Follow the Water: An Introduction to Mid-Atlantic Cooking

English: Pooles Island Lighthouse, Chesapeake ...

Following the Water

“The waters of the (Chesapeake) Bay carry, in solution, every natural element present in the periodic table.”[1]

                                                                                                                                                –              Jon Gower

 A cookbook is about more than just explaining the methods and preparations of food dishes.  It is a statement of a philosophy and the way of life of a particular moment in time.  It says a lot about the author, it tells us what kind of person they were.  Are they the adventurous type, constantly trying out new and exotic dishes, or are they the reflective type longing to preserve the flavors and traditions of the past?  Did they travel a lot?  This might be reflected in a number of foreign or exotic dishes.  Did they suffer from allergies or health issues?  This would be reflected in special diets incorporating the current understandings of nutrition. What were their philosophical beliefs?  This would be reflected in a diet of choice based on religion, (Kosher) politics, (vegan) or environmentalism, (local seasonality).

My moleskine recipe book

                Cookbooks also reflect the community in which the author lived.  The styles of food show the ethnic heritage of the people that the author shared their lives with.  It shows the everyday food upon which they nourished their children which would later become the basis for future generations as they reflect back on the flavors of their childhoods and the memories and emotions tied to the food around them. 

                A cookbook passes along a tradition of food.  It is more of an idea then a recipe for preparing a dish.  It is a link to our heritage and a way to understand the people that came before us in an intimate way.  Cookbooks are now seen as sociological studies that tell of the roles of women, men and families and record the effects of societal events on the kitchen and the cooks who made the food.  If we are what we eat, then what could be a better testament to who we are then the recipes and cookbooks we leave behind?

                With me it all started with a dish.  I wanted to create an entrée of four crab cakes that would show the evolution of the dish from its Native American origins to the advent guard of the modern day.  In order to do this I had to take a unique approach of looking back into the past and trying to understand where I was coming from as well as looking into the future and trying to reinterpret the dish in a new and unique way.  This is when I first began to understand what it meant to be a chef.  All the great chefs have one thing in common, one unique trait that sets them apart from the billions of cooks in the world, they specialize. 

                In order to evolve a style of cuisine, one must first master what has come before.  I needed to understand what it was that set Mid – Atlantic Cuisine apart from every other in the world.  I needed to know why it came to be what it was.  It is more than just the availability of product.  The same food ways were available to many different people and yet they all found a unique way to transform those products into what we know today.  Many of the resources have changed over the years due to many influences, modern life does not lend itself to the time consuming preparations of the past when vast amounts of resources were committed to the preparation and preservation of food, now we simply go down to the markets and buy most of our ingredients readymade.  Some of the food has gone out of fashion, in some cases due to scarcity of the resource, and in some cases due to changing culinary standards. 

                Abundance has also played a major role in our changing food habits.  It is no longer necessary to eat food in a seasonal sense.  We no longer have to limit ourselves to the few months a year a particular product may be available.  In some ways, this is good, but in some ways it diminishes the food as well.  It is good that we can get crab cakes year round, but then again, the appreciation of the dish loses something when we dine on crab meat in the middle of winter.  It lacks the sense of time and place that we connect with our past.  We become removed from the place that the dish once held for us.  It no longer symbolizes the crab feast I had at my grandparent’s house on my grandfather’s birthday.  Now it is a secondary dish that leaves me unimpressed as I focus on the quality of the crabmeat and the amount of filler or added ingredients included in the dish.  It loses something intangible when it loses its natural place in time.  It loses its connection to the past.

                Many of these dishes have already lost their place in time.  Necessity was the mother of invention for many of these delicacies, but their necessity is no longer necessary and now the dishes are relegated to historical cliff notes, marking the passage of a bye gone era.  The depletion of resources has also led to the demise of many of these dishes, but then again in some cases they did not so much go away as evolve into something new.  One ingredient after another was slowly replaced over time creating a new and different dish. 

