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Taste

Fine smorgasbord for Marylanders to savor

Here's a look at how eats made in Maryland are faring today

By Stephanie Shapiro

Special to the Sun

July 9, 2008

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Picture a steamed crab encrusted with Old Bay seasoning, an ear of Silver Queen corn, a cold Natty Boh served with a handful of Utz potato chips - and a hot summer night in Baltimore leaps to mind.

Step back, though, and the relationship between food and place becomes less fixed. Today, the crabs may come from Thailand, the "Silver Queen" is probably a more durable variety with a less-resonant name, and National Bohemian, once the Baltimore Orioles' "official" beer, now is brewed in North Carolina.

And Utz potato chips, produced in Hanover, Pa., are related to the Maryland food family only by marriage - witness the Charles Street billboard featuring Natty Boh's proposal to the "Little Utz Girl."

These truths don't stop Marylanders from celebrating their culinary heritage. But they do suggest a heritage that in certain ways has become more symbolic than real.

The marked decline of the Chesapeake Bay's blue crab population "is a little disturbing," says Warren James Belasco, author of Appetite for Change: How the Counterculture Took on the Food Industry and a professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "It is so much a part of the Chesapeake identity." But "that doesn't mean there aren't other ways that foods have meaning besides where they're actually produced."

Over time, the status enjoyed by Maryland's cornucopia of iconic crops, wild foods and preparations has been altered by health, environmental, economic and other factors. Here is a look at several of those offerings.

Blue Crab
More than any other wild food, the blue crab has informed Maryland's identity far beyond the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Yet the bay's blue crab population is just a quarter of what it was in 1990, according to Gary Paul Nabhan's Renewing America's Food Traditions: Saving and Savoring the Continent's Most Endangered Foods.

The blue crab's decline won't change Maryland's crab-centric image, says John Shields, owner of Gertrude's restaurant and a champion of the bay's riches.

Although he tries to buy local crab, fresh or frozen, price and scarcity have forced Shields to purchase crab from the Carolinas, Mexico and Asia. That hasn't dampened the demand among culinary tourists who may have traveled many miles for an "authentic" Maryland crab cake.

Ironically, when diners accustomed to the mild flavor of import-ed crab that has been washed of its fat and mustard are introduced to Maryland crab, "they think it tastes fishy," Shields says.

Silver Queen
Chuck McClurg remembers joking with a group of farmers that they sold more Silver Queen corn than they grew. "All of the growers laughed out loud, and none of them denied it," says McClurg, associate professor emeritus of horticulture and former extension vegetable specialist at the University of Maryland.

"I think most people that know about corn, even the consumers, probably know that growers aren't doing Silver Queen," McClurg says. And yet, Silver Queen, at least in name, remains the gold standard for Maryland corn and has become the catchall term for the improved varieties that have replaced it.

"People still seek out Silver Queen and also its relative Silver King," says Barbara Plantholt Melera, the owner of D. Landreth Seed Co. in New Freedom, Pa. "If they're going to the farmer on the roadside when coming home from work and get that taste for some corn, that's what they're looking for."

Natty Boh
The story of National Bohemian beer's resurrection as an emblem of Baltimore pride - even though it's now made out of town by the Pabst Brewing Co. - is a case study in a brand's symbolic potency. Anyone who catches a wink from the dapper, one-eyed mascot, who perches atop the Natty Boh Tower on Brewers Hill where the namesake beer was once brewed, can attest to that.

First produced in Baltimore in 1885, Natty Boh has an attachment to the Chesapeake Bay region that was sealed with the 1950s slogan that boasted of its origins "From the Land of Pleasant Living."

It doesn't matter that the beer now is made out of town, says Todd Unger, president of Natty Boh Gear, which has parlayed the mascot into a merchandising bonanza with shops in Fells Point, Brewers Hill, several other retail outlets and a Web site.

If Boh were a real guy, "I would sit and drink a beer with him," says Ben Donovan, a Baltimore City firefighter and avid collector of Natty Boh memorabilia. "Mr. Boh represented the blue-collar town, and that's one thing I am, a person who works two jobs, raises a good family and tries to make it, especially with gas prices the way they are."

Pit Beef
From March until November, Wayne Schafer, the 45-year-old owner of Big Fat Daddy's concession stand, is on the road, taking the fixings for pit beef to festivals throughout six states in his refrigerated truck. "We roughly average from 400 pounds to 1,200 pounds per festival. That's a lot of beef," he says.

Pit beef is Baltimore's take on barbecue, a dry-rubbed cut of beef well marinated and slowly cooked over a charcoal grill. Schafer's been running his business for 26 years from Rosedale, not far from "pit beef row," the stretch of Route 40 known for its succession of stands.

He may be going green by using more recyclable paper products, but he still buys meat produced by the industrial farms that are under fire from environmentalists, health professionals and animal-welfare advocates. He says he doesn't have a choice.

Renee Brooks Catacalos, publisher of Edible Chesapeake, a locavore magazine, sees no need to denounce a treasured culinary tradition without considering ways to make it local in every sense of the word. But it will take time for local producers to reach a point where they can adequately supply Schafer and other pit-beef purveyors, she says.

Desserts
Maryland's signature desserts share a penchant for extravagance - and are celebrated with the recognition that occasional indulgence is healthy for consumers and state identity.

The Berger cookie, a sugar wafer hand-frosted with a decadent blob of fudge icing, has been produced in Baltimore since the 19th century and has acquired regional cult status. With a boost from the bakery's Web site and Internet foodie chatter, the cookie more recently has become an edible ambassador on behalf of Baltimore's quirky side (it got a sizable mention in a recent issue of Saveur).

The elaborate creations of Duff Goldman, proprietor of Charm City Cakes and host of Ace of Cakes on the Food Network, have followed in the tradition of other Maryland culinary exports. All showcase the city while building a brand dependent on local identity.

Perhaps no other Maryland food has been elevated to iconic status more swiftly than the Smith Island Cake, named the official state dessert in April. Overnight, the confection has evolved from island mainstay to a multilayered marvel whetting appetites around the world.

Smith Islanders and tourism officials hope that the dessert's appeal will generate income for the families of watermen who no longer can make an adequate living on the bay because of the decline of crabs and oysters - other iconic foods.

As for whether the Smith Island Cake's recent acclaim is threatened by its dubious nutritional merits, Janice Marshall, one of the island's most gregarious tradition bearers, responds with a good-nature scoff: "What cake isn't fattening?"
At a glance
What's the state of Maryland's traditional foods? Here's a quick checklist:

Blue Crab
The bay's blue crab population is down, but the image is still strong. "Our region is so identified with this crustacean," says chef John Shields.

Silver Queen Corn
It has been surpassed by sweeter cultivars with a shorter growing season, but Silver Queen, a sweet white corn introduced in the 1960s, endures in the public imagination because it was the one variety to be promoted by name.

Natty Boh
The beer is produced miles away from Bawlmer, but attracts young professionals who are remaking the neighborhood where it was once brewed.

Pit Beef
Meat's out of favor lately, but pit-beef purveyor Wayne Schafer is not worried that people will stop seeking out his slow-cooked product. "You can't get pit beef at home."

Smith Island Cake
With its delectable ribbons of icing and cake, the treat got a big boost this year when legislators named it the state dessert.



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