This book review was originally published on December 2, 2016 and contained what I then knew about the status of the book: It was not available on the website of the publisher, Schiffer Publishing. On Amazon.com only used copies were available from third-party sellers. From those two facts, I thought the book was out of print. I bought my copy from author Susan Stiles Dowell.
After I published the review, I sent a link to it to Dowell, and a dialogue between us ensued, as she was pretty sure the book was still in print, but was mystified as to why it was not to be found on the Schiffer Publishing website. As I understand it, she contacted them several times. Out of that, I can report that this morning I discovered that Mrs. Kitching’s Smith Island Cookbook is now available via the Schiffer Publishing website (I’d last checked on it a few days ago). Amazon now also carries new copies.
What follows is the review as it originally appeared.
Mrs. Kitching’s Smith Island Cookbook — book review
Written by Frances Kitching and Susan Stiles Dowell; 127 pages; published May, 1981 by Cornell Maritime Press/Tidewater Publishers; casebound; out of print (used copies are available at Amazon.com).
This book originally came to my attention while researching the Smith Island cake. I had seen the cakes in a variety of places in my travels around Maryland. I also had heard it was the state dessert, so that made it even more interesting. In tracking down the origins of the recipe, I found references to this book. It was a joint project by Frances Kitching, the cook, and Susan Stiles Dowell, the writer.
Though Kitching died in 2003 aged 84, I was able to track down Dowell via her postings on Amazon.com in replies to queries about the book. We chatted by phone and I was able to buy a copy of the book from her, which she was kind enough to autograph. It is that copy I am using for my review; it is the tenth printing from 2011 by Schiffer Publishing, Ltd., of Atglen, Pennsylvania (Schiffer acquired the assets of the original publishers – Cornell Maritime Press/Tidewater Publishers of Centreville, Maryland – in a 2009 estate sale).
Why review an out-of-print book? Here are a few reasons:
- Starting with the fourth edition (from 1994), it is well-known for the inclusion of the prototypical recipe for the Smith Island Ten-Layer Cake (p. 110).
- Many used copies of the book are still available (just do a search on Amazon.com). You may also be able to find a copy through your local library.
- It has many interesting stories and good recipes and will makes an interesting addition to any cook’s bookshelf, especially if that person is interested in seafood or Maryland-based cuisine.
Mrs. Kitching’s Smith Island Cookbook (or MKSIC for brevity’s sake) falls into the category of cookbooks that is as much for reading as it is for cooking. The book is organized by the seasons of the year, much like Edna Lewis’s 1976 classic The Taste of Country Cooking, which has been called an ode to southern cooking. While Lewis begins with spring, MKSIC starts in summer, when the watermen’s harvest is at its peak. Some history of the island is given, going back to when it may have been first spotted by Captain John Smith in 1608, and its modern configuration of a three villages is described. As for the cooking, “Crab soup, crab cakes, clam fritters, barbecued chicken, macaroni salad, pickled carrots, corn pudding, stewed tomatoes, pineapple casserole, green beans, yeast rolls, mama’s plain cake, ice tea, and second helpings of everything complete a Francis Kitching summertime meal.” This is followed by seven pages of Kitching’s recipes, providing details as to how to recreate every dish mentioned.
The next few pages tell some fish stories, and then crabbing stories, followed by eight pages of recipes for preparing hard crabs. Included are 14 different preparations of hard crabs, including such well-known dishes as Crab Imperial, Crabmeat Salad, and Steamed Crabs. There’s also a two-page photo spread showing exactly how to pick crab meat from the shell.
What more naturally follows hard crab recipes and stories than those of the soft-shells? Timing is everything when it comes to having soft-shelled crabs available, as once the old shell has been shed, the new one starts to harden into the paper phase within 9 – 12 hours, and then the somewhat harder buckram phase from 12 – 24 hours, until the completely hardened shell has fully formed. MKSIC tells of the work involved in ensuring crabs preparing to moult are spotted, sorted, and held until the exact right time to take them to market, as well as providing some recipes on how to prepare them. The best thing about soft shells is that you can eat the whole thing, and there’s no need for the fussy work of picking out the meat. Though Kitching does recommend removing such things as the loose innards, mouth, and stalked eyes.
Smith Island fishermen can be blasé about nature’s wonders. They see more in a season than most folks discover in a lifetime.
Fall brings on recipes such as Rockfish Stuffed with Crabmeat, Baked Stuffed Pork Chops, Corn Fritters, Sauerkraut Salad and Cranberry Nut Mush. Historically, the men were gone for much of the fall, out harvesting oysters for weeks or months at a time, but as MKSIC explains, that began to change in the 1970s, as oysters made a comeback in the lower Bay and the watermen didn’t have to travel such great distances to make their catch. Living so close to the water at all times, “Smith Island fishermen can be blasé about nature’s wonders. They see more in a season than most folks discover in a lifetime.”
Winter is a tough time to be on the water, as “oyster tonging is no harder than crabbing, but weather conditions on the Chesapeake Bay are more risky in winter.” If the weather gets too bad, folks just stay home, giving them time to relax a bit and chat with their neighbors and swap tales. The worst winter freeze in recent memory, 1976 – 77, when the Bay froze over for weeks is recounted. “Helicopters imported groceries, fuel oil, and repairmen, and exported the ailing. No one went hungry or lived on beans.” Recipes for that time period include Oyster Stew, Chicken Divan, Sweet Potato Soufflé, and Corn Spoon Bread. There are at least 10 oyster recipes in the book.
With spring comes the last day of oystering, typically March 31, marking the turn of the season. This date approximates the time of the spring equinox, which on the other side of the Bay is celebrated in the state capitol of Annapolis by the burning of winter socks, to denote the start of boating season. Spring also marks the return of pesky flies, mosquitoes, and gnats. “One tormented visitor asked a retired waterman how he suffered all the flies. ‘I don’t,’ came the reply. ‘I kill ‘em. But leave some for the next person.’” Smith Islanders are obviously considerate, if nothing else.
At this point, it appears that MKSIC takes the opportunity to offer up whatever recipes may not have fit into earlier pages, offering a “Sundry of Kitching Favorites.” Included among the desserts are Hot Milk Cake, Pineapple Custard Pie, Poor Man’s Cake, Lemon Fluff, and Pecan Dreams (and many more). Then there are salads, pickles, preserves, and miscellaneous other dishes.
Mrs. Kitching’s Smith Island Cookbook is a love letter, specifically addressed to Smith Island’s resident’s, their way of life, and their cuisine
Having finished the book, I had three somewhat minor complaints:
- The biggest problem of all is the simple fact that Mrs. Kitching is no longer with us. So, I can’t plan a trip over to Smith Island to stay at her inn and enjoy her cooking.
- Many of the photographs (black-and-whites, expressly shot for inclusion) in the book don’t appear to have captions. As it turns out, though, the missing captions are in a Photographs appendix at the back of the book on pages 123 and 124. It is a bit annoying to have to flip back and forth to find out that the photo on page 38 is “Selling hard crabs, Crisfield” (while it’s fairly obvious in the picture that crabs are being bought off a boat, the Crisfield location isn’t).
- There’s no E-book version! When reading any printed book these days, I always miss the ability to click on a word or phrase in order to do further research and exploration.
In conclusion, if Edna Lewis’s book was an ode, then Mrs. Kitching’s Smith Island Cookbook is a love letter, specifically addressed to Smith Island’s resident’s, their way of life, and their cuisine (though they probably think that word a bit highfalutin). Buy it, read it, use it, enjoy it. ‘Nuff said. ♦