Hunt Cup Ltd., now packaging a number of multipurpose sauces based on ginger root, peanuts, raspberries and mustards. The great Indian specialty, chutney, lives on in Baltimore's Chesapeake Chutney brand, a sophisticated blend of peaches, vinegar, raisins, orange peel, sugar, crystallized ginger, pectin and spices.

Diversified gourmet notes also have begun to appear in long-established brands. The Pompeian firm, a local establishment long owned by the Hoffberger family, once relied on a standard no-nonsense bright yellow bottle of traditional olive oil. Since 1975, a new management team has richened the mix. Today the company offers a light olive oil version, an extra virgin type and a red wine vinegar.

This is just one sample of a traditional Maryland brand changing hands but being maintained as a local product. Another is Mrs. Filbert's margarine, now produced by Van den Berg Foods, a Southwestern Boulevard firm that also markets Promise margarine and Shed's Country Kraut.

Some national brands of instant recognition have regional plants that service the Middle Atlantic market from a Maryland base. A sample is the Thomas' English Muffins plant at Frederick.

A unique note among U.S. food flavorings, Maryland packages powerful, pungent seafood seasoning powders all its own. Leading brands include McCormick's Old Bay variety (celery salt, mustard, pepper, laurel leaves, cloves, pimiento, ginger, mace, cardamom, cassia and paprika) and the seafood spice marketed by Phillips Seafood Restaurants with a bit more of an unusual clove accent. (The tins of both make space to tell you how to prepare traditional Maryland crab cakes.)

Though it has long since taken second place to frozen foods and packaged specialties, canning continues along traditional lines in the state, performing its regular function of giving low-cost vegetable flavor snap to kitchens in the gap between November and June.

While the Eastern Shore is the main source of canned vegetables as well as the considerable broiler industry, the western part of the state provides many of the meats and fruits that end up on supermarket shelves.

History buffs recognize Maryland, along with Manhattan, as among the major birthplaces of big-time U.S. canning industry. It happened a startlingly long time ago. The oldest canning patent dates to the 1820s, and as an established industry, canning (interestingly documented at Baltimore's Museum of Industry) is about 150 years old.

Oysters were among the first national foods to make their debut in cans. Thomas Kensett, one of the founders of the industry, by 1850 was regularly putting up Baltimore corn, tomatoes and green peas, while Isaac Solomon, also a local canner, made a major international breakthrough in his discovery of safe canning using calcium chloride as a preservative.

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