A Taste For The Beach

Eastern Shore: Why rush to the ocean when you can stop and sample great food along the way?

July 23, 2000|By Rob Kasper | Rob Kasper,SUN COLUMNIST

Like most guys, I once regarded our family's summer trip to the beach as an ordeal. I saw it as a passage fraught with cranky kids, horrendous traffic and mind-numbing delays. For many years my main goal of making the drive from Baltimore to the beach was to get it over with.

I "made time," stopping only when kidneys or the gas tank demanded it. The sight of brake lights glowing on Route 50 sent steam from my ears.

Now, however, thanks to the help of supportive family members, good friends and some toothsome fried food, I have taken a new approach to the beach trek.

I have come to regard the journey not as a race, but as a series of eating opportunities, a get-to-the-beach buffet. I am stopping to smell the fried clams, the barbecued chicken and the lopes.

After years of gustatory research on the Eastern Shore, I can tell you not only how to reach the beach, but how to get there on a full stomach. It's the only way to go.

I am still a traveler in transition, though. I have trouble dawdling, as the state trooper who recently issued me a speeding ticket can attest. (Note to drivers with an urge to make time: the stretch of Route 50 between Cambridge and Salisbury is not the place to try it.)

Recently, I made a weekend trip to and from the beach in the teeth of weekend traffic -- eastbound on Saturday, westbound on Sunday. I am proud to say I stopped at several places without buying gas or using the restroom.

Instead I stopped to eat or to buy stuff to eat later.

Farmer John

Even in my reformed, take-it-easy state, I don't pull over before crossing the Bay Bridge. It is my Matterhorn. Until I ascend its heights, I cannot rest.

After I start rolling down the eastern side of the Bay Bridge, the muscles in the back of my neck start to loosen, and I move over to the slow lane. I get off Route 50 at Route 8 in Stevensville and travel about a quarter-mile down the road to the produce stand next to the Bay Bridge Airport operated by Farmer John.

There are several amazing things about Farmer John. He is a farmer. He is named John (Selby). And at the age of 83, he is brimming with intelligence, opinions and good humor.

Although he was slowed down this year by open-heart surgery -- "those doctors at Sinai do good work" -- Farmer John opened his stand on the Fourth of July weekend, marking the 46th year he has sold produce at various locations along Route 50.

Farmer John knows his produce. He talks about the genetic structure of corn and rattles off the initials of the three types of sweet corn commonly sold in roadside markets.

"You have your SU-1s like Silver Queen that are about 17 percent sugar. You have your SE or sugar-enhancer corn like Silverado that is about 35 percent sugar. Then you have your SH2s, shrunken, homogenized corn like Triple Sweet or How Sweet It Is or Treasurer. These are 50 to 55 percent sugar. I like SH2s."

A good ear of corn, he says, will have pulpy kernels. If you burst a kernel with your fingernail, the juice should pop you in eye.

As for tomatoes, he says, you can't go wrong with Pik Red, which does well in the Eastern Shore soil. The early tomatoes, he told me, might be a little small this year because of the cool, wet spring.

On the cantaloupe front, Farmer John prefers the Apollo and the Eclipse types to the omnipresent Athena. He also warns shoppers to "stay away from anyplace that has a mound of cantaloupes five feet high."

That's because cantaloupes have a relatively short shelf life. "You come back in a few days, those cantaloupes will still be there, and they won't be any good."

As for watermelon, he likes the big Crimson Sweet types and Twilley's 5244 for the smaller, seedless watermelons.

"Grandmothers just run for those 5244 melons, they buy them for their grandkids because they don't have any seeds."

Over the years, I have had cell phone conversations with Farmer John as he was driving his pickup truck around Kent and Queen Anne's counties where he grows produce. Five years ago, he flipped his truck after making a tomato delivery and was trapped inside the overturned vehicle for several hours before help arrived.

"The truck was upside down," he says. "I couldn't move my arm. My foot was through the windshield. I couldn't get out, so I figured I would just take a nap until help came."

At the Narrows

Stocked with fresh produce and fresh insight from Farmer John, I get back on Route 50 and head toward Kent Narrows and Grasonville.

These days the drama of crossing Kent Narrows is gone. Ten years ago, there was a drawbridge spanning Route 50, and every half-hour or so, the bridge would go up and Route 50 would become a parking lot for 10 to 15 minutes.

Back then I raced the clock, trying to get across Kent Narrows before the bridge went up. Once, I rewarded myself for beating the bridge by stopping for lunch at Harris Crab House, which was then a small, open-air, family-run operation off Exit 42.

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