Maryland’s Chesapeake: How the Bay and Its Bounty Shaped a Cuisine — book review
By Neal Patterson and Kathryn Wielech Patterson; 225 pages; published August 1, 2016 by Globe Pequot Press. Paperback $14.55, E-book $9.99.
This book about Chesapeake cuisine is an odd creature, not unlike a platypus, which seems to be part duck (lays eggs, has a bill and webbed feet), an otter (its fur), and a beaver (its tail). This book about Chesapeake cuisine is part history, part current events, and part cookery. Authors Neal Patterson and Kathryn Wielech Patterson have written fiction and non-fiction for various magazines and websites and have a blog called Minxeats, which is included in the list of Maryland Food & Drink Blogs on this site. They previously wrote two other titles for Globe Pequot Press: Food Lovers’ Guide to Baltimore: The Best Restaurants, Markets & Local Culinary Offerings (2013), and Baltimore Chef’s Table: Extraordinary Recipes from Charm City and the Surrounding Counties (2014).
The book’s front matter runs from pages i-xviii, and includes the Acknowledgments, About the Authors, Chef Biographies, and Introduction. Then come the four main parts:
- A Tale of Two Shores: The Backstory to Maryland’s Chesapeake (pages 1 – 16).
- Maryland’s Protein Factory (pages 17 – 114).
- Living off the Land (pages 115 – 166).
- Restoration and Protection (pages 167 – 195).
The three-part back matter includes a Recipe Index, Bibliography, and finally an Index, which finishes at page 206, for a total of 225 pages. If there is one section of the book I would recommend to everyone who lives in the watershed of the Chesapeake, it would be pages 182 – 195. It provides an overview of the challenges to be faced in not only saving, but also restoring The Bay and its denizens, which is critical to ensuring a Chesapeake cuisine is sustainable.
How, oh how, are the recipes organized?
Given this organizational structure, it makes it difficult to find a recipe the typical way, in that items are not necessarily grouped together by courses and/or ingredients, such that there is no section on desserts or baked goods, vegetables or seafood. Much like the platypus, they are mixed together in a hodgepodge. The Recipe Index at the back of the book helps, somewhat. It is divided into parts with headings taken from subtitles to the four main sections, such that it begins with “Never Mind the Mollusks: Here’s the Chesapeake Oysters,” which is followed by “Blue is the Color of Our Crab,” “One Fish, Two Fish, Rockfish, Bluefish,” “The Land of Pleasant Living: Farming on the Eastern Shore,” “A Chicken in Every Pot,” and “Invaders of the Deep: Invasive Species.”
Do you see anywhere in that list for desserts? Nope, me neither. As it turns out there are two listed in Section 2, “Maryland’s Protein Factory” and two more in the “Blue is the Color of Our Crab” section, followed by two or three more in “Living off the Land,” and “The Land of Pleasant Living: Farming on the Eastern Shore” sections.
So the Index section for the whole book will come to our rescue, yes? Unfortunately, there’s no listing for Desserts. For “cake,” yes (for sweets), and “cakes,” which seems to be associated with crab cakes (savory, I suppose), but not indented under “crab” to make it clear. For “pie” there’s a listing for pages 146 and 147, but there’s no pie on page 146, with a strawberry pie recipe beginning on page 147. Interestingly, there’s also a savory pie, oyster and bacon, but that’s not listed under pie, but rather under oyster. The last sweet entry I found in the Index is for ice cream, sweet corn, on page 138.
Potato/potahto, tomato/tomahto, dressing/stuffing? That seems to have been the stumper on page 46, where the title at the top of the page for the recipe is “Corn Bread and Oyster Dressing.” My mom made a version of this, which my dad loved. She called it stuffing. But these folks apparently couldn’t make up their minds, so they use both on the same page. It’s dressing in the title and the list of ingredients. But in the directions as to how to make it, it’s called stuffing. At least they didn’t go for the trifecta and also use the word “filling,” which is another word used by folks in some parts of the U.S. (kind of like patater and tamater).
