Nowadays, it is a rare treat to see the word coddies on a menu, but not so long ago this uniquely Baltimore food was as close as your corner store, malt shop or confectionery.
Coddies are not to be confused with cod cakes. While recipes for coddies vary, a coddie can be best described as a hand-formed, gently seasoned mashed-potato-and-cracker mixture that is always deep-fried and traditionally served between two saltine crackers topped with yellow mustard. It contains little or no cod. Served at room temperature, today's coddies are made slightly larger than in the past, hanging over the sides of the saltines by one-half inch all around.
Ask a Baltimore native to describe what eating a coddie is like and a rush of adjectives is likely to come flying out - words like golden, scrumptious, crispy, poofy, light, delicious, addictive and cheap.
Coddies are an inexpensive snack to be eaten at any hour of the day. Many Baltimore natives fondly recall how a mere nickel could buy the perfect after-school snack - a coddie and a chocolate soda. Some teen-agers didn't even have to wait until after school to enjoy a coddie. Sylvan Goldstick, a docent at the Jewish Museum of Maryland, remembers Miss Hockheimer, who used to work in the cafeteria at Garrison Junior High in the 1940s.
"She had this thing ... a little tray that she pushed. Sold coddies everyday at school. Boy, did we ever look forward to seeing Miss Hockheimer!"
Many of Baltimore's ethnic groups have tried to claim the coddie, but its true origins remain unknown.
The parishioners of St. Benedict's Roman Catholic Church in Southwest Baltimore have been making and selling coddies for many years, describing them as "Baltimore's Best Coddies," to raise money for the church.
"During Lent, coddies are a natural choice," says the Rev. Paschal Morlino, the church's priest. "They're meat-free and easy to prepare." The recipe the church uses has been handed down for many years from parishioner to parishioner, he says.
Josie Ticer, 93, of Parkville has a coddie recipe that comes from Bohemia, in the area now called the Czech Republic. "I've been making coddies since my mother gave me the recipe when I got married in 1925. She got the recipe from her mother, who came to Baltimore from Bohemia in the 1800s. My family has been making them ever since."
Sid Mintz, an anthropologist who studies connections between food and cultures, has yet another explanation. "If anyone would have invented cod cakes, it sounds to me like something that would have come out of the African-American kitchen of the South. Cod was a favorite food of slave owners. ... It was cheap and generally considered a substandard fish."
Another possibility, Mintz says, is that it came here "from the islands, where people, like Haitians, had access to both cod and potatoes. The cooking method of making a cake and frying it - much like fritters - seems to fit."
While the culinary roots remain a matter of speculation, a Jewish merchant, Louis Cohen, claimed to be the first to have mass-market coddies in Baltimore. In 1970, shortly before he retired from the business of selling coddies, Cohen wrote on a sales slip that he had started selling coddies at an ice-cream stand in the Bel Air Market, which no longer exists. He even recorded the date: April 20, 1910.
Today, coddies are not as widely available as they once were. Since Cohen went out of business in the early 1970s there has not been another distributor to take his place. However, delis (like Attman's on Lombard Street) and seafood markets (like Sterling's in Hampden) continue to make their own coddies in-house. And recently, chefs like Spike Gjerde of Atlantic and Paul Lever of Red Brick Station have featured coddies on their menus.
Perhaps the best way to enjoy a coddie is in its natural habitat - the malt shop. Earl Gallion, who, along with his partner, Richard Hagen, owns the Olde Malt Shoppe on Fort Avenue in South Baltimore, sells coddies that are delivered to their shop on Fridays from St. Benedict's Church. They keep the coddies in a soda box on the top of their ice-cream counter.
"I've tasted a lot of coddies and these taste the most like the ones I remember from the 1940s, when there were soda fountains, malt shops and confectioneries on every corner," Gallion says.
And for a real taste of Baltimore, don't forget the soda. "The combination of a coddie and a chocolate soda is unbeatable," Gallion says.
Makes 16 to 20 coddies
1/4 pound salt cod or 1 tablespoon cod paste or 1 tablespoon fish flakes
1 to 1 1/4 pounds potatoes
2 tablespoons milk
1/4 cup crushed crackers
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
vegetable oil for frying
If you are using salt cod, soak the fish for 24 hours in a bowl of water. Change the water every 6 to 8 hours. Cover the fish with water in a pan and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes. Drain and break with a fork; cool. Peel, dice and boil potatoes until cooked. Drain, mash with 2 tablespoons milk and cool. In a large bowl, combine salt cod (or cod paste or fish flakes), potatoes, crackers, eggs and black pepper and make into thin, palm-sized balls.
Flatten slightly and cook in a pan filled with 1/4 inch of vegetable oil. Brown cakes on each side and drain. Replace diminished oil between batches. To serve, place each coddie on a saltine cracker, top with yellow mustard, and place another saltine on the top. Serve either warm or at room temperature.
- Recipe based on interviews with coddie makers