When Maryland's first Colonists stepped off the Ark and the Dove, they carried little that would generate gastronomic envy - a bit of salted meat, dried peas and hard biscuits left over from the voyage, and some pigs and cows recently purchased from Virginia.
But thanks to the bounty of the Chesapeake Bay, and with help from Native Americans and later African slaves, Maryland settlers gave the country one of its first distinctive regional cuisines.
Where would the nation's culinary scene be today without Maryland?
"It would be a mess," says John Shields, owner of Gertrude's restaurant and author of several cookbooks on Chesapeake cooking. "It really is the cornerstone of American cooking."
Maryland, which tomorrow marks the 370th anniversary of its founding, gave the world crab cakes, stuffed ham, beaten biscuits, Maryland fried chicken, Old Bay and Perdue Oven Stuffer roasters.
But those well-known contributions aren't all. Without Maryland inventors, there may have been no canned corn, no store-bought ice cream, no saccharin and no refrigerators. If that makes you a little queasy, too bad, because there'd be no plop, plop, fizz, fizz to make you feel better.
When it comes to food inventions, Maryland has given the nation more than its share.
"You look at Early American cuisine, and it really happened here," Shields says.
Sandy Oliver, editor of Food History News, a quarterly publication that is based in Islesboro, Maine, is a bit reluctant to give Maryland all the credit. She says that Chesapeake cooking extends beyond the Free State to Virginia, Delaware and even Pennsylvania.
"When I think of Maryland, I think of a place that is neither entirely Northern nor Southern. ... It is on the edge, and so has elements of both, which makes it interesting," she says.
While today it may be difficult to think of Maryland as on the culinary cutting edge, that was the case 200 years ago. At that time, Annapolis was the culinary capital of the country, Shields says. "Jefferson and Washington sent chefs to be trained in Annapolis."
The first report of ice cream in the Colonies was served at a dinner party in Maryland in 1744. About 100 years later, Marylander Jacob Fussell built the first ice-cream factory on North Exeter Street in Baltimore. Fussell was a milkman looking for a way to sell his cream year-round, but he is credited with making ice cream available for the masses.
The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad was another culinary trendsetter. Other railroad companies might boast of faster service reaching more places, but the B&O was known as the company with the best food.
Throughout the first half of the 20th century, it was Maryland that set the culinary standard on the East Coast. Deviled crab was served in the best restaurants in New York and Philadelphia, and Sidney Mintz, emeritus professor of anthropology at the Johns Hopkins University, recalls traveling to New York as a young man when a dish of Chincoteague clams was the rage. "It was renowned in the Northeast."
As with culinary traditions everywhere, Chesapeake cuisine is a product of many influences. The early Colonists at first tried to duplicate the meals they had eaten in England, says Henry Miller, director of research at Historic St. Mary's City.
They tried raising lamb, beef and pork, but early on had to abandon sheep because they fell prey to wolves that roamed the forests of southern Maryland.
Not surprisingly, the Colonists also hunted and fished. Archaeologists have found evidence that the settlers ate oysters, rockfish, ducks, deer and rabbits. Many of these animals would have been familiar to the newcomers, although the Colonists may have thought twice before eating crabs.
The settlers of Jamestown some 25 years earlier had to be ordered to eat crabs even though they were starving.
The Marylanders, who saw the Virginians and Indians eating the crabs, apparently did so more willingly, as crab shells are found dating from the earliest time, Miller says.
One of the first crab dishes would have been crab soup, and superstitions sprang up about making it, says cookbook author Sue Latini, who demonstrates hearth cooking at the Flag House in Baltimore. "They always said if it thundered while they were making crab soup, they'd have to throw it out."
The belief probably goes back to the days before refrigeration, when soup could spoil in the summer heat, but Latini says she has heard even Marylanders today repeat the warning.
Other ingredients in Maryland's cuisine come from Native Americans and African slaves. The Indians taught the settlers how to use corn, squash and beans. Africans brought their own culinary traditions, including the use of greens and spices such as mustard and red pepper.
Miller and other historians say Maryland stuffed ham almost certainly had is origins in the African-American community. The dish of corned or brined ham stuffed with celery, kale, onion, watercress and spices is found only in St. Mary's County and in a county in Kentucky where Maryland settlers migrated, Miller says.
The ham takes most of a day to prepare but is a slice of authentic Maryland. "When you slice it, you get this beautiful red meat with stripes of green stuffing going through it. It is delightful," Miller says.
The origins of Maryland fried chicken are more obscure, although it appears in cookbooks before the American Revolution, Shields says. The dish is akin to Southern fried chicken with its simple seasonings - salt, pepper, flour - but Maryland's version differs in its preparation and serving. The chicken is usually marinated in buttermilk before frying, and once the chicken is browned, a lid is placed on the skillet, in effect steaming the chicken. "It makes it so amazingly tender," Shields says.
Add to that the final component that makes Maryland fried chicken distinctive - gravy, served not alongside, but on top the chicken.
With the rise of industry, Baltimore became a city of food innovators. Besides Fussell's ice-cream factory, the city can boast of having the first sugar refinery, the first candy licorice, the first refrigerator, the first antacid and the first disposable bottle cap, according to Claire Mullins of the Baltimore Museum of Industry.