Numbers are not consistent throughout the book, either. On page 12, there are “eight-inch blue crabs” and “twenty-inch shad” and on page 46 there’s a “9-inch baking pan” and a “10-inch cast iron skillet.” Fractions, too, are inconsistent: on page 46 there’s a “half stick of butter” and on page 76 there’s “½ inch of oil” — the numeral version is far more prevalent than the spelled-out version. They needed to pick a style and stick to it. For news organizations, the Associated Press Stylebook is often the reference of choice, and for book publishers, it’s often the Chicago Manual of Style, and while those two don’t agree on exactly how to treat numbers, what they do, though, is specify a way to treat them consistently within a given document.
Errors and omissions
Early on in the book, the first major errors I found were on page 3 in a section entitled “The First Tenants,” which contains the statement: “The massive polar ice floe that covered a large portion of North America during the Ice Age ended just north of the territory that would become the Chesapeake Bay.” There are a couple of bad mistakes contained in that sentence. First of all, there was not just one ice age — earth has experienced at least five major ice ages. Click here for a link to the relevant Wikipedia article for more information on ice ages. Worse, though, to my eye is “ice floe” given that the definition of that phrase is “a large pack of floating ice,” which means it must be on water. On land, it may be called an ice sheet or a glacier, but not an ice floe, because while ice floats on water, it doesn’t float on land.
On page 61, there’s a recipe for Smith Island Cake. It starts off: “According to several online sources, the recipe we have adapted here comes from Frances Kitching, a Smith Island resident renowned for her culinary ability. However, it does not appear in Mrs. Kitching’s Smith Island Cookbook.” While that statement is true for the first three editions of Mrs. Kitching’s Smith Island Cookbook, unfortunately it is not true for the editions printed since 1994. I own such a copy, as reported in my review of that book. This also leads to another question: if they’re adapting the recipe from Mrs. Kitching, but they didn’t find it in her book, where did they get it?
Another common mistake creeps into the Crab Posole Soup recipe on page 139. The cook is directed to “Remove stems and some or all of the seeds from the jalapenos (depending on how much heat you want).” The thing is, the seeds aren’t hot — they contain none of the chemical, capsaicin, that causes the heat. Don’t believe me? Here are a couple references for your edification:
- “A chile pepper’s spicy heat comes from the pith and ribs of the pepper, not the seeds,” Kitchn.
- “Although many people believe the seeds to be the hottest part, they actually do not produce any capsaicinoids. The seeds are attached to the placenta and are in very close proximity to capsaicin oil glands. The seeds can become covered with the capsaicin oil when the fruit is processed,” New Mexico State University.
The most annoying omissions occur throughout the book: there are dozens and dozens of illustrations, mostly gorgeous color photographs, but almost all of them appear without a caption! I counted 92 images (that may be off by a couple); of those, perhaps 10 may have something that could be called a caption. I hoped that there might be a photo index at the back of the book, which was the case in Mrs. Kitching’s Smith Island Cookbook, but there’s not. So I’m left to wonder, what is the name of that town whose skyline appears on page ii? What is that machine on page 45 that appears to be washing and tumbling oysters? What kind of fish is that on page 93? And I feel bad for the non-locals who can’t identify some of the other photos, and might be asking “What are those two bridges on pages xviii and 1?” (Actually, we refer to them in the singular, as The Bay Bridge, but yes, it is two separate spans.) Or those who, upon seeing the lovely shot of a female crab bearing eggs on page 57, may be wondering, does that crab have cancer or something?
Enough gnashing of teeth, whining and whinging you say. OK, I’ll stop. Yes, there are some good things about this book, such as the section on saving and restoring The Bay I previously mentioned. The illustrations, even without captions, are great. Many of the recipes look to be quite good, and well-represent the Chesapeake cuisine. I really want to try the Oyster and Bacon Pie from Chef Adam Snyder. And next time I see some bluefish at my local fish market, I’m going to want to try making the Smoked Bluefish Rillettes recipe from Chef Zack Mills (I plan to smoke them myself using my stove-top smoker). My wife, Cindy, will no doubt want to try the recipe for Buttered Corn on the Cob Soup with Corn and Crab Salad from Chef Chad Wells — she loves corn on the cob. ♦