Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Sidebar - H.L. Mencken: Culinary Chronicler of Baltimore

We were perhaps a bit overzealous when we wrote our most recent book, Baltimore Chef's Table, and handed in far too many words. Unfortunately, this meant some of them needed to be cut, among them several recipes and sidebars. We're posting some of those sidebars here on Minxeats. Think of them as supplemental material.

Robert F. Kniesche, Baltimore Sun photo / September 20, 1950
H. L. Mencken, the cantankerous journalist who worked for the Baltimore Sun during the first half of the 20th century, wrote about everything that affected his era, from revolutions in Cuba to the antiquated ordinances of the city government. Despite his contrarian and sometimes fiery demeanor in print, he could also become quite romantic when it came to the culinary delights of Baltimore.

Mencken lived the vast majority of his life at 1524 Hollins Street, a three-story rowhome in the West Baltimore neighborhood known as Union Square. Some of his earliest memories are of his mother going to the fishmongers on Hollins Street to buy 8-inch blue crabs “with snow white meat almost as firm as soap” for ten cents per dozen. The rarer soft crabs were more expensive at 2 1/2 cents each. When his mother reported to his father that the price of a 20-inch shad had gone from 40 cents to 50 cents, his father predicted that the Republic would not survive the 19th century.

Breakfast and lunch were the heavy meals in the Mencken household. While many today would have a sandwich for lunch, this was a rare item then. “When I was a boy there were only three kinds of sandwiches in common use - the ham, the chicken and the Swiss cheese. Others, to be sure, existed, but it was only as oddities. Even the club sandwich was a rarity, and in most eating-houses it was unobtainable.The great majority of people stuck to the ham and the Swiss cheese, with the chicken for feast days and the anniversaries of historic battles.” A typical lunch would include a platter of Norfolk spots, Himalaya corn cakes, succotash, buttered beets, baked potatoes, and string beans. If they were in season, oranges and bananas for dessert. Mencken estimated that the calorie content of this family meal was around 3,000.

Fruits and vegetables were seasonal in those days, and in winter there wasn’t much produce at all. In the summer, however, Mencken recalled the African-American street vendors who sold produce from the back of their horse drawn carts, known as Arabs or Arabers. “Arabs (with the first a as in day)...announced their wares with loud, raucous, unintelligible cries, much worn down by phonetic decay.” A handful of these vendors can still be seen and heard wandering through the streets of Baltimore today.

To Mencken, oysters were a low class food eaten by drunks in oyster houses like Kelly’s on Eutaw Street. He did concede, however, that one of his favorite lunch spots, the now gone Rennert Hotel at the corner of Saratoga and Liberty Streets, had a decent oyster pot pie. He was more inclined to order the crab soups, either the shore-style with vegetables or the bisque.

Indeed, crabs were the most popular item which came from “the immense protein factory of Chesapeake Bay.” Mencken remembered how a former sheriff of Baltimore, Tom McNulty, had a special way of preparing soft shell crabs. He would spear a slice of bacon on a large fork, jam a soft shelled crab on top, and hold the fork over a charcoal brazier until the fat melted over the crab. Then he would slap it on a slice of hot toast.

Mencken loved strong drink as much as food, and was not a fan of Prohibition. "A prohibitionist is the sort of man one wouldn't care to drink with -- even if he drank." He felt that alcohol was “the greatest of human inventions, and by far -- much greater than Hell, the radio or the bichloride tablet." Indeed, he saw food and drink as prime examples of Man’s ongoing quest for the finer things in life,"...all the charming and beautiful things, from the Song of Songs, to bouillabaisse, and from the nine Beethoven symphonies to the Martini cocktail, have been given to humanity by men who, when the hour came, turned from tap water to something with color in it, and more in it than mere oxygen and hydrogen."

Posted on