My Maryland Food Heritage: Watermen, Free Crab Cakes, and Environmental Stewardship


BETH M. WILSON

FOODLE Maryland

During the Fall 2012 semester at Chesapeake College in Maryland, Professor Eleanor Welsh gave her students asked her students to reflect on and recall some of their strongest food memories. Then she asked them to take it a bit further with a journal assignment to  think about their food heritage and to consider what dishes and spices taste and smell like their respective childhoods.

The students were asked to talk to their families about ethnic origins and family recipes, and to do some research based on what they learn or guess about your their own backgrounds.

The students were also asked to think about the friend in the last section of Omnivore’s Dilemma who tries to recreate the tastes of his Italian childhood in California, Andrew Beahrs’s attempts to find the foods Twain loved a century ago, or Julia Child’s surprise that the French would have wine with lunch.

NOVEMBER 12, 2012

My name is Beth Wilson, and I am a non-traditional student (my daughter is also a college student) majoring in Business Administration at Chesapeake College – just 5 classes until I complete by Associates of Arts . I have lived on the Eastern Shore of MD all of my life, and feel blessed to have the opportunity to live in an area with open space, the bay and ocean within driving distance, and a great sense of community.  I have several waterman in my family, close ties to farmers, and many good cooks! So learning about food and its relationship to life will be a great experience. My goal is to transfer to Salisbury State University upon completion of my AA degree; I have worked in banking or finance for many years and I am “numbers person.” I enjoy flower gardening and baking for my family.

I grew up and lived outside of Cambridge, Maryland in an area referred to as the Neck District – a waterman and farmers’ paradise. It is a remote, rural area surrounded by water, multiple creeks and coves, farmland, waterfowl and wildlife. My descendants settled in this area in the 1700s as farmers and watermen. Most of Dorchester County, Maryland was rural, and, before the Chesapeake Bay Bridge was built providing easy access to more industrial means, was considered remote, and the inhabitants were self-sufficient. All residents relied on the available resources to provide for their families and the community as a whole. Seafood was abundant; crabs, oysters, clams and rockfish were harvested from the Bay and other waterways. Farmers produced what we would now claim to be “organic or free range” chickens, and eggs, along with corn, wheat and soybeans. Many families would have extensive vegetable gardens to eat throughout the summer months, and to can or preserve for the winter.

Steamed crabs in the Chesapeake Bay, Maryland. By Mary Hollinger, NOAA/NESDIS/NODC (ret.) (NOAA Photo Library: line4170) (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons

Steamed crabs in the Chesapeake Bay, Maryland. By Mary Hollinger, NOAA/NESDIS/NODC (ret.) (NOAA Photo Library: line4170) (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons

Steamboats would bring goods and tourists to the area, as well as transport tomatoes, seafood, and other goods to the cities. There were a number of steamboat wharves located on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and one was on my grandparents’ property in the Neck District. My grandmother maintained the records for the steamboat goods loaded and unloaded – but the steamboats faded away in the 1930s.

We ate a lot of seafood, and I did not realize how lucky I was. One grandfather was a waterman, and the other was a farmer – providing the best of both worlds. We had access to crabs, oysters and fish – and they were frozen to carry over the winter. Potatoes and onions were stored in the shed to use throughout the winter too.  My mother canned tomatoes, damsons and figs, and made pepper relish, along with pickles.  As a child, I went to the grocery store no more than once a week with my mom – and in the 60s the choices were more limited than they are today. We bought necessities and some extras, such as cake mixes, Jell-O and ice cream, but it was much different than today.

I grew up in an alcohol and tobacco free environment, with a loving and giving community. Life revolved around the church and Fire Hall – all social gatherings were held at one or the other. My dad was a brick mason, and contributed his time and materials, along with other community members, to build a new Neck District Fire Hall. Covered dishes were a big part of the social gatherings, and fried chicken and oysters or crab cakes were the main entrees. My mother froze enough crab cakes to have them once a week throughout the winter, (they were free to us) and we also had frozen soft crabs and rockfish. Beef was eaten no more than twice a week, as it was more expensive, and chicken and pork filled out the weekly menu.

