They came. They met. They feasted. In many ways the 70 members of the Newspaper Food Editors and Writers Association who gathered in Baltimore last week behaved like any other group of conventioneers.
But there was one significant difference. These people were professional eaters.
They write and edit the food sections of America's newspapers. They were in town for their annual convention. After squiring them around the area for four days, I was interested in their impression of Maryland food.
And so, a few days after they had returned home, I called several of them and asked them questions about their three days in Baltimore and one day in Washington. I wanted to know what they ate that they liked, what they ate that they didn't like, what surprised them, and what foods or drinks they had carried home in their luggage.
The big crowd-pleaser was the blue crab. They had it in soups, crab cakes, steamed and in soft crab sandwiches. They liked it a lot. Most of the editors and writers even adopted the local habit of picking a favorite crab cake.
Christine Gang, food editor of The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tenn., found her favorite crab cake at the Robert Morris Inn in Oxford during a side trip she took to the Eastern Shore.
And as Carol A. Haddix resumed her duties as editor of the Chicago Tribune food section, she still had fond memories of the crab cake she ate at Faidley's stand in the Lexington Market. "I liked the touch of mustard, and the lump crab," she said. For Michael Bauer, food editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, the crab cake at Faidley's "was one of the best I've ever had. Much better than the crab cakes on the West Coast."
Out in San Diego, Maureen Clancy, food editor of The San Diego Union, said the crab cake on top of her list was the one she ate at Pier 500 restaurant, with lime and anchovies.
Steamed crabs also caught the fancy of the professional eaters.
"I could have sat there eating those steamed crabs all night," said Ruth Reichl, food editor of the Los Angeles Times, referring to a crab feast held for the group on the deck of the Baltimore Museum of Industry. The crabs came from Steamin' Demons of The Corner Inn, an Essex business that steams crabs for Classic Catering, which catered the party.
I even got Dale Curry, food editor of The Times-Picayune of New Orleans, to admit that the Maryland practice of steaming crabs was kinder to the flavor of the crustacean than the Louisiana practice of boiling them.
But Curry got even in the regional one-upmanship, by pointing out to me that most of the crabs prepared by Baltimore's hTC Pierpoint's restaurant hailed from Louisiana. "I was surprised to find all the Louisiana crab meat in the hands of Maryland chefs," she said.
Janie Hibler, a food writer from Portland, Ore., stood up for the Northwest's Dungeness crab as equal to the Maryland blue. But she confessed that she likes the Maryland crabs so much that in her new cookbook, "Dungeness Crab and Blackberry Cobbler," she has included a recipe for steaming Dungeness crab with Maryland Old Bay spice.
The spicy covering of hard crabs got mixed reviews.
Typical was the comment of Marcia Bennett, food editor of The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, who was heard to say that the spices were hot enough to melt her wedding ring. She kept eating despite the heat.
Getting the out-of-towners to talk about foods that disappointed them was tricky. I got the sense that they were shy about offending me, or Baltimore residents. But when I told them around here we pretty much eat what we like regardless of what anybody says, it loosened them up.
For the most part, the food writers' encounter with the stuffed ham of Southern Maryland left them scribbling in their notebooks and asking for glasses of water. In that session, William Taylor, a caterer from Hollywood, Md., demonstrated the traditional Southern Maryland practice of stuffing minced kale and cabbage into a corned ham, then cooking it for hours.
"It was a great regional story," said Gang, of Memphis. "But I don't think [the taste] of stuffed ham travels well."
"It was salt heaven . . . a little to much for me," said Haddix of Chicago.
Yet Bauer on San Francisco, a town where people eat flowers, said he liked the tangy flavor of the ham.
During a one-day side trip to Washington, the food writers fanned out over the Capital to eat in various restaurants. The Californians came back saying the wine prices in Washington restaurants were ridiculous. Reichl, who also reviews restaurants for the Los Angeles Times, was especially outspoken.
"I thought the wine prices were outrageous," she said. She cited examples of a bottle of Spanish wine that she said costs $9 in California restaurants and was priced at $50 in Washington. She also said a bottle of Edna Valley chardonnay that cost $20-$25 in Los Angeles restaurants was $38 on the wine list of restaurant she visited in Washington.