When “Baltimore boy” and chef John Shields brought his Chesapeake Bay-style cooking to California years ago, he was urged to write a cookbook about the regional cuisine. Chesapeake Bay Cooking with John Shields is in its 25th-anniversary edition now, but its recipes and reminiscences are as fresh as they are delicious.
Crab takes center stage in its many forms—as cakes fried or sautéed, in its soft-shell stage, fancied up as an imperial dish, or boiled in spices and beer and laid down smack in the middle of a table covered with brown paper, with mallets handy to crush the shells so you can get every bit of sweet meat. Never picked a crab? Not to worry. Along with introductions to some of the finest home cooks in the Chesapeake Bay region, John Shields lays out exactly how to tackle a pile of blue crabs.
Of course, there’s more to Chesapeake Bay cuisine than the crabs. There’s country ham, salted and aged, to lend its flavor to other dishes or enjoy on its own; oysters, sweet or salty; chicken, pan-fried Maryland-style or barbecued without the addition of a bottled sauce; corn pudding; stuffed tomatoes; and Southern green beans—plus, Chesapeake-style beverages to serve alongside.
Delightful as the recipes are, the stories and personal introductions that go with many of them are the real treasures. Consider The LeVeque Man-Trap Cake, which has “kept the girls in the LeVeque family of Baltimore up to their necks in men for generations.” Or, Maryland Beaten Biscuits. They take a lot of effort to make traditionally, but they can also be therapeutic, as Joan Pritchett describes: “Honey, every time I know I’m going to make these biscuits, I get myself good and mad. Normally I think about my sister-in-law, Darlene, who ran off with my husband right after Granny Pritchett’s funeral. That was years ago, but it still galls me into making some of the tenderest biscuits around.” The detailed instructions are quite…vivid.
Fortunately for those within easy travel distance of Baltimore, John Shields returned to his hometown, where he now serves as head chef at Gertrude’s at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Below, he shows how to make a specialty of the house: