Camp shares 18th-century life through cooking, field trips

Children get a big taste of local history


Eleven-year-old Nick Bryant put down his eggbeater and leaned over the bowl, deeply inhaling the aroma of the batter it held.

"It smells good," the West River child said, reasoning that nothing dreadful went into the soupy mixture.

Within minutes, the thin liquid with kernels of yellow corn was getting spooned into skillets, on its way to turning into something that the nearly two dozen youngsters at this summer program had never heard of: corn oysters.

"Corn oysters," explained Janet Surrett, director of the nonprofit Shady Side Rural Heritage Society, "look like fried oysters."

And, she said, this was a dish often made in the latter half of the 1800s - Captain Salem Avery's day. It was no coincidence that this camp was being held at the Captain Salem Avery House Museum in Shady Side. Shady Side was home for 30 years to the Long Island waterman who settled here and worked on the Bay.

In its 16th year, the half-day sessions blend history, activities and field trips into a weeklong mini-camp where a child might learn something while having fun. The theme this year is "time warp," and on Tuesday, the children were getting a peek at waterfront life in Avery's time. The camp ends today.

Kids were peeling apples with an odd gizmo powered by a hand crank and giggling over how each peeled apple left behind a coil of peel several feet long. In another group, children were making butter by shaking jars of cream, simulating the rigor of churning butter.

And at a long table, campers took turns with the eggbeaters as they made their 19-century corn oysters.

"They are using the new technology of the day," Surrett said.

Shawn Petersen, 10, of Churchton, who had helped his mother fry the corn oysters, decided that "people are going to love these. A girl just tasted the batter and she liked it."

One of the first official corn oyster tastings went to June Hall, chairman of the rural heritage organization sponsoring the camp. With a smile and an "mmm" she pronounced the fritters topped with powdered sugar so yummy that they should replace funnel cakes at the society's oyster festival in October.

"Wow," Shawn gushed.

But they needed to check out the real oysters, and get a quick environmental lesson, courtesy of Gary the Oyster Man. Gary Masenior took them down to the pier, where he tugged on a rope, and up from the West River came a cage of baby oysters. Back in Capt. Avery's day, he told the children, there were so many oysters that they "could filter all the water in the Bay in three days. Now it takes a year."

Oyster beds were so big back then, that a person could walk across some of the nearby waterways on them, he told his charges.

The children hunched over the cage to see the oyster garden's little environment that featured other tiny critters, including scurrying baby crabs.

"Those were really cool. I've never seen one up close," said Alyssa Johnston, 9, of West River.

Other camp activities included trips to Historic London Town and Gardens and to the Chesapeake Beach Railway Museum, lessons on dancing the Charleston and the creation of time capsules about themselves.

Anne Thompson, camp coordinator, said the program is aimed at giving the mostly elementary school-age children a sense of what life was like for earlier generations.

They donned long-sleeved cotton shirts and nametags to take the identity of members of the Avery household while touring the historic home with docent Linda Ebersole. The sight of a bathtub by the kitchen table brought snickers, but a discussion of the weekly bath with an entire family using the same bathwater led to shrieks.

"Who bathed last?" Ebersole asked.

"The boys!" a few girls shouted.

"Why?" Ebersole asked.

"Boys were the dirtiest," announced Kelsey Patrick, 9, of West River (also known as Ella Avery, 19, the captain's daughter).

As the children waited to be picked up and nibbled on their apples and corn oysters, they tried a Victorian-era game.

They asked questions about their apple peels before flinging them with the expectation that the peels' twisted outlines would provide answers.

"Do I have a friend?" Jessica Thompson, 6, of West River asked. The peel went airborne.

The curlicues made a giant Y, and her eyebrows went up. "Yes."

She roared with delight.

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