Have you ever picked up one of those spiral-bound cookbooks published by a community group, expecting to find it full of recipes redolent of the culture or region of its origin, only to discover it contains only a single section of “specialties,” with most of the book padded out with generic stuff? Me, too. This book is the antithesis of that.
The 25th Anniversary Edition of Chesapeake Bay Cooking marks the culmination of John Shields’ career as proponent and practitioner of the cuisine of the mid-Atlantic region. From Baltimore to Virginia, the domination of the great Bay is recognized as the major influence on the ingredients, with the mix of immigrant cultures, history, and personalities contributing to a unique way of life that was disappearing even as the first edition was published. Now, when one reads about the great shad runs of the past, or the many tons of oysters pulled from the Bay each year, or the skipjack fleet, or the crab-picking houses that were the life-blood of small towns lining the Eastern Shore, the feeling of regret for the feckless exploitative profligacy is almost overwhelming.
But this is not John Shields’ brief. His tone is not elegiac but celebratory. He has not updated the book to be a wake for what is lost, but continues to rejoice in what remains. Many recipes are prefaced by an attribution to one local character or another, interspersed with vignettes of people and places, all told in the folksy, down-home voice that he comes by honestly, as a local boy.
And speaking of Baltimore, the crab section (the very first and largest in the book, a full 51 out of 325 pages) includes a contribution by Senator Barbara Mikulski, “Senator Barb’s Spicy Bay Crab Cakes.” She is described as “an east Baltimore gal through and through.” I wonder if she would be flattered?
The recipes are easy to follow, well-written (with the caveat that a few run to the overleaf), and not at all “cheffy” (even those contributed by professional chefs). They are written in the direct style one imagines the contributors used as Chef John collected them. Many have the patina of age, an air of having been proven by generations of watermen and their wives.
There are also new ones added for the 25th Edition, such as Neopol Smoked Rockfish Chowder, from the Neopol Savory Smokery in Baltimore (their smoked garlic is addictive). Recipes from the German community add diversity, and an authentic recipe for Brunswick Stew includes squirrel meat.
I can vouch for the delectability of “Miss Lorraine’s Barbecued Chicken” and “Smoked Country Ham and Blue Cheese Pie,” although I substituted generic ham for the hickory-cured ham called for. Don’t attempt to count the calories in this one!
I also had the chance to taste two other dishes from the book, thanks to Chef John’s appearances at the Gaithersburg Book Festival and the Farmers Market at River Hill. Crab Soup (there are two of them in the book, but I think it was the one attributed to the Cross Street Market) and Back Creek Inn’s Crab Quiche were both worthy of their sapidus ingredients.
John Shields, Chesapeake Bay Cooking with John Shields, 25th Anniversary Edition, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015.