The Long-ago Foods That Once Lent Flavor To The City

November 07, 2009|By JACQUES KELLY

The name on the window said Maron, and inside were candy counters and an ice cream parlor. I was walking along Philadelphia's Chestnut Street and, for a second, I was back home 40 years ago. I thought of the old Baltimore Maron and couldn't help remembering all the revered but now-vanished foods once distinctive to the city.

Do unattainable foods resonate better in our memories? I'm sorry, but the fountain Coca-Colas of my youth, made by a uniformed drugstore soda fountain employee, were superior to today's bottled Cokes.

Don't get your hopes up about the Philadelphia Maron being a duplicate of Baltimore's. They share a name, and may have once been connected in some form decades ago, but my research shows no taste connection. The candy makers at the Baltimore store, which closed about 35 years ago, made their own marzipan, which we consumed with enthusiasm. Regular customers had their favorite selections of candy recorded on file cards.

There's another obvious Philadelphia-Baltimore food comparison. Pennsylvania and New York had automats and cafeterias called Horn and Hardart, while Baltimore's version (a branch of the same family) was a bustling East Baltimore street lunchroom called Horn & Horn. Philadelphians grow rhapsodic about their baked beans and hearty comfort foods. Baltimoreans knew better. Our H&H version served far tastier fare.

This fall I've been craving a meal that no amount of yearning will deliver. On Saturday afternoons I'd love to plow into a plate of the old Marconi's beef jardiniere, a dish of tender beef surrounded by fresh peas and carrots, all served in the formal parlor of the 1840 Saratoga St. rowhouse.

Peas, carrots and beef sound ordinary, but it was anything but. The Marconi chefs put the taste into their dishes. The entire menu was full of food curiosities, including three forms of sweetbreads and four versions of potatoes - au gratin, julienne, hash brown and lyonnaise. Their chocolate sundae could make you weep.

Maybe Baltimoreans didn't appreciate at the time how good we had it, but our local ice cream was very good. It seemed as if Hendler's ice cream was sold on every other corner. Its three elemental flavors - vanilla, chocolate and strawberry - were excellent, as was its coffee.

I can still taste Castle Farm's vanilla ice cream sold at Lexington Market. It was dense, snowy white and full of Western Maryland butterfat (the cows were near Emmitsburg). When topped with fresh South Mountain peaches, look out. Castle Farms buttermilk was also incredible.

Lexington Market was the home of unassuming Baltimore food treasures that spoke for themselves long before the foodies came to prominence. The homemade relishes (including chow chow) at the old Panzer pickle counter were addictive. Panzer's sauerkraut was pretty wonderful, too.

It cost all of 60 cents a pound in the 1960s, but Ortmueller's taffy (also at Lexington Market) could send you to the dentist's office, willingly. It was a hard-chewing taffy (unlike saltwater taffy) that the counter clerks shattered with a small hammer. I liked the molasses version, but a toasted coconut was awesome, too.

People swooned over Silber's dark rye bread. How about the Harley sandwich shop's special sauce?

Salads? Claudia Coffey, a legendary Baltimore waitress, created her own distinctive salad at the old Pimlico Hotel. It became known as the Coffey salad, made of chopped lettuce, onion and anchovies. Its cousin was the Marconi salad, also chopped and full of egg and anchovy.

And what of the lowly, once common Baltimore bun, never called a Danish? With its cinnamon-redolent dough, raisins and white-sugar frosting, it was what you got in the days before bagels and muffins took over.

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