But one claim the city cannot make is the invention of the Lady Baltimore cake. Despite its name, the frosted layer cake has nothing to do with Baltimore or Maryland. Food historians say the cake comes from a novel, Lady Baltimore, written by Philadelphia-born writer Owen Wister, who was inspired by a cake he was served in Charleston, S.C.
Maryland Pan-Fried Chicken
1 frying chicken (3 to 4 pounds), cut into serving pieces
1 quart buttermilk
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon Chesapeake seasoning (such as Old Bay)
1/2 teaspoon cracked black pepper
1/2 teaspoon Tabasco sauce
3 cloves garlic, peeled and cut in half
juice of 1 lemon
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon salt
2 teaspoons Chesapeake seasoning
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon rubbed sage
1/2 teaspoon powdered thyme
1/2 teaspoon cayenne
vegetable oil (and lard, optional, 3 parts oil to 1 part lard), for frying
gravy (see accompanying recipe)
Place the chicken pieces in a shallow dish. To prepare the marinade, pour the buttermilk in a bowl and add the salt, Chesapeake seasoning, cracked black pepper, Tabasco, garlic and lemon juice. Mix well and pour the mixture over the chicken to cover. Cover the dish and refrigerate overnight.
For the coating, put the flour in a bowl and add the salt, Chesapeake seasoning, ground black pepper, sage, thyme and cayenne. Mix together well and transfer to a strong paper bag or large, heavy-duty plastic bag. When ready to fry, remove the chicken from the buttermilk and wipe off the excess. Place the chicken in the bag of seasoned flour and shake to coat well.
Pour vegetable oil into a large cast-iron skillet to a depth of about 1 1/4 inches. Heat until very hot but not smoking. Add the chicken and brown on both sides, turning frequently. Do not crowd the pan. Reduce the heat to medium and cover the skillet.
Cook the chicken, turning occasionally, for about 25 minutes. Remove the chicken with a slotted utensil to paper towels to drain. Reserve the cooking fat. Serve with cream gravy.
Per serving, no gravy: 718 calories; 51 grams protein; 39 grams fat; 9 grams saturated fat; 39 grams carbohydrate; 2 grams fiber; 141 milligrams cholesterol; 1,707 milligrams sodium
Makes about 2 cups
reserved cooking fat from fried chicken
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
2 cups milk
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Pour off all but 3 tablespoons of the fat. Stir in the flour and cook, stirring for 1 to 2 minutes. Slowly whisk in the milk. Stir constantly until thickened, about 4 to 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
-- From "Chesapeake Bay Cooking," by John Shields (Broadway Books, 1998)
Per 1/2 -cup serving: 185 calories; 5 grams protein; 12 grams fat; 4 grams saturated fat; 14 grams carbohydrate; 0 grams fiber; 17 milligrams cholesterol; 61 milligrams sodium
Summertime Crab Soup
1 pound beef, cubed
1/4 pound salt pork, diced
2 quarts of water
vegetables as available, including onions, potatoes, beans, okra, carrots, cabbages, peas, celery, tomatoes
6 small crabs, cleaned and quartered
thyme, parsley, marjoram, salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Brown beef and pork in a large pot. Add water and thoroughly cook meat. Add prepared vegetables and simmer until done. Add crabs, herbs and seasonings and cook for additional 15 minutes.
-- From "At the Hearth," by Mary Sue Pagan Latini (New Century Books, 2002 )
Nutritional information not calculated because ingredients vary.
Southern Maryland Stuffed Ham
Makes 10 to 12 servings, plus leftovers
3 pounds of kale (thickest stems discarded), chopped
1 pound green onion, chopped
1 pound field cress (if available) or watercress, chopped
2 medium heads cabbage, cored and chopped
3 to 4 tablespoons whole mustard seed
2 tablespoons celery seed
3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon ground red pepper (or more to taste)
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon salt
one 12- to 15-pound corned ham (see note)
Combine kale, onion, field cress, cabbage, mustard seed, celery seed, red pepper and salt in a large bowl. Remove all skin from ham except near the hock. Trim all but 1 inch layer of fat from ham. Starting at the butt end of the fat side of the ham, pierce ham using long, slender, sharp knife, driving knife straight down and stopping 1 inch from the bone. Repeat, spacing staggered rows of slits 1 to 1 1/2 inches apart, until entire ham is covered with slits. Be careful that slits do not split into each other.
Fill each slit with vegetable mixture until stuffing can be seen at top. Spread layer of stuffing on a piece of cheesecloth large enough to surround the ham, or if the ham was purchased in a burlap bag, use the bag.
Set ham on cloth. Bring it up and around the ham, distributing the stuffing evenly, and secure with a strong twine. Transfer ham to a large pot. Add enough hot water to cover. Place over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer about 15 minutes per pound.
Remove lid and let ham cool to room temperature in liquid. (Ham can be prepared 1 to 2 days ahead and refrigerated. Remove from refrigerator about 1 1/2 hours before serving). To serve, cut ham into thin slices vertically across the grain to expose stuffing.
Note: Fresh ham can be substituted for corned.
- Henry Miller
Per serving (based on 12 servings of fresh ham): 849 calories; 80 grams protein; 50 grams fat; 18 grams saturated fat; 21 grams carbohydrate; 4 grams fiber; 256 milligrams cholesterol; 2,180 milligrams sodium
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