Enjoying an old-fashioned fizz

July 19, 1999|By Rob Kasper | Rob Kasper,SUN COLUMNIST

I feel like a kid again. I am drinking a soda made the old-fashioned way -- with a spritz of vanilla, a squirt of cola and a healthy dose of fizzy water.

The handmade fountain soda at Durding's Store in Rock Hall takes me back to my childhood. I feel an urge to shoot the paper cover of my straw toward the ceiling and order a cherry Coke and then a root beer float.

I restrain myself. I already have downed a thick chocolate malt at the 127-year-old corner store and former pharmacy in the Upper Eastern Shore town. Earlier in the day, I devoured meatloaf in Elkton as I continue my eating journey around the state.

In this four-week odyssey, I already have polished off almost a dozen eating establishments in Western Maryland and am now beginning a gustatory tour of the Eastern Shore.

At Durding's, Patty Kelly, thejovial manager, asks me if I know how Rock Hall got its name. The question is part of a contest. If you come up with an accurate or creative answer, you could receive free ice cream.

It's my kind of challenge. I furrow my brow and try to remember my Maryland history. Because this is a waterfront community, I come up with an answer that involves fish. I decide that since watermen once caught large hauls of rockfish in the nearby waters that the town originally was named Rock Haul.

Kelly dismisses my answer. She shares a response from one of the town's old timers who decided that businesses here once made money by hauling rocks, giving the town its name.

Neither answer is right. The town actually got its name from Rock Hall Mansion, which used to stand at a landing about a mile west of town, according to "The Placenames of Maryland, Their Origin and Meaning," by Hamill Kenny, a 1984 work published by the Maryland Historical Society.

While the town wasn't named for hauling rocks, Rock Hall did ferry passengers in Colonial times. It was a major departure point for travelers and cargo headed across the bay. George Washington crossed here several times, history books tell me, treating Rock Hall like an early Park and Ride.

Today, tourists come to Rock Hall. They fill the town on weekends, arriving by boat or by car after crossing the Bay Bridge and winding their way north. I roll into town from the north.

My day began in Elkton, tucked into the top right corner of Maryland. When I arrive at Baker's, a family-style restaurant off Interstate 95, it is almost lunchtime. I cannot resist the meatloaf on the menu.

Baker's is the kind of restau- rant that honors a particular dish each weekday, except Tuesdays when it is closed. Monday is meatloaf day. Wednesday is a tribute to ham and cabbage. On Thursday, chicken and dumplings are the draw, and Friday is fried sea trout day.

"That practice has been around as long as I can remember," says Robert Matthews, 37, whose grandparents opened the restaurant 40 years ago as a milk bar, a small establishment selling milk and ice cream.

While some customers eat in the restaurant every night, others show up on the night of their favorite dish, he says. Matthews finds the meatloaf crowd is different from the fried trout crowd.

But chicken and dumplings day is the most popular. A line forms outside, and the 200-seat restaurant fills up, he says. Some customers even arrive with pots and pans for carry-out orders.

When I visit, the meatloaf crowd is a silver-haired set. I sit by a window with my meatloaf and mashed potatoes, and notice a large John Deere tractor lumbering down the highway. I figure if I keep eating I soon will need one of those tractors to haul me around.

The tender, moist meatloaf puts me in a mellow mood as I leave to travel through Kent County on Route 213. I arrive in Rock Hall and feel hungry again. After fountain drinks at Durding's, I am told to check out "Miss Betty's crab cake, something that shouldn't be missed."

I venture down Main Street to the Old Oars Inn where Betty Bruzas is the owner and cook. The stern of a boat protrudes from one end of the building, the bow from the other. I enter under the bow, through a door that has an oar as a door handle, and sit in the downstairs bar.

It is as dark as the hold of ship, but the crowd is friendly, buying each other drinks. The crab cake lives up to its billing -- a round lump of delicate crab meat held together by little more than willpower. It comes with superior stewed tomatoes.

"All Betty's vegetables are fresh," says Anne O'Connor, the restaurant's bookkeeper. "That is one of the things she prides herself on."

As I leave Rock Hall, the sun is dipping, and so am I. In the car, I have a crab cake from America's Cup Cafe, a combination book store and restaurant in Rock Hall. This one is called "Miss Virginia's crab cake," a rich mixture made by cook Frank Hepbron and named after his late mother, Virginia.

In Easton, a chilly, driving rain falls outside my motel room. But I have Miss Virginia's crab cake. I work my way through the golden mound of crab meat and cream, and soon feel warm all over.

Look for Rob Kasper's eating odyssey to continue on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays in the Today section. Coming Thursday: Tangy pancakes, crisp crab balls and tender fried chicken.

Reprints of this series are available for $9.95. To order, please call SunSource at 410-332-6800.

An old-fashioned fizz - Day 4

1. Baker's

1075 Augustine

Herman Way

Elkton

410-398-2435

2. Durding's Store

5742 Main St.

Rock Hall

410-778-7957

3. Old Oars Inn

5731 Main St.

Rock Hall

410-639-2541

4. America's CupCafe

5745 Main St.

Rock Hall

410-639-7361

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