A memorial tribute to James William “Bill” Heil, who died Jan. 4 at 76, included reminiscences by his family delivered under a tent on Hawk Cove facing Chesapeake Bay in eastern Baltimore County.
Guests enjoyed a lunch composed of foods that were essential to Heil’s decades in Baltimore. All agreed the man was an ambassador for Baltimore-centric cuisine.
His husband, William Pencek, whose career included Baltimore neighborhood preservation, and preservation and tourism for the state of Maryland, created a memorial lunch to reflect a life well lived in Baltimore.
So what would be the flavors and foods that this Baltimore resident felt were so special? (Sour beef was ruled out because of the heat.)
Heil was the oldest of six siblings and lived in eastern Baltimore County as a child. For a treat, his parents took their children to Highlandtown, to the G&A Restaurant for its signature dish, the Coney Island hot dog. (This business that recently announced it was moving out of the old neighborhood for White Marsh.)
Heil’s childhood hot dogs, plus the relish, chopped onion, mustard, ketchup and homemade chili sauce, made the Baltimore Coney Island version locally famous.
No Maryland event works without a favorite crab cake and this is a point of debate and taste. Heil’s go-to purveyor is Schultz’s Crab House on Old Eastern Avenue in Essex. This is a local favorite and has nailed the essential Baltimore taste.
Schultz’s also supplied the July essentials to serve with a crab cake — potato salad and marinated cucumber salad, made the way a Baltimore grandmother does, with a dollop of sugar in the vinegar.
Not enough seafood? There was lobster mac ‘n’ cheese from the Thames Street Oyster House in Fells Point.
A salad? What could be more Baltimore than the one offered by the Samos Restaurant on Oldham Street. You know this is a very neighborhood Baltimore place when Samos advises its customers, cash only, no reservations and BYOB. A Greek salad on a July Sunday seemed about perfect.
Next course: Submarine sandwiches from Bello Vitto’s on Rossville Boulevard. There were two choices, cold cut and meatball, and guests indulged in both. The submarine (never, never a hoagie in Baltimore) is only as good as the person behind the counter makes it; the quality of the roll it is served on can help make or break this casual food staple.
Baltimore has trouble competing in this sub sandwich competition with Philadelphia (where they are hoagies) but never, never order a crab cake in Pennsylvania. Never. Never.
The luncheon ended on a high note.
The peach cake and smearcase were just out of the Woodlea Bakery ovens on Belair Road in Northeast Baltimore. The peach cake tasted like Baltimore in July and people who love this simple dish cannot get enough of it. It’s only decent and worth eating when peaches are in season. Bad peach cake — doughy, dry or overly sweet — is a disaster.
You practically have to be born in Baltimore, maybe in York County, Pennsylvania, to stand up and cheer when the smearcase arrives. It’s a poor man’s cheese cake and seems to go down nicely summer or winter. If you like smearcase, you likely were introduced to it by a German-descent grandmother.
And the last course? A Koldkiss snowball. The flavors were Bill Heil’s favorites — black cherry, blueberry, egg custard and chocolate. The sound of ice being shaved by a machine is an essential Baltimore neighborhood sound and, tradition holds, a way to cut the heat. A great way to attract flies and bees is that necessary last ingredient — the marshmallow heaped on top.
And to leave the memorial — the guests scooped up a Rheb’s chocolate buttercream.
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What dishes (not ones you made, but from places you patronized) would you be recalled by?