Author Topic: Baltimore cuisine during the 1880s  (Read 831 times)

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Offline franksolich

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Baltimore cuisine during the 1880s
« on: November 19, 2008, 04:50:33 AM »
Okay, I've never lived on a seashore--unless one considers Fairlawn, New Jersey, the seashore, which one might, or might not--and so oceanic culinary "delights" (quotation marks sarcastic) are an alien world to me.

Of course, I've had the principle that no beast that grows under the water is worth eating, perhaps because I was surfeited on the stuff as a little lad, and got tired of it.  I don't think I've eaten seafood or river food since I was 10 years old.

Sometimes one can just have too much.

I'm reading Happy Days (H.L. Mencken, 1936, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.), and came upon his reminescences of various foods as consumed by Baltimoreans during the 1880s, and I'm wondering if the Baltimorean diet has changed since.

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Baltimore lay very near the vast protein factory of Chesapeake Bay, and out of the bay it ate divinely [sic].  I well recall the time when prime hard crabs of the channel species, blue in color, at least eight inches in length along the shell, and with snow-white meat almost as firm as soap, were hawked in Hollins street of Summer mornings at ten cents a dozen.

The supply seemed to be almost unlimited, even in the polluted waters of the Patapsco river, which stretched up fourteen miles from the bay to engulf the slops of the Baltimore canneries and fertilizer factories.  Any poor man could go down to the banks of the river, armed with no more than a length of stout cord, a home-made net on a pole, and a chunk of cat's-meat, and come home in a couple of hours with enough crabs to feed his family for two days.

Okay, what does one suppose "cat's-meat" was?

Surely it's not what its name implies it was.

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Soft crabs, of course, were scarcer and harder to snare, and hence higher in price, but not much.  More than once, hiding behind my mother's apron, I helped her to buy them at the door for two-and-a-twelfth cents apiece.


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And there blazes in my memory like a comet the day when she came home from Hollins market complaining with strange and bitter indignation that the fishmongers there--including Old Harris, her favorite--had begun to sell shad roe.

Hitherto, stretching back to the first settlement of Baltimore Town, they had always been thrown in with the fish.

Worse, she reported that they had now entered upon an illegal combination to lift the price of the standard shad of twenty inches--enough for the average family, and to spare--from forty cents to half a dollar.

When my father came home for lunch and heard this incredible news, he predicted formally that the Republic would never survive the Nineteenth Century.

Is "shad roe" some sort of junk fish, like a coyote is junk meat?

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Terrapin was not common eating in those days, any more than it is in these, but that was mainly because few women liked it, just as few like it today.

It was then assumed that their distaste was due to the fact that its consumption involved a considerable lavage with fortified wines, but they still show no honest enthusiasm for it, though Prohibition converted many of them into very adept and eager boozers.

I bet it did.

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It was not, in my infancy, within the reach of the proletariat, but it was certainly not beyond the bourgeoisie.  My mother, until well past the turn of the century, used to buy pint jars of the pickled meat in Hollins market, with plenty of rich, golden eggs scattered through it, for a dollar a jar.

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Oysters were not too much esteemed in the Baltimore of my youth, nor are they in the Baltimore of today.  They were eaten, of course, but not often, for serving them raw at the table was beyond the usual domestic technic of the time, and it was difficult to cook them in any fashion that made them consonant with contemporary ideas of elegance.

Yeah, I bet that was true, too.

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Fried, they were fit only to be devoured at church oyster-suppers, or gobbled in oyster-bays by drunks wandering home from scenes of revelry.  The more-celebrated oyster-houses of Baltimore--for example, Kelly's in Eutaw street--were patronized largely by such lamentable characters.

It was their playful custom to challenge foolish-looking strangers to wash down a dozen raw Chincoteagues with half a tumbler of Maryland rye; the town belief was that this combination was so deleterious as to be equal to the kick of a mule.

If the stranger survived, they tried to inveigle him into eating another dozen with sugar sprinkled on them; this dose was supposed to be almost certainly fatal.

I bet.

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There is a saying in Baltimore that crabs may be prepared in fifty ways and that all of them are good.  The range of oyster dishes is much narrower, and they are much less attractive.

Fried oysters I have just mentioned.  Stewed, they are undoubtedly edible, but only in the sorry sense that oatmeal or boiled rice is edible.  Certainly no Baltimorean not insane would argue that an oyster stew has any of the noble qualities of the two great crab soups--shore style (with vegetables) and bisque (with cream).

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Such concoctions as panned [i.e., with garlic, in part not excerpted here] and scalloped oysters have never been eaten in my time by connoisseurs, and oyster fritters (always called flitters in Baltimore) are to be had only at free-for-all oyster roasts and along the wharves.

After which the author reminesced about cooked crab, and Baltimorean beer.
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Offline Chris_

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Re: Baltimore cuisine during the 1880s
« Reply #1 on: November 19, 2008, 07:11:55 AM »
Crabs are insanely expensive now.
Interesting that Mencken writes they didn't care for raw oysters. That sure has changed.
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