My mouth waters for traditional Baltimore summer cooking, a commodity that seems to grow more elusive. Then, on a recent trip to Rehoboth Beach, Del., came a revelation: remarkable coleslaw.
It was served at a grand Baltimore institution that has moved - Jake's Seafood House, run by the Klemkowski family, who for years seemed to have a corner on good food in Locust Point in South Baltimore.
I'm not a seafood eater, so why do I go to Jake's? Because the owners are old-time South Baltimoreans who know how to make coleslaw. My grandmother, who lived on Poultney Street, produced wonderful slaw. Her summer potato salad was also exceptional in its simplicity. Too much mayonnaise is the undoing of potato salad. So is overcooking the potatoes.
Good slaw is the way to a Baltimorean's heart, but there are two alternate routes. One is applesauce and the other stewed tomatoes. Both are unfashionable and cause pretentious foodies to start giggling. But when my friend, Ken Davies, ordered his rockfish at the Klemkowski operation, he said he'd have applesauce on the side.
If esteem for the lowly stewed tomato was ever high, it has plummeted in the past 25 years, even though it was once a mainstay of the Maryland Club. My brother Eddie recently made up a batch, and he reported it disappeared quickly. He credits a heavy hit of brown sugar. Sugar in general helps vegetable dishes.
There are other delights on a Baltimore summer table - fresh shelled peas, lima beans and cucumbers in vinegar, onions, sugar and water.
Great summer foods have not totally disappeared. Our fresh tomatoes are better today than I can ever recall. Even out of season, we are growing ones with taste other than cardboard. I know this is heresy, but I feel heritage tomatoes are more appealing to view than they are to consume.
It's also rare to get a bad ear of corn. I was raised on what is now an heirloom variety, Stowell's Evergreen, but I think today's varieties hold up better.
I get into trouble with twisted dishes wherein a food term is stretched beyond its original meaning. Let me say that after too many cocktails recently, I ordered (unwisely) a main course of a "napoleon" (the restaurant's term) of mushrooms, goat cheese and vegetables. What arrived was a stack of half-cooked zucchini squash, layered like a pastry napoleon, but more in the Dagwood-sandwich style. The "puff pastry" was the grilled mushroom (not bad at all) but the half-cooked squash were so dubious I extracted them and told the server under no circumstance to box them for later consumption.
OK. I'm picky. Maybe very picky. What is the stranglehold of Key lime pie on menus? Where, on a hot Baltimore evening, is the lemon merengue pie (with thin crust) that I crave? Don't even mention peach cake - very hard to find except at certain bakeries.
You'll be offered burnt orange creme brulee. (I have nothing against creme brulee. My mother often made it, generally on steaming, unair-conditioned August nights when it gave her a chance to light the broiler.)
Another dark secret of mine - I'm not crazy about outdoor charcoal grilling and marinades and rubs. Grills often overcook; sometimes the food tastes of lighter fluid. Give me a good frying pan and a knowledgeable cook. The marinades can overpower meat's natural taste.
With summertime, I have nostalgic thoughts of roadside stands, but it seems even they have disappeared. On the way to the beach, I could depend on Route 16's Farmer Bill's or Elmer's. Both are now gone. Could it be the presence of the farmers' markets at home?
I am often amazed by the so-called artisanal breads served and sold today. Many are delicious, but do I need another bread infused with rosemary? No. I want a homemade, yeasty soft dinner roll. Try finding one.