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Happy Meals In A Mary Land

Daniel Orr, Maryland


Daniel Orr, Maryland


Daniel Orr, Maryland


Daniel Orr, Maryland


Daniel Orr, Maryland

Daniel Orr, Maryland


Daniel Orr, Maryland


Daniel Orr, Maryland


Daniel Orr, Maryland


Daniel Orr, Maryland



Daniel Orr, Maryland

Daniel Orr, Maryland

Daniel Orr, Maryland

Daniel Orr, Maryland

Daniel Orr, Maryland

Daniel Orr, Maryland


Daniel Orr, Maryland

Daniel Orr, Maryland

Daniel Orr, Maryland


Daniel Orr, Maryland

Daniel Orr, Maryland

Daniel Orr, Maryland

Daniel Orr, Maryland

Daniel Orr, Maryland

Daniel Orr, Maryland

Daniel Orr, Maryland

Daniel Orr, Maryland

Daniel Orr, Maryland

Daniel Orr, Maryland

Daniel Orr, Maryland

Daniel Orr, Maryland

Daniel Orr, Maryland

Daniel Orr, Maryland

 

Amtrak’s eastern corridor connects DC with NYC and Boston by rail, zipping past the romantic small towns with names we remember from stuffy history classrooms of our past. But even the fastest moving Acela stops in Baltimore. Jump on in DC and there’s barely time to open your laptop and you’re there enjoying the great grub and fun pubs that can be found scattered among city’s historic landmarks and nearby ecologic estuaries. This makes either short stopovers or longer leisurely lounging possible for anyone on the northern half of the east coast. A great way for gourmets to get away to the city where “The Wire” and Edgar Allen Poe may frighten us, but there is nothing Fear Factor about what ends up on the plate. Muskrats, raccoons, eels, wait a minute, I take that back.

The 30-year-old rehabilitated Inner Harbor is touted by the local tourist board as THE tourist destination. And while it is worth a quick walk around, if you’ve been to Manhattan’s South Street Sea Port or any of the other inner city rehabs you will feel a bit of deja-vue here. B&N, Hard Rock, ESPN Café, Gap, etc. etc. etc. The Aquarium, USS Constellation and Maritime museum do set it apart, and if you don’t have great weather you’ll find something to do here. For foodies, I suggest that you leave the pristine corporate facades of Cheesecake Factory and Legal Sea Food behind and head inland over to the Lexington Market where it’s a bit gutsier and raw. I like a place that throws sawdust down to cover up the nasty bits. There is live music at lunchtime on Fridays and Saturdays (my cousin plays here with the Pan-American Rhythm Company as well as with The Persuaders, two of the hottest bands in the area, so go see them if they are performing anywhere around town!) Check out the countless stalls in the food court and grocery area offering a plethora of ingredients for the home cook as well as prepared soul food, Asian dishes, candies from a century old candy maker and even spaghetti with crab balls, Baltimore’s answer to this Little Italy classic. Don’t forget the fried chicken (gizzards and livers too) offered with hot and spicy sauce, sweet and sour glaze, or just plain.