                Mid – Atlantic cuisine has developed into one of the many regional American styles, many of the dishes associated with the Chesapeake region are now commonly known as definitive American dishes.  Oysters and crabs are the two main regional delicacies that have transcended the region.  Soft shell crabs have become synonymous with the town of Crisfield, Maryland, or better known as the seafood capitol of the world.  The Delmarva Peninsula is world renowned for its poultry and Smithfield, Virginia is known for making one of the world’s finest hams.   

                Pennsylvania has added several dishes to our national culture, Philly cheese steak and the immortal Philadelphia cheese cake as well as its primary ingredient, cream cheese.  It has also contributed a subculture within Mid – Atlantic cuisine, Amish and Mennonite cooking.  The Pennsylvania Dutch have contributed such regional dishes as shoo – fly pie and many spicy and sweet preserved dishes such as chow chow and pickled watermelon rind.  

                The Carolina’s have brought us such seafood specialties as she crab soup and deviled crab as well as one of the controversial birthplaces of Lady Baltimore Cake, it also gave us a mingling of several different American styles of cooking: Southern, Low Country, Mid – Atlantic, As well as a unparalleled  reputation for hospitality and service. 

All of this started with the settlement of a colony along the James River.  What started out as a predominately English style of food soon expanded as the bounty of the Chesapeake Bay was fully realized.  Mid – Atlantic cuisine traces its origins from all over the world and the influences of every culture found their way to its shores. 

                In this book I have tried to trace the history of the select dishes through history and show how they have evolved over time.  Some of them have died out or become something completely different as changes in style and tastes have dictated.  Some have died out due to scarcity and the diminishing of the resource.  The terrapin, the Chesapeake oyster, the rockfish and the blue crab have all faced near extinction and some still face it to this day. 

                Each one of these recipes reflects a moment frozen in time.  By the time the recipes were published, they had already been in use for fifty years or more.  Slowly over time the ideas and concepts were perfected until at last, achieving a favorable response, they were documented and passed on.  Science in the kitchen is the new fad of molecular gastronomy, but in truth it has always been a part of the kitchen repertoire.  The careful examination and experimentation of methodical study is what gave birth to all of these recipes.  In many ways the scientific method may have originally been born in the kitchen, the only difference if that the results are always determined successful or failures by the subjective notion of taste. 

                Most people today have no idea what terrapin stew or muskrat taste like, but at one time they were the high points of culinary fashion.  Mannose and crabs were once looked upon as trash or poor people’s food and relegated to bait.  Now they are popular regional delicacies. 

Each chapter follows the history of a specific dish.  It shows how experimentation and modern convenience items have altered and replaced many of the original concepts and evolved them into something new.  Understanding the past allows us to evolve our concepts and understanding of a recipe and hopefully make it even better.  Searching through the old recipes allows us to connect to the past in a very real way.  We can recreate an old dish in exactly the same way that people hundreds of years ago ate it.  It will take some trouble and will be a lot more difficult than the more modern convenience ways in which we do things now, but in many ways, that is more rewarding then just defrosting and microwaving dinner.  It creates anticipation, a respect for what we are doing and the process involved.  It transmits the long hours that the watermen spent out on the Bay, searching for his elusive pray.  It transmits the years that it took for the crab to grow to maturity.  It transmits the variety of ingredients and experience it takes to put the dish together.

                The slow food movement that is currently the new trend in modern gastronomy is in fact really a throwback to a previous era.  It is a logical backlash against the commercialization of the craft of cooking and the elevated status of celebrity bestowed upon its practitioners.  There is a natural psychological craving for the connections associated with the foods and traditions of our past.  It is the very essence of the term “comfort food.”  Many of these dishes evolved out of availability and necessity, but in the practiced hands of a caring grandmother or celebrity chef, they became something much more, they became a collection of dishes which came to personify our region of the world.  Mid Atlantic cuisine is not just a representation of the bounty of the Chesapeake; it is also a representation of all the people who have ever made it their home.

A map of tropical cyclone warning breakpoints ...

[1] An Island called Smith by Jon Gower: Gomer Press, Llandysul, Ceredigion 2001


About midatlanticcooking

Chef in the Mid-Atlantic region for over 20 years. Painter, writer and traveler.
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