It has been said that amongst these tidewaters we call home exists some of the most pleasant living. This phrase actually comes from a National Bohemian Beer slogan. The “Land of Pleasant Living” slogan reached its peak in the1960s when National Bohemian bought a Chesapeake Bay skipjack and named it the Chesterpeake after a pelican who appeared in their ads. Even though National Bohemian beer is no longer brewed in Maryland, and hasn’t been for decades, the saying “The Land of Pleasant Living,” stuck around, as I have said it many times over the years.
This phrase seemed so true to me that I never gave it much thought, until I did. Why do I and many others deem this a most pleasant place to live? Each person may have their own reasons why they enjoy life on the Eastern Shore, but I suspect my reasons may resonate with some.
I have always felt a part of the ebb and flow of this tidewater life. The anticipation of the next season as well as the “holding on” to the season we are in. With each passing month, there is something new to look forward to and yet also something to let go of. There is a rhythm in this land that draws you into this ebb and flow, as if you are participating in a unique event, a palatial tidal experience with quietly subtle clues for the patient observer. Being connected to place is a deep-down unexplainable comfort. Knowing the yellow perch run in February, the Black-Eyed Susans shine all summer, and the fall brings fat rockfish and a wild oyster harvest gives ease to predictions in an unpredictable world. It is easier to give up crabs when you know the oysters are ready.
Our shorelines carved from nor’easters, beaten down by long fetches of wind, hurricane tides and whittled away bit by bit, remain a stalwart example of change and fortitude, abundance and decline, care and abandonment. For the Eastern Shore’s generational inhabitants, this ebb and flow is part of the thrust of life, it is a delicate balance between fight and flee, denial and acceptance.
Not long ago, life on the Eastern Shore of the Bay beat to its own drum a daily dance. Days were long and a majority of inhabitants rooted themselves firmly in hard work and Methodism, punctuated with neighborly gestures. For hard working people, a home cooked meal for friends, neighbors and those stricken with ailments was the ultimate gesture of care and concern. When the sea was rough and work was long and hard, the pleasantries of cooking for others was an act to cling to, an action of caring.
Lately, I have been reading old family letters. These snippets of life provide valuable perspectives on food and its omnipresence in local lives generation after generation. Please enjoy:
Tuesday night, February 10th, 1925 (My Great grandfather wrote to my Great grandmother from Oxford while she was away visiting a friend).
…Mrs. John Leonard gave me a turn cake tonight and I was very glad to get it and will warm for breakfast. I think I shall kill the two roosters and send them to you Saturday morning along with the 4-day biscuits. I hope you are well and having a good time…
February 13th, 1925.
…well I spent today over the river (Bellevue). Had some Old Ham (Valliant Brand), chicken salad, soup, slaw, potatoes, biscuits and plum pudding dessert. My mother is still in bed but she is much better. I will go to the social tonight. I will wait til after it is over to write and tell what went on…
Sunday December 10, 1923 (My grandfather writing home to his parents in Oxford while away at college)
…I expect you had better send me some oysters this week. I promised the fellows some, some time ago, so send me a gallon about Wednesday of this week. I am invited out to dinner at 1:00 today. I was called to the phone yesterday morning and was invited to accompany a party home from church and take dinner with them. I was here three years before I ate a meal out, but I have been very fortunate this year…
Sunday, (1940s) undated (My grandfather writing home to his parents in Oxford while living in Pennsylvania).
Dear Pop & Ma,
You know we would much prefer country turkey but Pop has much to do with preparatory to get ready for his trip, I thought we could relieve him of that detail. We will get a turkey from the Acme. Pauline sent us country sausage. It is delicious. We have had two meals and there is lots more to come. We certainly do miss the country eggs. Don’t you bother with the eggs at Christmas time but if at anytime they are available, ship us some. We are also very fond of Oysters! Ma, you get yourself well! Nancy has so much fun getting ready for you that you must get here. Don’t forget the train still runs. …We will expect you whenever it is most convenient for you. It would be nice to have you here for Christmas. Lovingly, Howard.
All this writing back and forth between family about food! I write about food, and in the land of pleasant living it feels just right. Chickens and oysters are reoccurring themes in the letters because almost everyone had backyard chickens in Oxford for eggs or for dinner. At my cousin’s house, a cherry stump that was used to kill the chickens for dinner still remains in her backyard. Rich or poor, oysters were plentiful and enjoyed by everyone. My mother often said that the Christmas season in Pennsylvania didn’t begin until they had received a gallon of oysters by train from her grandfather in Oxford. It was exciting, it was symbolic, it was an exclamation point in December.
Oysters were not easy to procure, most were dredged, some were tonged or snatched by nippers under harsh winter weather conditions by strong, burley men dressed in oil slicks for little money. Once in the bushel basket, they would be sold to a buy boat and taken to a nearby packing house where they would be shucked by cold hands. Tokens were given out for a certain amount of oysters shucked and were traded in a the end of the work week for money or items at the company store. Shucked oysters would then be canned and shipped all over the United States. As much as the rest of the country hungered for oysters, perhaps no-one enjoyed them more than the native Eastern Shore people. In every native cookbook from Maryland’s Way to local church recipe collections, oysters flood the pages with pride. For the waterman, the food in season beats in their hearts and tastes on their tongue of courage. Courage to go forward knowing the church bells will ring at 6 o’clock in the evening, winter will come, and so will the oysters.
Backyard gardens will burst forth in the spring, give all summer long and wither in the fall. Warm spring breezes will usher in the sugar snap peas and are a precursor to dog days of summer, where the pace slows but the cooking continues. Appetites will surge with the coming of winter and eyes will widen with the neon-like burst of spring green.
I am currently writing this column outside on my patio while looking across an open field. My Labrador Retriever sits anxiously next to me with a ball in her mouth just hoping I’ll take a break and play her all-time favorite game of fetch. My meadow has turned brown, yet it is still speckled with dots of pink and white cosmos, and the statement of a few red stubborn zinnias that refuse to give up on summer. The sun predictably lowers itself toward the horizon as the afternoon wears on and I consider a hot cup of tea, but then dash it as that would be admitting that autumn has grabbed hold of me and I am not ready for what lies ahead: winter. Then I consider winter and what it has to offer in this land of pleasant living: oysters.
As I ponder my Eastern Shore roots, a chill comes over me and I decide I am ready to accept autumn and ultimately winter and I head inside for some hot tea. As I pour steaming water from the kettle my husband walks in with a recipe for “Oysters Choptank.” A little something he came up with for special holiday occasions using some local ingredients. I glance over to his family nippers perched in the corner of the room. “Something’s in the air today, can you feel it?” I ask. “It is a pleasant day,” he quips. I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Cathy Schmidt writes from Trappe where she and her husband Chef Brian Schmidt own Garden and Garnish Catering. A food explorer, Cathy loves to garden and cook from scratch.
Brian’s Oysters Choptank
1 pint shucked select oysters
2 T butter
1/4 cup leeks, chopped
2 oz lean country ham
4 oz fresh spinach
1/2 tsp chopped garlic
1/3 cup sherry
1/8 tsp salt
dash of Black pepper
1/3 cup of heavy cream
Melt butter in a sauté pan. Add leeks and sweat. Add in ham and color the leeks just a little. Add garlic first, then spinach. Work the spinach to the bottom to cook. Add salt and pepper. Add sherry and reduce slightly. Add oysters, then heavy cream. Reduce the heavy cream to desired thickness. Serve over a puff pastry shell or halved croissant. Serves 4.