I was having lunch at the Four Seasons in New York one day last summer -- not my usual habit, let's make that clear from the top -- as the guest of a magazine editor who happens to be a regular at the place. The black-and-white decor, the laughter of the ice cubes in the wine goblets, the subtle scent of power -- all of this readied me for a high nouvelle-cuisine experience. I fully expected to be dining on some sort of salad made up of designer greens that tasted like a couple of teaspoons of coastal Maine topsoil. Instead, my host insisted, "Order the crab cakes." I didn't need to be told twice.
They arrived appropriately browned and impressively thick -- and accompanied by a pile of small red circular things that looked something like tiddlywinks that had warped because someone had left them on a steam radiator. In language as discreet as I could make it, I asked the waiter exactly what they were. He gave me a glance that would have wilted a plastic poinsettia.
"Beet chips," he said.
Ah. Of course. Beet chips.
Now, there's a place for beet chips, I suspect: in a bowl, next to a frozen Stolichnaya martini, in the cocktail lounge in the lobby of a grand hotel in St. Petersburg in the dead of a Russian winter.
There's a place not for beet chips, too: in proximity to a crab cake. This is when I began to suspect what I'd known all along: that the rest of the world just doesn't get it when it comes to things Baltimorean.
I took a bite of the crab.
"How is it?" asked my host.
Now, truth be told, I was trying to get a job on his magazine, and I was not about to admit that the Four Seasons' crab cake wasn't as good as the one I'd had the day before -- in Henry & Jeff's on North Charles Street in Baltimore. That one had been accompanied by chips, too -- potato chips. A bag of Mrs. Ihrie's potato chips, in fact. (I don't know if that was gauche, embellishing good crab with potato chips, but it worked for me.)
I also didn't tell him that the day before that, I'd had a better crab cake at Louie's, also on North Charles Street. And a few days before that, I'd had two better crab cakes in the press dining room at Memorial Stadium. (Actually, I had one. I smuggled the other one into my briefcase and brought it home to my wife in Philadelphia.) And a few days before that I'd had a better crab cake in a Greek restaurant on Pratt Street.
But discretion, in this case, was the better part of getting a job. "It's real good," I told my host. It wasn't a lie. It just wasn't as good as any I'd had in Baltimore -- which had little to do with the crab cake itself, which, on pure taste-bud scale, was pretty remarkable.
No, it had to do with the attitude and atmosphere -- which, I've discovered, is just about true for everything in Baltimore. You have to be here to appreciate it. The perfect crab cake, served in a power-lunch room off New York's Park Avenue, is no crab cake at all. Baltimore just doesn't travel well.
And I'm starting to think it's a good thing.
Now, first off, make no mistake -- I'm not some pseudo-sophisticated cosmopolite presuming to tell the city what's good for it. Anything but. I'm just a frequent visitor from the outside looking in, with a few observations. Convinced that what makes Baltimore special is worth holding onto. And hoping that, in its leap into the 21st century, with the new stadium and the ongoing Inner Harbor development and the burgeoning skyline, Baltimore doesn't lose some of what makes it unique on the East Coast: its ability to act like a town, all the while wrapped in a city.
A brief background: I'm from the outside world. I was raised in New York City. I went to school in Connecticut. I've worked in Washington, San Diego, New York and Miami. I've had an academic fellowship in Boston. I now live in Philadelphia. But through the years I've spent some time here.
I wrote about the Orioles '79 pennant drive for the New Haven Register. I wrote about the Blast for the Washington Post. In five years with the Miami Herald I covered the '83 World Series (and the Orioles' victory parade), the '84 slump, the firing of Joe Altobelli, the flight of the Colts, the Orioles' losing streak and, a few months before Edward Bennett Williams' death, the signing of the long-term lease. I covered five straight Oriole opening days, each one beginning with a walk from my hotel down on East Pleasant Street up to the stadium, notebook open all the way. Finally, for the National, I wrote a memorial to a Memorial.
That's just a sampling. I've come to know the town in a passing way, but, I think, an honest one. Being on foot can do that.
So that last spring, when I was asked to write a book about Camden Yards (that's what it says in my contract: deliver a book about "Camden Yards," and that's what I call it) I jumped at the chance. And one of the motivations was my belief that Baltimore has long been given a short shrift in the East Coast rankings by the people who presume to know such things, which, of course, they never do.