Go West, Young Man, AND EAT

Rob Kasper takes a monthlong culinary journey across the state to satisfy his appetite the Maryland way.

July 12, 1999|By Rob Kasper | Rob Kasper,SUN COLUMIST

As I sit down at the Casselman in the Maryland mountains to tackle a stack of buckwheat pancakes, I am joining a tradition of travelers -- some in stagecoach, some on foot, some on horseback -- who paused to refuel at the inn's tables.

The Casselman, a 19th-century, white-brick hostelry in Grantsville in Garrett County, is a fitting starting point for my adventure. It is high, with an elevation 2,300 feet above sea level. It is historic, built in 1824. And like many enterprises in the region, its fortunes are tied to "the road," the National Pike.

The road in front of the Casselman is called Alternate U.S. 40, but over the years, it has been known as the National Pike, the old National Road, the National Trail and Nemacolin's Path. Now, it is the jumping off point of my journey, an eating odyssey across the state.

Eating my way across Maryland is something I have been daydreaming about for years.

On days when I should have been doing "something important," I was fantasizing about sipping cool vanilla milkshakes in the Western Maryland mountains, eating overstuffed sandwiches in a rural cafe, or feasting on succulent seafood in an Eastern Shore crab house.

I decide to wait no longer. I am going to pursue my dream. It will be the ideal summer idyll. I will take to the road in my trusty '97 Toyota, visiting eateries -- no places with salad forks or linen tableclothes -- talking with local folk and feasting on local fare.

I divide the state into four sections, or courses. First, there is the high ground from Western Maryland to Cecil County, then the Eastern Shore, the Western Shore, and finally the Baltimore-Washington region.

I start by traveling West to East -- from the mountains, through the towns, to the ocean white with foam. It sounds poetic, and it is downhill.

I roll into Western Maryland along Interstate 68 early in the morning ready to eat. The fog lifts, right on cue, revealing the ridges of the Appalachian mountain chain. These great mounds of green look like sleeping animals. The alpine chill makes the air seem sweet and clean, as if it has been washed during the night, then released at sunrise.

It also makes me hungry.

Within minutes, I pull into the parking lot of the Casselman. Besides its history, I am drawn here because it smells good. The restaurant kitchen and bakery are turning out freshly baked breads, sausages and pancakes. Presiding over the kitchen is Hilda Maust, her hair pulled back into the bun style favored by Mennonite women. For the past 29 years, she has cooked breakfast, lunch and sometimes supper for the inn's dining room.

Recently, she recruited two 18-year-old grandsons, Jeff Maust and Keith Yoder, to help with the inn's cooking. "They are doing pretty good," the proud grandmother says, adding that she has to keep an eye on the size of their portions. "Farmer boys are used to eating big meals."

I dig into a platter of buckwheat pancakes, which seem to be about as big as the wheels of the stagecoaches that once rumbled down the pike. Working my way through the dense, fiber-filled stack, I feel like I am eating the kind of breakfast that farmhands polish off before they go out to the fields and toss around bales of hay.

I am not going to buck any bales. Instead, I amble downstairs to the Casselman bakery and buy a Whoopi Pie -- a dark chocolate cookie filled with sweet white icing -- the Mennonite equivalent of an Oreo.

Then, I head down "the road." I have a lunch date at Marshall's Confectionary in the small mountain town of Lonaconing with Glenn Jordan, a former Baltimorean who headed to the hills nine years ago. Jordan, his wife and two sons raise pigs and chickens at Foggy Bog, their 7-acre farm near Frostburg.

Jordan, who has sampled many of the area's lunch spots, has definite views on the Western Maryland style of eating. "We eat more up here than folks in other parts of the state do," Jordan says.

Eating is a major form of entertainment in Western Maryland, he explains. The mountain air also contributes to large appetites, he says. "It is cooler here so you don't mind eating a big meal, even in the summer."

And Western Marylanders also like a good deal, he says.

Lunch at Marshall's certainly is a bargain. The prices and decor seem to be from another era.

I have a tuna fish on toast for $1.55, plus french fries with gravy for 90 cents and a hand-scooped vanilla milkshake for $1.50. On the walls are black-and-white photographs of a local boy, baseball player Lefty Grove, who in 1931 won an impressive 31 games pitching for the Philadelphia Athletics.

The interior of the lunch spot has been virtually unchanged since 1901, says Jeanie Shockey, who along with her husband, Tom, bought the place from the Marshall family in 1984. It has an old-fashioned soda fountain and 12 booths, made of local cherry wood, which still have the initials of long-ago customers carved into them. Two booths in the back even have a peephole so you can keep an eye on a would-be boyfriend or girlfriend.

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