Frances E. Kitching, the renowned Smith Island cook who began preparing food in her home for linemen installing electricity in the 1950s and ended up operating a world-famed boardinghouse where guests and islanders ate Maryland tidewater cuisine, died of heart failure Wednesday at Genesis Eldercare in Salisbury. She was 84.
Mrs. Kitching spent all but three years of her life on her native Smith Island, 10 miles off Crisfield in the Chesapeake Bay, where she was born Frances Evans.
What she didn't realize as an 8-year-old learning how to cook -- standing on a box "steering," as she said, bubbling pots on her grandmother's stove -- was that she would become the mental repository of nearly 200 years of family recipes.
In 1934, she married waterman Ernest Kitching, and moved across Smith Island Road in Ewell from her childhood home into their clapboard house. She remained there until moving to the Salisbury nursing facility in 2001.
Mrs. Kitching had a local reputation as an excellent cook when she took into her home the power company crewmen who had no place to stay while working on the island. She converted an upstairs room into a dormitory and made sure that they had plenty of food to eat.
Her culinary fame quickly spread by word of mouth, and before long she was entertaining parties of diners who came from all over to sit at her long dining room table that seated 32.
Food critics from The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Washington Post, along with writers from travel and food magazines, beat a path to her table, but Mrs. Kitching remained unfazed by all the fuss.
There in her old-fashioned dining room, they ate platters of french-fried jimmy crabs, crab loaf, clam and oyster puffs, pan-browned wild duck, baked rock fish with potatoes, stewed crab meat and dumplings, corn fritters, broiled flounder, fried apples, broiled red drumfish, pickled carrots, oysters and, of course, crispy fried crab cakes.
Dinners were topped off with generous bowls of lemon fluff pudding or fruit cobbler. Also available were thick slices of coconut meringue pie, Jewish apple cake or her famed Smith Island 10-layer cake with chocolate butter-cream icing.
"I just love people, and I love to cook," Mrs. Kitching explained in a 1975 Sun interview.
The only thing she asked of guests coming to the island by mail boat or seaplane was that they call first to say how many were in their party so she could plan accordingly.
Mrs. Kitching often puffed a cigarette before going to work in her kitchen and never wore an apron. And she offered simple, straightforward advice for the novice when sauteing soft crabs: Use a well-seasoned and oiled cast-iron skillet.
"The best thing you can do to a crab is let it be," she said told The Sun in 1995. "Clean it, fry it, and watch that it doesn't pop in the skillet and burn your arm."
"She was quite something at her peak, and I had many memorable meals there. Going into that dining room was always an eye-opener," said Tom Horton, Sun environmental columnist and author of the book An Island Out of Time: A Memoir of Smith Island in the Chesapeake.
"She had people from all over, including Sylvester Stallone, who arrived by helicopter with a party of 12, and even the entire Washington Redskins football team, who came to her place to eat," he said.
Mr. Horton recalled the time an off-island female guest innocently asked Mrs. Kitching if she could store beer in the refrigerator while she ate her dinner.
"In a tart and dismissive reply, Frances said, `You'd be the first. I have simply turned down some people who appeared to have been drinking when they came here to eat. They were in no condition to enjoy and appreciate good cooking,'" Mr. Horton said.
In 1980, Susan Stiles Dowell, then a features reporter for the Maryland Center for Public Broadcasting, visited Smith Island and met Mrs. Kitching. The two later collaborated on Mrs. Kitching's Smith Island Cookbook, published in 1981 and now in its seventh printing.
"She cooked from recipes that were handed down by word of mouth and measured ingredients with a teacup and a teaspoon. That's how accurate her cooking was," Mrs. Dowell said.
On book promotion tours, Mrs. Kitching knew how to snag prospective buyers by appealing to them through their stomachs.
"She'd have a pile of crab meat and then would make fried crab balls for everybody. They'd eat them and then buy the book," Mrs. Dowell said.
"She did the cookbook because she wanted to leave a legacy to her grandchildren and show them that she had amounted to something," said a son, Harry E. Kitching of Millsboro, Del.
Mrs. Kitching decided in 1987 to close the boardinghouse-inn because of heart problems and the need to care for her ill husband, who died in 2001.
Rather then selling the business, she preferred to close it.
"If it wasn't carried on in the way that I did it, then it wouldn't be me. What I have made of it, I would rather it be mine," she told The Sun at the time.
Despite the passing of the years, people are still inquiring if the restaurant is open.
"I must get five or six calls a day from all over the world asking if the inn is still open," said a nephew, Tim Marshall of Smith Island.
Services will be held at 2 p.m. Sunday at Ewell United Methodist Church.
Survivors also include another son, Wellington L. Kitching of Chesapeake Beach; a daughter, Pam Tyler, and a sister, Mina Evans, both of Smith Island; eight grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.