Thanksgiving a matter of taste in Baltimore

November 23, 1993|By JACQUES KELLY

This is the week for black-rind cheese in Baltimore.

You won't see any promotions by the American Dairy Council or find color pictures in newspaper food sections. Still, black-rind cheese has a major role this time of year when Baltimoreans turn to traditional holiday dishes.

Some of the dishes were born in the Old World; others drifted into Baltimore from the Carolinas, Virginia and the southern counties of Pennsylvania.

To check the sales of black-rind cheese, visit any of Baltimore's neighborhood markets -- Lexington, Lafayette, Hollins, Cross Street, Northeast and Broadway. Strike up a conversation if a vendor has a spare moment. But be forewarned he may be too busy to say anything but, "Next!"

Black-rind cheese is what Hollins Market merchant Steve Sullivan calls the wedges of sharp Cheddar cheese that sell so quickly when thoughts turn to Thanksgiving.

"People buy the Cheddar for the macaroni and cheese that goes on the table Thursday along with everything else. There are quite a few things that people buy in November and December that don't sell so much at other times of the year," Sullivan said.

The cheese is the real thing, cured in big wheels and coated with a waxy black rind. Sullivan sells it by the wedge and cooks grate it over their macaroni. It accompanies the ham or turkey or whatever is being served for Thanksgiving dinner.

"The other thing that Baltimore wants is sauerkraut. My customers like it cooked with pig tails. Some want the pig tails corn-cured. Others take the pig tails plain," he said.

Yankee purists might scoff at the notion of pigs' tails used as flavoring in sauerkraut for Thanksgiving dinner, but let the New Englanders munch on their creamed onions. Baltimore demands its pig tails.

The corned variety of this holiday delicacy has nothing to do with an ear of Silver Queen, Sullivan explains.

"About a week ago, I took three cans of pickling spices and three boxes of salt and added water and the pig tales. I let them cure. This is what gives the corn taste to the pig tail," he explained.

This is a week he'll also sell pound after pound of bacon ends, ham hocks, smoked neck bones and fat back. Not everybody has peas on Thanksgiving. Greens cooked with pork products reveal the Southern lineage of so many Baltimoreans.

The sauerkraut he sells, of course, recalls Baltimore's sizable Germanic heritage. At the turn of this century, one in four Baltimoreans spoke German as their mother language.

The sauerkraut probably got here long before 1900. It was a favorite dish of German families in Southern Pennsylvania. When some of their family members sought their fortunes in Baltimore, the dish came with them.

Another Thanksgiving dish that says a lot about its cook's background is turkey stuffing. Some take the tried-and-true route, using simple seasonings, especially the sage.

But here is where Baltimore gets creative. The town's pork preference is evidenced in the sausage that some people use in the dressing.

"I got a call this morning from my sausage-maker asking me if I have enough. People really go through sausage this week. Some will use it in the sauerkraut, too," Sullivan said.

There is also the oyster dressing that is so popular in the Chesapeake region.

"There was a time when I would sell 250 or 300 pints of shucked oysters on a single day before Thanksgiving," said Franco Baccellieri, the Sicilian-born proprietor of Johnnie's Seafood in the Hollins Market. In the Old Country, he was a fisherman who worked an anchovy net.

His is one of the city's oldest seafood stalls. H.L. Mencken and his brother August bought their seafood from this counter and had it delivered to their home four blocks west on Hollins Street.

"The oysters today are from Louisiana. It's a shame there aren't local ones around," Baccellieri lamented.

He finds that people are getting away from oyster dressing. "It's loosening up some. Now I sell a lot of shrimp for Thanksgiving, too. Baltimore really likes shrimp. And crab meat, too. I know it's late in the season but this is what people want," he said.

And on these cold mornings, he said, there are those who like pickled herring for breakfast. Come to think about it, isn't that what the Puritans probably ate?

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