Like most guys, I once regarded our family's summer trip to the beach as an ordeal. I saw it as a passage fraught with cranky kids, horrendous traffic and mind-numbing delays. For many years my main goal of making the drive from Baltimore to the beach was to get it over with.
I "made time," stopping only when kidneys or the gas tank demanded it. The sight of brake lights glowing on Route 50 sent steam from my ears.
Now, however, thanks to the help of supportive family members, good friends and some toothsome fried food, I have taken a new approach to the beach trek.
I have come to regard the journey not as a race, but as a series of eating opportunities, a get-to-the-beach buffet. I am stopping to smell the fried clams, the barbecued chicken and the lopes.
After years of gustatory research on the Eastern Shore, I can tell you not only how to reach the beach, but how to get there on a full stomach. It's the only way to go.
I am still a traveler in transition, though. I have trouble dawdling, as the state trooper who recently issued me a speeding ticket can attest. (Note to drivers with an urge to make time: the stretch of Route 50 between Cambridge and Salisbury is not the place to try it.)
Recently, I made a weekend trip to and from the beach in the teeth of weekend traffic -- eastbound on Saturday, westbound on Sunday. I am proud to say I stopped at several places without buying gas or using the restroom.
Instead I stopped to eat or to buy stuff to eat later.
Even in my reformed, take-it-easy state, I don't pull over before crossing the Bay Bridge. It is my Matterhorn. Until I ascend its heights, I cannot rest.
After I start rolling down the eastern side of the Bay Bridge, the muscles in the back of my neck start to loosen, and I move over to the slow lane. I get off Route 50 at Route 8 in Stevensville and travel about a quarter-mile down the road to the produce stand next to the Bay Bridge Airport operated by Farmer John.
There are several amazing things about Farmer John. He is a farmer. He is named John (Selby). And at the age of 83, he is brimming with intelligence, opinions and good humor.
Although he was slowed down this year by open-heart surgery -- "those doctors at Sinai do good work" -- Farmer John opened his stand on the Fourth of July weekend, marking the 46th year he has sold produce at various locations along Route 50.
Farmer John knows his produce. He talks about the genetic structure of corn and rattles off the initials of the three types of sweet corn commonly sold in roadside markets.
"You have your SU-1s like Silver Queen that are about 17 percent sugar. You have your SE or sugar-enhancer corn like Silverado that is about 35 percent sugar. Then you have your SH2s, shrunken, homogenized corn like Triple Sweet or How Sweet It Is or Treasurer. These are 50 to 55 percent sugar. I like SH2s."
A good ear of corn, he says, will have pulpy kernels. If you burst a kernel with your fingernail, the juice should pop you in eye.
As for tomatoes, he says, you can't go wrong with Pik Red, which does well in the Eastern Shore soil. The early tomatoes, he told me, might be a little small this year because of the cool, wet spring.
On the cantaloupe front, Farmer John prefers the Apollo and the Eclipse types to the omnipresent Athena. He also warns shoppers to "stay away from anyplace that has a mound of cantaloupes five feet high."
That's because cantaloupes have a relatively short shelf life. "You come back in a few days, those cantaloupes will still be there, and they won't be any good."
As for watermelon, he likes the big Crimson Sweet types and Twilley's 5244 for the smaller, seedless watermelons.
"Grandmothers just run for those 5244 melons, they buy them for their grandkids because they don't have any seeds."
Over the years, I have had cell phone conversations with Farmer John as he was driving his pickup truck around Kent and Queen Anne's counties where he grows produce. Five years ago, he flipped his truck after making a tomato delivery and was trapped inside the overturned vehicle for several hours before help arrived.
"The truck was upside down," he says. "I couldn't move my arm. My foot was through the windshield. I couldn't get out, so I figured I would just take a nap until help came."
At the Narrows
Stocked with fresh produce and fresh insight from Farmer John, I get back on Route 50 and head toward Kent Narrows and Grasonville.
These days the drama of crossing Kent Narrows is gone. Ten years ago, there was a drawbridge spanning Route 50, and every half-hour or so, the bridge would go up and Route 50 would become a parking lot for 10 to 15 minutes.
Back then I raced the clock, trying to get across Kent Narrows before the bridge went up. Once, I rewarded myself for beating the bridge by stopping for lunch at Harris Crab House, which was then a small, open-air, family-run operation off Exit 42.
