A soft spot for Md. and its food

WAY BACK WHEN

Back Story

October 07, 2006|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,sun reporter

When it came to writing and rhapsodizing about Maryland viands and quirky Baltimore restaurants, R. W. "Johnny" Apple Jr., the affable New York Times reporter and gourmand who died this week, spared no ink or adjectives.

Roaming the world plying his trade gave Apple the opportunity to expand both his waist and culinary repertoire while feasting on both classic and exotic dishes.

And somewhere along the way, Maryland's bounty came under Apple's purview.

Perhaps it was on forays below the Mason-Dixon line from his weekend farm in nearby Gettysburg, Pa., that Apple fell in love with the food he found in Baltimore, as well as with the city and its characters.

He had an excellent companion on these culinary excursions - Marty Katz, a Baltimore trencherman of note and photographer whose work appears regularly in The New York Times.

"Baltimore is a quirky kind of town," Apple wrote in a 2003 article. "Its heart is still working class, even if the economic realities have changed. It is suspicious of anything elegant or stylish or pretentious."

He found great delight in the city's characters, including Johnny Unitas, John Waters and William Donald Schaefer, whom he described as a "wacky former mayor and governor who once settled a bet by diving into the seal pool at the National Aquarium."

Apple also wrote plenty of copy in honor of the crab."The city loves crabs, oysters, rockfish from Chesapeake Bay, which its poet laureate, H.L. Mencken, once described as an `immense protein factory,'" he wrote.

"It prefers diners and taverns tucked into venerable rowhouses to newer, trendier spots. It shops in the city's old-fashioned covered markets, a half-dozen of them - the only places except the Ravens and the Orioles games where all Baltimore comes together, blue-collar and blue-blooded, black and white, Greeks and Italians and Germans," he wrote.

Sitting with a perfectly chilled beer while wielding a crab mallet and knife, Apple described the experience of opening a steamed crab, with its "sweet snowy meat," as being akin to that of an "Egyptologist opening a pharaoh's tomb."

However, Apple certainly found Xanadu when he was steered toward Lexington Market and Faidley's.

"My nominee for the single best crab dish in Baltimore, if not the Western Hemisphere, is the jumbo lump crab cake at Faidley's Seafood in the Lexington Market, which was founded in 1782," he wrote.

He didn't blink twice when informed that the jumbo lump crab cake cost $12.95.

He described it as being the "size of a slightly flattened Major League baseball, deep-fried to a golden turn, with crisp little hills and dales all around," and "well worth the premium ... delicate, delicious, creamy and sweet, it may not be quite heaven, but by my reckoning it's a persuasive preview."

Other Baltimore joints that earned expansive praise from Apple included Dundalk's Costas Inn, as well as Duda's and Henninger's taverns, both in Fells Point. He became an instant fan of Henninger's fried oysters, served on "a bed of spinach with fennel and Pernod sauce," he wrote.

Other establishments that came in for praise included the Hollywood Diner, City Cafe, Blue Moon, Helmand, Attman's, Samos, The Black Olive, Charleston and Pierpoint.

Apple traveled along Route 40, Pulaski Highway, a "real boulevard of broken dreams" with its "cheap motels and shabby car lots," he wrote, in pursuit of genuine Baltimore pit beef piled on a kaiser roll.

The now-gone Marconi's was still attracting its faithful devotees, albeit many of them blue-haired and with clear memories of Franklin D. Roosevelt's first election in 1932, when Apple returned to it in 2003.

"Depressing to report," he wrote, "Marconi's, a deliciously anachronistic French-Italian salon on Saratoga Street, has lost much of its charm, thanks to an aesthetically criminal remodeling ordered by its new owner, Peter Angelos, a strong-willed millionaire who also owns the Orioles. The handsome Venetian wallpaper is no more, an ugly acoustic ceiling has been installed and the floor has been overcleaned."

Decor aside, Apple was surprised to see so many old favorites from previous visits.

"But the thick broiled lamb chops with electric-green mint jelly (a favorite of Mencken's and my wife, Betsey, have survived, at least until now, as has the fudgy chocolate sundae so beloved by generations of well-bred Baltimoreans."

In an autobiographical profile, Apple wrote, "I'm a man of simple tastes, as I said, but large appetite."

"Johnny's whole life was preparing to be an obituary," Russell Baker, former New York Times columnist and longtime friend, said yesterday.

"He loved to eat, and he once invited [Baker's wife] Mimi and me to his place in London. He was the Times' bureau chief and lived in Eaton Square, near Buckingham Palace, in one of the best apartments in the city," Baker said. "He cooked us a four-course lunch, and each course came with one of the great wines of France. That was Johnny."

Last year, reflecting on his life in a Town & Country magazine article, Apple wrote: "But I am an old dog now, and I have come to see that the sine qua non (`without which it could not be') of the good life is home and family."

In the article, Apple mentions a framed French sonnet titled "Happiness in This World," celebrating food, wine and flowers, that hung on the wall of the home he shared with his wife.

"All things that mean a lot to both of us," he wrote. "My favorite phrases, however, are those that speak of the joys of une maison commode, propre et belle, - `a roomy, clean and pretty house' - and une femme fidele - `a loyal wife.' These I have, in spades."

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

Sun librarian Paul McCardell provided research assistance for this article.

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