Like bedtime stories told each night, I grew up hearing that Maryland food was naturally the best; there was never any reason to defend it; no one seemed to care about glossy food magazines ordaining it as special.
We just knew there was nothing better in the world than a softshell crab sandwich and a cold beer. The Chesapeake Bay was the only body of water from which to eat shellfish. Peaches, tomatoes, and corn from Maryland were bigger and sweeter than any others. I actually remember Mr. Clay, who still delivered fresh fruit by horse and wagon to my childhood home in Baltimore — “Straaaaaaaaw-ber-RIES, Straaaaaaw-ber-RIES!” the old black man called out coming down our street. When my mother committed the crime of moving to New England, my grandmother sniffed with disdain at foods such as New England lobster, which only the vulgar would choose over Maryland crab.
My aunt and uncle, Marilyn and Henry Conway, recently re-introduced me to the Baltimore food scene, starting with an entirely modern culture that has inspired a visit by Alice Waters. My first night in Baltimore we dined at Artifact Coffee, the second restaurant opened by Spike Gjerde.
Gjerde is one of the most dedicated local foodists I’ve seen. He does whole animals. He pickles and preserves all those amazing Maryland foods. He would have loved Mr. Clay and his strawberries.
Artifact prepares breakfast, lunch and coffee with such art and terroir that no one should even ask them to make dinner. But they do that, offering one prix fix choice that changes every day. Our evening featured ramp and watercress flatbread, and then rockfish and shellfish stew, both set family-style in the middle of the table. We served our stew steaming from a Staub casserole. I was so happy I forgot what dessert was. Sorry.
Two nights later we dined at Woodberry Kitchen, the centerpiece restaurant for Gjerdes and his wife.
Ramps and radishes every way was what I had for dinner. We began with this masterpiece collection of radishes, ramp butter and broccoli flowers. Next I had the rye and wheat berry salad, with radishes and tops, ramp leaves, yogurt and coriander, and pickled asparagus. Pure Maryland spring.
My Tilghman Island crab cake, served with a luscious warm potato and roasted ramps, convinced me that this Maryland food scene is better than even my grandmother’s. A nice touch, the valet parking was free; even better, it was a chilly night, but the valet directed us to warm ourselves by the outside fireplace while we waited for our car.
My visit was not without a bow to tradition: at Lexington Market, one of the great open urban markets still around, a man named Lou shucked plates of great, meaty oysters for us. While my aunt shook her head in despair at the fast food and neon signs that had overwhelmed the Lexington Market butchers and fishmongers, we ordered crab cakes, softball-sized rounds of lump crab, to take home for lunch, and we found shad to prepare at home for dinner that night.
We visited Atwater’s Bakery, where a line three people deep formed at the counter for its earthy loaves: choose from two lists — naturally leavened or yeasted breads. It’s literature gives good advice on how to eat bread when it’s fresh (“slather with butter”), middle-aged (“toast, bruschetta…”), and on it’s last leg (“thicken soups, bread salad, feed the birds.”)
We visited Rheb’s, a candy company since 1917, which still inspires lines down the street on Valentine’s Day.
And we dined on Pickwick Road, in Marilyn’s kitchen. Marilyn broiled that shad, brushed with lemon juice and melted butter, adding a little bit of vermouth to the pan at the very end. She made haricots verts, not in season, but delicious, all served with my great-aunt Audrey’s tomato aspic. Go ahead, cringe.
Maybe you have to be related to one of these Baltimore women to like it, but I love tomato aspic; I think it’s in my genes to like tomato aspic. Here’s Audrey’s recipe, as given to her sister, my grandmother, and then to my aunt. Yes, raspberry gelatin is an ingredient.
1 large package raspberry Jello
2 packages Knox gelatin
3/4 cup tomato juice
1/2 cup boiling water
3 cans stewed tomatoes, undrained
6 drops Tabasco
Dissolve the two gelatins in the tomato juice.
When dissolved, add boiling water.
Add 3 cans stewed tomatoes, undrained, pureed in a blender or food processor.
Add 6 drops Tabasco.
Pour into a 8-by-8 inch glass pan. Chill until set.
For the dressing
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/2 cup sour cream
2 teaspoons horseradish
1 tablespoon Durkee Famous Sauce (optional)
Stir all together.
Serve a dollop on top of each serving of aspic.
Rockport resident Heather Atwood writes the Food for Thought column weekly. Questions and comments may be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her blog at HeatherAtwood.com.