Chesapeake food to star on TV Show: Beginning in June, author and restaurateur John Shields will take MPT viewers on gastronomic tours around the bay.

January 21, 1998|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,SUN STAFF

Under the bright television lights, Sen. Barbara Mikulski is sitting at a table, wearing an apron and a grin, while cookbook author, restaurateur and soon-to-be cooking show star John Shields stands behind her, chatting.

Around the two, a small army of camera operators, sound man, producers, director, still photographers and lighting guy has taken over part of the Camden Club at Camden Yards on a crisp fall day and is laboring, within a network of wires and cables, to shoot another segment of Shields' new show for Maryland Public Television. Shooting began Labor Day weekend last year, and the show is currently in post production.

The show, to be aired starting in June, and a companion cookbook, to

be issued in April, are both called "Chesapeake Bay Cooking With John Shields."

For this particular segment, Mikulski has agreed to prepare her family's crab cakes. It will surprise no one familiar with the senator that she is a natural on camera, chatting and joking with Shields, teasing a newspaper photographer, breezing through her lines.

After pointing out that an hour in the refrigerator helps firm up the crab cakes for cooking, Mikulski slips the two prepared cakes into the hot oil in a skillet over a single propane burner, borrowed from the Camden Club kitchen. "Listen to them crackling," she says. "Don't you just love that sound? And don't they smell good?"

"I always say I wish we could do this show in Odor-ama," Shields responds, with his signature wide grin.

Shields was born and raised in Maryland, but he first made a culinary name for himself in California in the early '80s, where his Gertie's Chesapeake Bay Cafe (named after his grandmother) was a popular spot in Berkeley. He sold the restaurant some time ago, and since then he has been writing cookbooks and serving as a restaurant consultant.

This is his first venture into television, and it didn't come about overnight. Shields had the idea four or five years ago, and moved back East from California in 1995 to start planning and production. Maryland Public Television has already approved another series of 13 programs, but producing them will depend on finding financing.

"This is a wonderful series, because it focuses not only on our food, but also on who we are" in Maryland, said Beth Nardone of MPT, the series producer. "It's about the food and the people and the locations. It gives you a well-rounded view -- you can understand how the food and the style of cooking evolved."

"It's a new trend in cooking shows," Shields said. "People want a little more -- they want entertainment, they want travel and they want cooking." The idea behind it, he said, is that it's easier to understand a region's cooking if you know something of its history and development. "It's a way of life."

Other places the crew has been to shoot Maryland's diverse food and life include Baltimore's Little Italy, the Inn at Perry Cabin in St. Michaels, the Tilghman Island Inn at Tilghman Island, the annual Hard Crab Derby in Crisfield and the Hammond-Harwood House in Annapolis, where dinner was prepared on the hearth.

While putting together the show, Shields and the "Chesapeake Bay Cooking" crew sailed on a skipjack and dredged for oysters. They sampled chicken and "slippery dumplings" at a community dinner in Millington on the Eastern Shore. (The dumplings are "like a cross between a dumpling and a noodle," Shields said.) They toured the Maryland State Fair at Timonium and, while filming in the Northern Neck of Virginia, they stayed with a waterman. They also visited Cross Street Market and went to a ballgame at Camden Yards.

But the most challenging places -- the ones the crew is still talking about -- were Smith and Tangier islands -- where there are no cars, no late-night restaurants, no hotels. Transportation is provided by foot or golf cart.

The islands, Shields said, "are like a tapestry -- nothing has changed in 100 years."

"Everything had to be done by boat," Nardone said. "And there are eight of us who travel [to location shots], and many, many cases of equipment and props and all our luggage and tchotchkes. We had to transport them 2 1/2 miles across the island. Halfway over there, our golf cart died." Since they were stuck until they found new transportation, Nardone said, they just started shooting where they were.

But on this day, back on the set, Mikulski asks Shields, "What do you serve with your crab cakes?"

"Coleslaw," he replies. "Sometimes, instead of mayonnaise, I'll just season it with a little vinegar ... "

"I'm a mayo girl," the senator says. "Mayo Mikulski, that's me."

When the crab cakes are done, Shields proclaims them "the best crab cakes in the country."

"That sounds like one of my campaign promises," Mikulski says. "Let's just say they're pretty good."

Mikulski said she and Shields met "over meatloaf" at a cafe in Hampden in 1996, and "we hit it off."

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