Maryland On The Menu

From crab cakes to ice cream, the state has been giving the country good things to eat for 370 years.

March 24, 2004|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

When Maryland's first Colonists stepped off the Ark and the Dove, they carried little that would generate gastronomic envy - a bit of salted meat, dried peas and hard biscuits left over from the voyage, and some pigs and cows recently purchased from Virginia.

But thanks to the bounty of the Chesapeake Bay, and with help from Native Americans and later African slaves, Maryland settlers gave the country one of its first distinctive regional cuisines.

Where would the nation's culinary scene be today without Maryland?

"It would be a mess," says John Shields, owner of Gertrude's restaurant and author of several cookbooks on Chesapeake cooking. "It really is the cornerstone of American cooking."

Maryland, which tomorrow marks the 370th anniversary of its founding, gave the world crab cakes, stuffed ham, beaten biscuits, Maryland fried chicken, Old Bay and Perdue Oven Stuffer roasters.

But those well-known contributions aren't all. Without Maryland inventors, there may have been no canned corn, no store-bought ice cream, no saccharin and no refrigerators. If that makes you a little queasy, too bad, because there'd be no plop, plop, fizz, fizz to make you feel better.

When it comes to food inventions, Maryland has given the nation more than its share.

"You look at Early American cuisine, and it really happened here," Shields says.

Sandy Oliver, editor of Food History News, a quarterly publication that is based in Islesboro, Maine, is a bit reluctant to give Maryland all the credit. She says that Chesapeake cooking extends beyond the Free State to Virginia, Delaware and even Pennsylvania.

"When I think of Maryland, I think of a place that is neither entirely Northern nor Southern. ... It is on the edge, and so has elements of both, which makes it interesting," she says.

While today it may be difficult to think of Maryland as on the culinary cutting edge, that was the case 200 years ago. At that time, Annapolis was the culinary capital of the country, Shields says. "Jefferson and Washington sent chefs to be trained in Annapolis."

The first report of ice cream in the Colonies was served at a dinner party in Maryland in 1744. About 100 years later, Marylander Jacob Fussell built the first ice-cream factory on North Exeter Street in Baltimore. Fussell was a milkman looking for a way to sell his cream year-round, but he is credited with making ice cream available for the masses.

The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad was another culinary trendsetter. Other railroad companies might boast of faster service reaching more places, but the B&O was known as the company with the best food.

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, it was Maryland that set the culinary standard on the East Coast. Deviled crab was served in the best restaurants in New York and Philadelphia, and Sidney Mintz, emeritus professor of anthropology at the Johns Hopkins University, recalls traveling to New York as a young man when a dish of Chincoteague clams was the rage. "It was renowned in the Northeast."

As with culinary traditions everywhere, Chesapeake cuisine is a product of many influences. The early Colonists at first tried to duplicate the meals they had eaten in England, says Henry Miller, director of research at Historic St. Mary's City.

They tried raising lamb, beef and pork, but early on had to abandon sheep because they fell prey to wolves that roamed the forests of southern Maryland.

Not surprisingly, the Colonists also hunted and fished. Archaeologists have found evidence that the settlers ate oysters, rockfish, ducks, deer and rabbits. Many of these animals would have been familiar to the newcomers, although the Colonists may have thought twice before eating crabs.

The settlers of Jamestown some 25 years earlier had to be ordered to eat crabs even though they were starving.

The Marylanders, who saw the Virginians and Indians eating the crabs, apparently did so more willingly, as crab shells are found dating from the earliest time, Miller says.

One of the first crab dishes would have been crab soup, and superstitions sprang up about making it, says cookbook author Sue Latini, who demonstrates hearth cooking at the Flag House in Baltimore. "They always said if it thundered while they were making crab soup, they'd have to throw it out."

The belief probably goes back to the days before refrigeration, when soup could spoil in the summer heat, but Latini says she has heard even Marylanders today repeat the warning.

Other ingredients in Maryland's cuisine come from Native Americans and African slaves. The Indians taught the settlers how to use corn, squash and beans. Africans brought their own culinary traditions, including the use of greens and spices such as mustard and red pepper.

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