If you arrive at the Lexington Market ravenous, head directly to Faidley’s and wander around to the different counters ordering whatever looks good that day. It is all impeccably fresh and nearly perfectly prepared. You’ll be surrounded by a one of a kind décor that only generations of humor and collecting can create. I loved the signs giving the seasons for Muskrat and raccoon and the one explaining that Surf and Turf in Maryland is raccoon and eel. Go for those if you like, but I prefer to start at the raw bar where over a million bivalves are sold annually. Order littlenecks or oysters with just a little lemon. The cocktail sauce locally has either fresh chopped celery or a sprinkle of celery seed added to it so if you are a Catsup Connoisseur expect that little regional surprise. Try some Back Fin Ale or a dry local white wine to wash them down; then head on over to the crabcake counter. This is Mecca for the fundamentalist crabmeat martyr. The one who drags his cross from restaurant to restaurant looking for the holy grail of jumbo lump luxury. You know who you are and I’ve met you in every restaurant I’ve cooked it. You are the “What? No crab cakes” guy. Here you are offered a trinity of variations: lump, backfin or “mixed.” The cashier writes down what you’ve ordered on a paper-lined tray and asks whether you want it with bread or crackers. If you are planning further station stops for culinary fodder I suggest crackers so you can save room. I also don’t like to disguise the succulent sweetness with bread, but don’t be ashamed to get it between the buns if you want to experience a true Maryland classic as a local would. This counter offers crispy soft-shell crabs as well, also served on white bread. Topped with some mayo and mustard this is no-nonsense Baltimore dining at its best. My recommendation is to go with a friend, or a cousin/guide and get all three: a lump cake with crackers, backfin on bread, and a S.S. Crab sandwich. I gave mine the blessing of a sprinkle of salt which was all that was missing from this heavenly moment at the high altar to the crab.

There are many Crabhouses in the area that specialize in hard crabs. Ask a local his favorite and head over. I tried several and found them uniformly good, some are in more romantic setting, but the freshness and quality demanded by Marylanders keeps these restaurants uniformly good. This is the full frontal assault eating experience. Most crabhouses have a no nonsense floorstaff who zip to and fro with pencils behind their ears and “Flo” like attitudes. You know when she calls you “hon” that you’re not the first and you won’t be the last. Bibs are assigned to all those ordering hardshells, but even those on the sidelines should consider donning protective gear. Start your nosh with the Maryland crab soup, an interesting amalgamation somewhere between a chowder and a minestrone made with diced beef, succotash vegetables and of course fresh crabmeat. Or go for a classic crab dip, crab fluff or crab imperial. The MORE in Baltimore stands for more crab so take advantage. Non-crab starters like crispy clam strips, fried oysters, raw bar options, shrimp in various guises and crispy if uninspired salads are also available in most crabhouses. Once apps are cleared the table is covered with paper and the mallets and paring knives doled out just as dozens of crabs in all their spicy, steamy glory, tumble from the waitress’s tray to the table. She’ll toss down shell bowls gruffly and keeps the pitchers of cold local draft flowing giving you a nasty stare when you tell her you got an “empty.” Bring a cute kid along and you might melt away some of the chill… she must have one at home. There is a trick to prying the savory nuggets from the shell and it takes practice. Order a dozen, each, and by the time you are on your 10th you may have figured it out. If not, order more. As the burnt orange spice paste build-up dries on your fingertips you slip into almost an altered state. Time goes by but you don’t get full. I think that the number of calories you burn while picking crab equals the number consumed. All this hammering, cutting, sucking and chewing as well as the peppery, sweet, briny crustacean tang, also brings an unquenchable thirst that nothing relieves like a tall beaker poured from that spice-crusted-handled beer pitcher. Ask if the desserts are homemade; they usually are. Crazy, over-the-top variations on butterscotch sundaes, humongous warm chocolate brownies, fresh strawberry jello pie and, get this, deep-fried cheesecake with warm strawberry sauce, vanilla ice cream and Chantilly. Pick your poison. After all the hard work with the crabs you have already sung for your supper and the tune was “We all scream for Ice Cream!”

