I opened a restaurant menu this week and found two cautionary words: "shad roe." It's a dish that divides Baltimore. Those who will and those who won't partake.
For the record, I tried it once when a Bolton Hill woman served it to me at a spring dinner party. She acted as if it were such a delicacy - as did the others assembled. I got it down, only assisted by glasses of alcohol to mask the fish oil taste. I am one of the Baltimoreans who take the Shad Roe Never-Again Pledge.
I was never much of a Baltimore seafood lover - I'll try a crabcake once a year. This week, I watched in awe as two luncheon companions tucked into a platter of fried oysters. And people close to me recall the night I turned green after tasting a shrimp at a church basement event.
The Baltimore I knew as a child presented all sorts of questionable foods that my family often overpraised. These were weird dishes then, and I don't see the Food Channel championing them today.
I think of the old Baltimore, where the hamburger had arrived but the little-known pizza pie was something only the patrons of DeNittis' or Matthew's knew.
People would line up for the fried eggplant at the old Horn and Horn on East Baltimore Street. I adored the restaurant and practically all its menu, but that eggplant, stringy and rubbery? No way.
Beef tongue was a standard main dish. It wasn't so bad as long as you didn't think about it.
And my mother could clear the kitchen when she decided to fry honeycomb tripe, a meat taken from a cow's stomach. I wisely left the house. Tripe is not so bad in pepperpot soup, where its taste is disguised. Like beef tongue, it is best not to think about it when you eat it.
I had tripe served as a surprise mystery dish at an expensive restaurant in Florence, Italy. The chef didn't charge me, but he got a great laugh out of it when he explained what I had consumed.
It took time to overcome an aversion to sweetbreads, a regular on the menu at the fondly recalled Marconi's restaurant on Saratoga Street. How well I recall a waiter, in a voice that was both self-mocking and haughty, saying to me, "Will that be sweetbreads Sarah Bernhardt, or creamed, broiled or bordelaise?"
I'd bribe a cook for the buckwheat pancakes my grandmother made, but I did not touch them until late in her life. She would make them the night before in a batter that contained yeast, making the kitchen smell like beer. This mixture had to sit for about 10 hours before she'd fire up her griddle on Sunday mornings.
As a child, her flannel cakes - thin, French-style pancakes - were no match in the popularity contest. They were delicious too, but the gamey taste of the buckwheat turned me off. She also selected high-octane, heartburn sausage at the old Belair Market and scrapple, doused with homemade ketchup. She considered thin syrup, of the Log Cabin variety, totally unworthy. We used dark brown molasses or maple syrup.
There were other Baltimore breakfast foods that Betty Crocker never endorsed. You could smell the kidney stew before you got out of your pajamas. The adults lined up for that one and acted as if it were the stuff of the gods. There could also be fried fish.
As a kid, I saw the humor in the changing times, when the boxes of PopTarts entered my grandmother's kitchen and took a place on the table alongside her dishes of stewed prunes and boiled-to-death Eight O'Clock coffee.