Interlude: The future meets the past

Ring-billed Gulls Larus delawarensis in flight...

“… Of all the human users of the Bay, only the waterman absolutely requires resources in a quantity and variety that presuppose a natural system in top, year round condition.  Put another way, the waterman is to the rest of us Bay dwellers what the canary is to coal miners, who carried them down the shafts, depending on the bird’s exquisite sensitivity to leaking gas to give them an early warning of disaster.  If watermen are flourishing, it is a sign that the Bay’s integrity still holds.”[1]

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  –    Tom Horton

Chesapeake Waterman at Dawn

             The way of the Maryland waterman may soon be a thing of the past.  Both science and the modern world have closed in around the bay region and left an indelible mark.  The depletion of wild resources has made the economy of following the water a thing of the past.  The Chesapeake Bay can no longer support the lives of the communities that have sprung up along its shores.  It’s once seemingly infinite resources have dwindled to dangerously unsustainable levels, despite a herculean effort to restore and conserve the resources of the bay. 

                Fishing restrictions and pollution prevention have made a difference in the past few decades, but the damage has been done and the demands and strains on the estuary are still severe. Few people can now make a living off the bounty of the bay as they did the past.  The skipjack has been replaced by the motor boat, and the tongers have been replaced by the power dredges. 

                More than the methods of procurement, the methods of processing have also changed dramatically.  The advent of frozen foods and enhanced preservation techniques have led to a revolution in processed foods that have made the connection between man and the bay as a source of food a very strange and unfamiliar.  Few people today know of the connection between man and food.  The procurement of food has now been reduced to a trip to the supermarket. Chesapeake Bay society has lost its connection to the environment that has made the society possible.  Now we view nature through the looking glass rather that experiencing it as part of the whole.  Much of the damage done to the environment is philosophical rather than physical.  In most cases today, people do not even know what they are eating. 

                Mid Atlantic cuisine has evolved into something very different from the historical biographies discussed in this book.  Now it is more likely for people of the Chesapeake region to grow up on fast food and pre – made convenience foods.  They are less likely to engage in the old traditions of planked shad or Terrapin stew.  These delicacies have become uncommon rarities even in restaurants and hotels.  A few of the traditions remain such as crab cakes but they have been much modified by the global influences of the one world hegemony. 

                Facing both political resistance, in such dishes as muskrat or Terrapin stew, to facing resource depletion, in such cases as the blue crab and the Chesapeake oyster, many of the dishes and traditions associated with them, are becoming a thing of the past.  The lifestyle of the Chesapeake waterman has come increasing under assault both from an economic and political standpoint.  The islands and towns of the eastern shore have been raised and re – raised to accommodate the modern world.  Where once we had crab shanties we now have deluxe townhouses with a view of the waterfront, and summer home on the islands for yachters and sport fisherman or “chicken neckers,” as they are commonly referred to. 

                The automobile and urban sprawl has led to many of the small towns becoming swallowed up in the ever expanding suburbs of Washington, Baltimore, Annapolis and Northern Virginia.  The Chesapeake Bay has become an urban landscape and the cuisine of that culture is very different then what once flourished and evolved along its shores.  Where once we lived to follow the water, we now view the water as a background or a room with a view, the bay once dominated life in the Chesapeake and now it is just the scenic background of an urban landscape.  Its pollution and decline is marked just as symbolically as the graffiti and litter that now line its shores. 

                This blog shows the evolution of the cuisine of the Chesapeake Region, but it must also acknowledge its decline and in some cases its demise.   As mentioned in the introduction, cookbooks are a way of leaving behind a marker of a particular way of life, but in some cases those same markers can be viewed as an epitaph. 

                As the world around the bay continues to change, so too will the cuisine of Maryland.  Today with almost fifty percent of the population of Maryland comprised of Latinos, the market and the food is already changing to incorporate non-native food.  Globalization has created a pathway for the incorporation of non-indigenous food to be brought to the Chesapeake region.  No longer will immigrants be forced to incorporate and adapt to a new land, they can now bring their own food to them. 

                The question of the future of Maryland cuisine will be determined by the evolution of this innovation.  As the descendants of the British colonials have scattered to the four winds of the United States, so too has the connection to our culinary heritage.

                 American cuisine has trumped the local Mid-Atlantic style and focus on particular food and resources have made us increasingly dependent on specific crops and animals for sustenance.  Commercial exploitation has also taken a toll on the Maryland diet as advertisers and marketers have introduced and maintained the popularity of non-indigenous foods and styles of eating. 

                Fast food and restaurants have become the norm for the average family as preparing meals at home had decreased sharply in the last fifty years.  Premade meals and ingredients have also played a role in both the ease of cooking and the introduction and dependence on convenience products have become the norm in American kitchens. 

                While many people look at these things as harmful or bad, I think we have to see them as an evolutionary process.  The subdivisions of specialty labor are a natural reaction to the demand for increasingly detailed and advanced development in all fields.  The role of the chef has been elevated from domestic servant to celebrity status, from the duties of the slave to the height of social status. 

                Whether your food is processed or organic, there are always drawbacks and repercussions that must be paid.  Local organic food may offer more taste and nutrition, but it also produces less, costs more and introduces non-indigenous plants and animals into the region which can cause far greater environmental damage than a carbon footprint.  Not one idea, but all ideas must be a part of the solution. 

                We still struggle to devise a way to feed ourselves and learning from the traditions of the past is not the only way, we must find a way for the future of cuisine to meet with the past.  We must learn to utilize all of the resources around us and not favor a select few to the extinction of all else.  A balanced diet must go beyond the food pyramid and sketchy history of the nutritionist movement and look past just calories and nutrients to the impact of the region and of the people who call it home. 

                There is much left to be written about Mid-Atlantic cuisine and as the people and the culture change, the region will always remain the same.  For those of us who call this region home, let us think about not just the history and heritage that has been left to us, but also to what we can leave behind.  

                I have stated before, that a recipe is more than an instruction for preparing food.  It is a very real link to our past, an intimate connection to the world that once was.  Our recipes today will be that link for the future generations to come.  So think about the oyster and the crab or even the hamburger and pizza that we may be eating tonight.  This is our culinary legacy and it should live up to the words left of us by Captain John Smith:

                “Within is a country that may have the prerogative over the most pleasant places known, for large and pleasant navigable rivers, heaven and earth never agreed better to frame a place for man’s habitation.”

                Let us keep it this way for the future as well. 

English: Aerial view of the Chesapeake Bay Bri...

English: Aerial view of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge between Anne Arundel County and Queen Anne’s County in Maryland Français : Vue aérienne du pont de la baie de Chesapeake entre les comtés d’Anne Arundel et de Queen Anne dans le Maryland (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


[1] An Island Out of Time by Tom Horton: W.W. Norton & Company New York – London 1996

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About midatlanticcooking

Chef in the Mid-Atlantic region for over 20 years. Painter, writer and traveler.
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10 Responses to Interlude: The future meets the past

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