Now a new stretch of highway arches high above the narrows, allowing sailboats and other tall-masted craft to slip in and out of the nearby marinas. The drawbridge remains, but it is under the new span, and serves local traffic.
There is no wait to drive over Kent Narrows now, but there is often a wait to get a table at Harris Crab House. The parking lot is jammed on a Saturday afternoon. An attendant drives around in a golf cart directing drivers to open spaces, ferrying customers from distant lots.
Inside, I notice a few changes since my last visit. The restaurant still overlooks the water, but the main dining room is bigger, enclosed and air-conditioned. Instead of a sleepy, small-town joint, this is a big, booming Ocean City-style seafood house packed with crab eaters.
The Harris family has operated a seafood business on this spot for four generations. While the restaurant dominates the scene, the seafood processing part of the business is still there, meaning restaurant customers can still watch watermen unload their catch.
I find a spot at the bar and order some fried manos -- soft-shell clams -- once the main catch of the narrows, but now in shorter supply. The clams arrive in a hurry, hot, sizzling and tasting faintly sweet.
"Those clams came from that water right out there," Bobby Beck, the manager, tells me. They were caught by Nicky Hamilton, a local clammer.
Dipped in chocolate
Down the road I roll past the fast-food restaurants lining the highway. Over the years I have visited every Burger King, McDonald's, Subway and Roy -- may he rest in peace -- Rogers in Easton and Cambridge.
When our children were small, my wife would force me to stop the family caravan in Easton or Cambridge to feed the kids.
Now that the kids are teen-agers, we usually stop at Popeye's for spicy chicken. When we are eastbound, the family stops at the Popeye's in Cambridge; westbound, we stop at the Popeye's in Easton.
Because I am traveling solo this trip, I don't have to stop at either Popeye's. But I do stop in Cambridge -- for an ice cream cone at the Dairy Queen.
This is a radical breach of my traveling discipline. I am stopping at a place on the going-home side of Route 50, when I am traveling on the beachbound side of the road.
As an ice-cream aficionado, I know the stuff sold at a Dairy Queen is not gourmet fare. But I have fond memories of the Dairy Queen of my youth, in St. Joseph, Mo., that is similar to the one in Cambridge.
Standing in line outside the DQ, feeling the summer sun on my back, watching the little old lady in front of me pay for her afternoon treat with coins from an old change purse, time seems to stand still. Memories flood back.
I buy a chocolate-dipped cone, and struggle to eat it before it melts. Nearby a Ford with a loud, large engine, and a teen-ager behind the wheel, peels out.
Race for the chicken
Cruising toward Salisbury, I check the clock and start to worry. Will I make it to the barbecued chicken stand before it closes?
On previous summer Saturdays I have enjoyed the moist, tender chicken sold by the Powellville Fire Company and Ruritans at a small stand on Phillip Morris Drive, an intersection off eastbound Route 50 just before it hits the Route 13 bypass.
The chicken is great but the hours of operation are irregular. They seem to open only on summer Saturdays, and when they sell out, they close.
Perhaps this is the reason I am speeding. Maybe I will offer the barbecued-chicken defense at my hearing. Anyway, after the state trooper stops me outside Salisbury and issues me my first speeding ticket in 35 years of driving, I fall behind schedule. When I pull into Phillip Morris Drive, the chicken guys are gone.
Feeling poultry-deprived, I turn south on Route 13 and head for the Red Roost in Whitehaven.
Several factors draw me to the Red Roost. First, it is a former chicken house converted into a restaurant. If you look closely you can still see a chicken-feed line running through the ceiling of the main dining room. Secondly, the restaurant is in the middle of nowhere.
Whitehaven is a picturesque small town on the Wicomico River about an hour's drive southwest of Salisbury. To get there I drive south on Route 13 to Princess Anne, then turn west on Route 362 and follow signs for the Whitehaven Ferry, a free, two-car ferry that plies the Wicomico River (and runs only until dusk).
After I get off the ferry, I drive past a few houses, past a pony or two, travel down a shady lane and arrive in the restaurant's gravel parking lot.
It's a little after 4 p.m. The place has just opened, but already the parking lot is filling up with cars and a tour bus. There are easily four times more people in the Red Roost parking lot than there are in the rest of Whitehaven.
Tom Knorr, the young, energetic owner of the restaurant who lives next door, gives me a tour. When it comes time to order, I have to decide which piece of decor will rule: Should I take a hint from the restaurant's lamp shades, which resemble the bushel baskets that hold live crabs, or should I take a clue from the old feed line in the dining room ceiling?
