Some things are unmistakably associated with Baltimoreans

January 04, 2003|By JACQUES KELLY

EVERY SO OFTEN when I hear a certain phrase or sentence, I stop and think, well, that's a sure sign of being a Baltimorean. These signs are often elusive, but unmistakable. Here's a batch I've encountered over this holiday season.

If you want to please a Baltimorean, or cause a near-riot, just open a box of Rheb's candy at the table. Baltimoreans do not become rhapsodic over $25-a-pound designer sweets. But they will stand in line for near decades for their favorite chocolates (you must have a preference, the milk chocolate or the bittersweet darks) from this humble Southwest Baltimore family-owned candy shop. And the first words out of any Rheb's addict's mouth are always which selection is the favorite. I didn't even know these confectioners made an orange cream until I heard it from a friend who was obviously dropping a hint for a birthday gift.

My new year's resolution is to investigate every arcane Rheb's product made and have no guilt about doing so.

Baltimoreans are a proud and plain group of people. Can you think of a more basic dinner than sour beef and dumplings? Once again, the dish, properly made and served instantly, imparts the same status Julia Child enjoyed in Cambridge, Mass. The highest praise in a local obituary is the line that says a person was an accomplished sauerbraten chef. And I don't care what you say, they crave their sauerkraut, too. I watched it disappear before my eyes at every event I attended where it was on the table.

I've heard some impostors trying to cash in on a certain status that duckpin bowling is enjoying, now that the game has achieved the level of a folk curiosity. This somewhat annoys me. I wish I had the time to bowl each week, with friends, the way my father does. He's a Friday regular, and each Saturday, I get a report of scores.

For a city of delightful provincialisms, I am fascinated at our unwillingness to get out and see the city. If you want to unhinge a Baltimorean, ask for directions to Fort McHenry. Take it from me, and I know, never hail a city cab and ask to be transported to any address in Dundalk, except for something along Dundalk Avenue, preferably near the city line. Baltimoreans get failing grades in geography. One of the most perplexing local mysteries surrounds Columbia, no matter how large it has grown or how many stores are in its mall. We just cannot find it, comprehend it or navigate it. Map books and computers help, but it is still a daunting destination.

I also take pleasure at the resolve and determination Baltimoreans exhibit in the face of these geographic goofs.

This week, I watched a woman, a load of kids in her green van, U-turn once, then circle around again, on busy University Parkway in search of the holiday decorations on 34th Street in Hampden. (Admittedly, this one is hard to find.) At the same time, I loved watching her happy determination to locate Keswick Road and the interconnecting streets. I thought I had given her pretty good directions. But, about three minutes later, there she was, still smiling and still twisting around University Parkway.

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