The bounty of the sea is on every menu but you don’t have to go far inland to see the richness of the teroire. Green rolling hills, stately old farmhouses, whitewashed fences and stacked stonewalls remind you of the colonial times. The sweet corn, tomatoes, apples, stonefruits and beans were all amazing during my mid-September visit. If you have time to take a side trip to the southeastern part of the state, by all means, do. I grabbed my Aunt Eddie, a 45 year Marylander transplant from Kentucky (a Maryland resident of more than 40 years), as my guild and we barreled down the beltway towards Annapolis and the Bay Bridge. We were on a single-minded mission, sort of a crab crusade, and I had armed myself with all sorts of webformation. Curiously, as we raced over that magnificent bridge from the fast-track East Coast life of Baltimore into the farm fields and reedy estuaries I forgot my notes and let nature take over. We got off the main road and took the lesser-traveled routes through sleepy hamlets that seemed to be forgotten now that children and their families have returned from sunny and sandy vacations. We passed silent gristmills and fallen historic oaks, landlocked crab traps pulled in for repairs, empty porches filled with lonely rocking chairs and historic landmarks surrounded by unkempt lawns. It was, as I like things, beautiful in its imperfection.
We toured the Maritime Museum of St. Michael that is worth the trip on its own. It is a living showcase for shipbuilding, oystering and crabbing as well as a time capsule for several periods of the region’s cultural history. Take a cruise on one of the restored boats if you have time, sailing into the setting sun on an old schooner before heading back for some succulent seafood. After the tour sit in the open air dining room and order a bucket of steamed oysters to share. They are accompanied by wedges of lemon, hot broth, candle-warmed salty butter and a dish of Old Bay for sprinkling. Pick a bunch of dishes to share based on crab of course. Things like Crab Fluff, Deep-fried Hardshells, Crab Imperial and Crab stuffed Oysters. Sweet and sour pickles are served as an accompaniment here which I thought strange, but they work as an acidic enhancer to all this briny richness. Forget the map and drive aimlessly. Find an old pier to sit on and scare away the summer fattened gulls, locate a crabmen’s dock and listen to the salty talk of the locals, or pull up to a fishing jetty and watch the rockfish fishermen pull in mostly lazy lines. Life is slower to change here, but it is changing. Those salty seamen are complaining that they can’t find anyone to clean and pack their catch. Americans won’t do it and work papers for foreign helpers are hard to come by. Soon, all our crabmeat will be coming from Thailand.
After all that crustacean richness pick up some tomatoes at one of the farm markets on the way back to the city. Cut some large wedges to drizzle with minced garlic, sea salt and olive oil and call it dinner and a night. There’s much more to munch on in the morning.

There is a point at which one becomes saturated with the succulent sweetness of seafood. I actually heard myself say to a friend “Enough already with the jumbo lump.” For times like this there is Altman’s Jewish Deli on Cornbeef Row. Yes, the neighborhood has changed over the years as has the clientele, but Altman’s hasn’t. As another renaissance occurs in the ‘hood with neat new townhouse sprouting up and the Baltimore Culinary College now represented with a new campus, this old Jewish stand-by holds its own with “melt in your mouth” brisket, half sours (pickles) and smaltze. Although not kosher (they are open 7 days a week, have baby back ribs and a sense of humor) it does retain a warm place in the hearts of secular Jews and all Baltimoreans, serving forth many kosher-style foods, dining in the Kibitz Room and sharing plenty of local lore on the walls throughout the restaurant. There is always a line here and for good reason. The corned beef is remarkable and piled high, the chopped liver delicious, and the atmosphere one of a kind. I won’t soon forget the 3 impeccably dressed black women in white from head to toe squeezing past the others in line when the counter guy called over “guess you ladies won’t be have the BBQ ribs today.” Everyone laughed and the long wait seemed to pass quicker. Don’t forget to get a T-shirt… they’re classic Road Food Warrior wear.

If you plan ahead, or are just lucky like I was, you may run across one of the area’s many food festivals. I ran into the Fells Point Oyster Fest during my visit the second week of September. It’s a small but exuberant dining distraction. Yes there was only one food vender (offering iced plates of raw Chesapeake Bay babies and fried oyster po-boys) and only one beer tent (but with 8 well chosen brews) but the live reggae music thumped, the sun was warm and the smiles many. There are numerous regional culinary celebrations involving crabs, oysters, clams, wines and micro beers so do your research and plan accordingly. Although surprises are often a good thing, some are better than others. I never tried the coon or muskrat so that is a surprise I’m looking forward to next time I’m in Hairspray City.

 

 

 

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