Figuring it is not every day you get to eat in a former chicken coop, I order the fried chicken. It is terrific -- crisp on the outside, moist on the inside.
I take some chicken with me as I ride the ferry back across the river, and drive to Chincoteague, Va., where I spend the night.
On a large scale
The next day I find myself at How Sweet It Is, a large produce stand in Fruitland, Md. How can I resist buying cantaloupe in a town named Fruitland?
The stand, operated by Brent Malone and his father, Woody, had free, bite-size samples of the lopes.
From there I press on to Middlesex Beach, Del., near Bethany Beach, where friends tell me I must stop at Jimmy's Grille in Bridgeville, Del. They promise me I will not go home hungry, and they are right.
Late on a Sunday afternoon, Jimmy's is loud, crowded and teeming with serious eaters battling gigantic entrees.
It is a casual place. I sit at a small table near an entryway to the kitchen. A voice in the kitchen calls, "Eileeeeen, I need some greens."
Behind me is a stack of plastic containers used by customers to tote leftovers. The portions are huge, so almost everyone has leftovers. And almost everyone ends up reaching over my shoulder and grabbing a container or two.
It turns out I am sharing this table with a waitress who keeps her glass of ice water here and grabs a sip as she runs in and out of the kitchen.
I order the seafood platter, which contains enough provisions to feed the 6th Fleet. There is a colossal piece of flounder, a half-dozen scallops, shrimp, a decent crab cake, corn pudding and apples.
I don't come close to polishing off the platter, so, as other contented Jimmy 's customers do, I reach for a container.
Surprisingly, the drive back to Baltimore on a summer Sunday evening goes without a hitch. I return from my beach journey feeling relaxed, stuffed and carrying enough produce to feed the family for a week. Instead of making good time, I had a good time.
WHEN YOU GO
* Farmer John's Produce., Route 8 in Stevensville (Romance Road) off Route 50, next to the Bay Bridge Airport
Phone: 410 643-6344
Hours: 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., seven days a week.
Outstanding corn, good tomatoes and melons for under $5
* Harris Crab House, 425 Kent Narrows Way, Grasonville, Exit 42 off Route 50
Hours: Open 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. weekdays, later on weekends
The restaurant specializes in fresh crabs and oysters, but the soft-shell clams ($8.25 a dozen) are a catch
* Cambridge Dairy Queen, 320 Sunburst Highway (Route 50) in downtown Cambridge
Hours: Open 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week
Enjoy a $1.37 chocolate-dipped cone and other timeless summer fare
* The Red Roost Family Restaurant, 2670 Clara Road, Whitehaven
Hours: Open March-November, weekdays from 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., Saturday from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. and Sunday from 12:30 p.m. to 8.30 p.m.
Former chicken house converted to family-style fried chicken and steamed-crab restaurant. Take the free ferry across the Wicomico River.
* How Sweet It Is, at Route 13 and Stockyard Road just south of Salisbury)
Hours: Open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week
Elaborate display of local fruit and vegetables; free samples; terrific jams
* Jimmy's Grille, junction of Routes 13 and 404 in Bridgeville, Del.
Hours: Open Sunday through Thursday from 5:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 8:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Roadhouse serving gigantic portions of seafood, chicken and vegetables. The seafood platter ($15.75) can feed two.
AN IDEAL DAY
9 a.m. -- Not being much of a breakfast eater, I prepare for my trip with several vessels of black coffee, which I sip until I cross the Bay Bridge.
10:30 a.m. -- Visit Farmer John's produce stand for a couple of dead-ripe peaches.
11:30 a.m. -- Sit at one of the outdoor tables at Harris Crab House eating soft-shell clams and feeling the cooling breezes of the Chesapeake Bay.
2 p.m. -- For a mid-afternoon refresher, stop at Cambridge Dairy Queen for a vanilla milk shake or a chocolate-dipped cone -- pure American road food.
5 p.m. -- Catch the Whitehaven Ferry across the Wicomico River and have a great fried-chicken supper at the Red Roost.
11 p.m. -- Sit on the porch in Chincoteague, Va., and crack open a watermelon (bought earlier in the day at How Sweet It Is in Fruitland). Barefoot and satisfied, spit watermelon seeds into the sweet summer night.