Maryland style crab cakes. Photo by UrbanBohemian, via Flickr.

Maryland style crab cakes. Photo by UrbanBohemian, via Flickr.

Oysters were used in a variety of recipes – oyster stew, fried oysters, oysters on the half shell, scalloped oysters.  I did not learn to appreciate oysters until I was an adult… I did eat them in oyster stew, but I did not like the texture. The oyster stew was made with a crust over an oven safe bowl – with milk, celery and potatoes. We also enjoyed baked rockfish, fried fish, and fish hash. Crabs were prepared steamed, stewed, as crab imperial, crab cakes, fried soft crabs, and crab soup.

I have vivid memories of my mother making pepper relish in the fall, and the wonderful smell of peppers in the hand grinder making the house smell wonderful. My dad loved relish on burgers, hot dogs, and crab cakes.  My mom made a cake every week – always in a tube cake pan, and it never had icing.

It was our sweet supplement – cookies were not kept in the house or even baked often – Mom was diabetic, and it was her way of providing something sweet but not over the top.

I also remember Jell-O salad as being a staple covered dish, Mom made an Orange Jell-O salad with fruit and shredded carrots on top. Potato salad was another favorite – her dressing was a cooked dressing with sugar, vinegar, corn starch, and mustard.  We ate a lot of potatoes, as they were plentiful – we had stewed potatoes, mashed, boiled, baked, potato salad and soup.

Maryland She Crab Soup. Photo by Sarah Ross Photography, Some Rights Reserved, via Flickr.

Maryland She Crab Soup. Photo by Sarah Ross Photography, Some Rights Reserved, via Flickr.

My dad and brothers also did a lot of hunting waterfowl and deer, it was plentiful, and a good sport.

They would hunt goose, ducks and deer. We ate geese and ducks maybe six or eight times over the winter, and deer would be eaten as steaks and ground into sausage or burger. My sons still hunt deer on my family home place in Hudson.

My favorite recipe from my mom is Sweet Potato Pie – and it is a hand-written recipe with wear on the 5X7 card, but it comes from the heart, and I bake several every Fall, with many compliments. Using only real sweet potatoes, evaporated milk, butter, eggs, vanilla and sugar – we actually never ate pumpkin pie. Now that I think of that, pumpkins were not as available in the Neck District as sweet potatoes.

Family heritage is important to me and I try to instill it into my children.  I cannot ask my mom or dad for recipes or family histories, as they both have passed on to their ultimate station in the Heaven. They both live on in my heart, and I share that history with my children as often as possible. I have cast iron pots in my living room (holding magazines) that my grandparents used to scald chickens, and tong shafts in our basement that my dad used to catch oysters. My brother is a an active waterman, and the children get to appreciate the life I lived from spending time with Uncle Tom on the work boat, which is  kept at my home place. My parents built their home on my maternal grandparents’ farmland that is on the Hudson Creek – it doesn’t get much better than that.

I carry on the tradition of preparing dinner cooked at home four to five nights a week, depending on my school schedule. Now that the children are over 18, they are not at home on Friday or Saturday nights for dinner. All of the children can cook – at least the basics, like breakfast foods, grilled chicken, grilled and ham & cheese, steaks, and baked fish or chicken. They always know there will be fresh brewed ice tea in the refrigerator and some kind of fruit available for snacks.

I appreciate the values that my parents and grandparents instilled in me, that we must be mindful of our natural resources, to be good stewards to the environment, and to treasure the time you can spend with your family and friends. Food brings people together, and it is our responsibility to share our abundance and look out for our community.

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One thought on “My Maryland Food Heritage: Watermen, Free Crab Cakes, and Environmental Stewardship

  1. Pingback: The Wreck of the Old Island Belle (Part 2) | Excursions Into Imagination

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