About 10 years ago, Kara Mae Harris found a recipe that began a years-long obsession. It was an entry for “Maryland white potato pie” in her mother’s old “Southern Heritage” cookbook. Sweetened with sugar and lemon juice, white potato pie was a staple of the lean months in Maryland before the summer harvests in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
It sounded so odd. Harris had to try it.
“Obviously I couldn’t go to Safeway and get one,” Harris recalled. So she made it.
Since then, Harris, 37, has chronicled her culinary adventures on her blog, oldlineplate.com. The dishes she makes are at turns familiar and strange to modern palates: Baltimore peach cake, peanut-pickle sandwiches, vinegar candy and chicken terrapin (a turtle-free take on the Maryland specialty).
Before making a dish in the kitchen of her Remington apartment, Harris pores over historic cookbooks found on on eBay or at Enoch Pratt Free Library, which she visits weekly. A data analyst by trade, Harris created a 40,000-item database of recipes that she uses to determine the most common method of creating a given item.
Julie Saylor, associate librarian at Pratt library’s Maryland room began following Harris’s work a few years ago, when she was curious to see what research had been done using Maryland cookbooks. The website has inspired Saylor to try out some unusual classics, she said. She regularly makes the peanut-pickle sandwich featured on Harris’s blog. The 1934 recipe found at the Maryland Historical Society includes mayonnaise, spiced pickle and peanut butter.
“When I’m in a hurry, I make that really quick,” Saylor said. “For some reason, I like it.” Her friends, she says, have yet to embrace it.
Such unexpected delights are rewards of the culinary journey for Harris. She recently made a “crab burger” with mayonnaise and celery from a recipe in a historic cookbook. Though that kind of filler is heresy in the Old Line State, Harris said, “I made it, and it was so good.”
Recent years have seen a surge in interest in regional historical cuisine as a consequence of the farm-to-table trend in cooking, says Paul Freedman, author of the book “Ten Restaurants That Changed America” and a professor at Yale University. Today’s cooks, eager to make delicious foods from ingredients found locally or in-season, will naturally begin to look back at their own area’s food history.
“Once you start emphasizing flavors, then you start rediscovering local ingredients,” Freedman said.
It’s a trend that seems ready-made for Baltimore, a city with a surprisingly decadent culinary history.
“Baltimore really was the gastronomic capital of the U.S. for a long time,” Freedman said. Items like Chesapeake terrapin, oysters and canvasback ducks — all from Maryland — were featured prominently on the menus at the country’s finest restaurants, whether in San Francisco or New York City. “Those are the things that people will serve in Boise, Idaho, if they can swing it,” he said.
Harris captures the region’s rich food history in her blog. Through her research, she learned that an early name for fudge was “Baltimore caramels.” In fact: fudge may have originated in Baltimore. (Harris wonders why the city’s tourism department never seized upon this bit of trivia.) Elsewhere, she discovered that chocolate — not egg custard — was long the preferred snow ball flavor of Baltimoreans. As for the crab cake, that wasn’t really popular until the 1940s, Harris said. More typical was deviled crab served inside a crab shell.
“In the rush to canonize crab cakes, a lot of other regional foods have been pushed to the fray,” Harris wrote in a post. “That’s basically what this blog is about.”’
For many years, Harris says, white customers flocked to kitchens manned by black chefs. And yet, painfully, the contributions of black cooks have been all but erased from Maryland’s history books. She tries to correct his wherever possible, drawing attention to their achievements and contributions. She tells the story of John R. Young, a renowned caterer who worked at the Elkridge Hunting Club. Young later managed a restaurant that served, according to an ad, “the best meals in any downtown restaurant.” His specialty, naturally, was Maryland terrapin.
After receiving dozens of requests from friends and readers for a Maryland white potato pie recipe, Harris set out to perfect her own. She reached out to Allie Smith, a freelance Baltimore baker and owner of Bramble Baking Co. who posts photos of her treats, lovingly decorated with dried fruit and flowers, on her Instagram page. Smith said she admired Harris’s work, her “practices rooted in place and time-honored techniques.”
Together, Smith and Harris tried out several different recipes, culled from sources like the 1975 cookbook “300 Years of Black Cooking in St. Mary’s County Maryland.” Some versions were more complicated, made with cream and toasted sugar, or with potatoes that had been drained. Others were simple, with condensed milk. Ultimately, Harris said, it was the simplest version of Maryland white potato pie that tasted the best — its filling sweet and citrusy, almost like lemon curd or cheesecake.
Experience has made Harris less rigid about following instructions. Many early recipes are vague, with directions that would baffle modern cooks: “Make a crust,” or “stick in the oven.”
“There’s a lot of things you could tweak or not do just right,” and the pie would still taste good, Smith said. “It’s a very forgiving pie.”
On a recent Sunday afternoon, the two met to bake. Her arm covered in tattoos — many of them food-themed — and wearing a pink checkered dress that Lucille Ball would have loved, Harris gently mashed two russet potatoes with a spatula to make the filling. She added sugar, juice from a lemon, and then grated an eighth of a teaspoon of nutmeg.
“Nutmeg was the flavoring of the 18th century,” Harris said.
Harris said her research has taught her new appreciation for the rich flavors of everyday foods. No longer does she eat jumbo lump crab cakes. They taste much better, she thinks, when made with the whole crab.
Maryland White Potato Pie
From the Old Line Plate & Bramble Baking Co.
2 medium russet potatoes, peeled, boiled and diced
1 cup white sugar
1 can of sweetened condensed milk
4 eggs, beaten
2 lemons — juice of both, plus zest of one
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
4 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted
1 1/2 teaspoon salt ( or 1/2 teaspoon if using salted butter)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract (optional)
1 pre-baked pie pastry or crumb crust
Combine potato and sugar in food processor or blender and process until smooth. Add eggs. Continue to process, adding remaining ingredients. Pour into pie shell and bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour or until top appears golden brown.