Growing up in Delmarva
Despite my Southern California upbringing, the best memories that I have of growing up at the table are from the Eastern Shore. My mother was in graduate school in San Diego for most of my early childhood and the minute Memorial Day hit she would put us on a cross country flight from to Dulles. We wore orange cardboard nametags around our necks that clashed with our hand-smocked pinafores, lace ankle socks and Mary Jane’s. My Grandmother would be there to liberate us at the gate from the stewardess assigned to watch us struggle to behave like ‘little ladies’ on the long cross country flight. She would put us in beach appropriate shorts and tee-shirts in the back seat of the woody station wagon while still in the airport parking lot; liberate our feet from patent leather to canvas, and we would begin the trek immediately to the nation’s summer playground over the Chesapeake waterways. This was before the days of seatbelts, and my baby sister, various small relatives, and I would share the back bench seats with bushels of produce that would be collected from her favorite farmers on the way down. Sweet onions, fresh dug potatoes, garden peas and flats of berries kept company with all manner of Ball jars filled with pickles and chutneys. The pickles would clank and chunk together in that comfortably full Ball jar way and we would eat the red sweet berries still gritty from the sand.
My Grandfather had served in Italy after the war and my Grandmother became accustomed to the early morning produce shop when they lived in Naples. Once settled for the summer in our little beach shack off the Boardwalk of Rehoboth, she and I would rise with the sun and make our way to our different farm stand destinations and fisherman hangouts before anyone else awoke. She was a simple cook, rarely doing much but steaming or searing, and frugal as most of her generation was, but she had a sharp eye for quality and loved to teach. I had started cooking very early on and each summer under my Grandmother’s tutelage I learned the time honored Eastern Shore housewife cooking skills that my hippie mother did not know or was not bothered to teach her bizarrely domestic child. I learned to tell if the corn had been picked that morning by the freshness and suppleness of the husks, peel back a few and the corn should be bursting with juice right to the edge of the cob. If those last few rows weren’t full it was picked before it was ready and if you punctured a kernel with your finger nail the juice should pop and ooze its white milk. Tomatoes were to be stored stem side down since they never should be picked before you smelled them: ripe, raw, powerful, pungent, the smell of green leaves that made your nose crinkle. Watermelon emitted a dull thunk much as if you were smacking your hand flat on the wet sand. Too high a pitch and they were left on the vine too long to become mealy; too low a pitch and they were not left long enough. Cantaloupes should indent when you press just ever so slightly at the stem end and you should be able to smell them at the spot you pushed. The softies that I loved so much should never be purchased without ‘fight’ and if they were dull or deadened they would not sizzle and spit in the pan or burst when you bit them. If your shrimp didn’t have a head and smell of the brine they would never be juicy or fresh enough to eat lightly steamed with a squeeze of lemon and the lightest trace of Old Bay. Fat blue crabs had to be grabbed pincher like on the apron out of reach from the twisting and tearing claws that were like a dangerous battery operated terminator toy. They had to be heavy and mean and fearsome. The list of learning was endless as each different vegetable and fruit had its accompanying rules about ripeness. Prices had to be haggled just enough so they knew that she was not to be trifled with but not too much so that they couldn’t turn an honest profit. This was long before the days of her political career but you could see the woman she was destined to become as she greeted each farmer and asked after their families. She remembered their children’s names and which children had children. Old men, wizened and crumpled as the furrows of their farm and some as dark as the mud with pink wiped between, stood schoolboy like in front of her, called her Mizz Lamb and doffed their hats. They would pull out special early produce and the morning’s fresh catch and offer up a jar of preserves their wives had put up in the Spring. I did not know then that she was considered ‘a lady’ by folks to whom that meant something. I did not know then how special she was to anyone other than me; all that came much later.
After we had finished our routine morning shop encompassing many country miles we would head back to the postage stamp kitchen to make breakfast as the others woke up. Homemade steel cut oatmeal simmered in the ancient double boiler, eggs still covered with blood and feathers splattered and scrapple sizzled in the pan while I would whip up the biscuits. I was the only other person allowed to do this and I carefully would cut the Crisco in and add the fresh buttermilk to just the right level of stickiness. Flour dusted the kitchen counter top as I would meticulously knead and then flatten with the ancient rolling pin and my pudgy baby girl fingers before cutting out two dozen with the glass we always used for precisely that purpose. Hot from the tiny white General Electric oven I would slather the strawberry jam preserves she had been given as a gift. The coffee would percolate and bubble and the hum and the drone of the rest of the world would rumble slowly around us into the quickening of the day. I would dread the first sound of a cousin or aunt or uncle rising; these mornings alone with her were magic and more than once I wished that we could live just the two of us in the tiny little beach shack all year round. I was allowed one cup of coffee and would pour it carefully into the heavy earthenware mug with the crackled glaze around the rim. My Grandmother’s mug would have lipstick stains that never came off no matter how hard you pretended to scrub. I liked them there and when it was my turn to wash I did not try to remove them.
A couple of times each summer we would rewarded with dinner in an actual restaurant; Gus and Gus’, Nicolas, Grottos, Chicken Ed’s, The Crab Mill; each a tradition for years and years before I ever even was tall enough to join the table. We would compare the merits of Grottos versus Nicolas; Chicken Ed’s fried chicken versus Gus and Gus. Crabshacks, crabhouses, crabbarns and every one of their permutations were worthy of hours of lengthy conversations regarding the merits of their different offerings. My soft shells were infinitely better than any of them, I thought. Of course, my cousins would agree with whatever I said, full well knowing which side of the bread their butter was on. I cooked, they ate and I held the power. I learned early on that all you needed for world domination was a knife, a wooden spoon and a cast iron frying pan.
I spent part of each summer on the shore with Grandmother long after the other relatives my age had started taking off to do other things. If they came to the beach it was to visit their roommates or frat brothers and they would return beery and smoky from the house parties of Dewey and beyond. I never went with them, never brought guests, and was far more content to drink Grandmother’s crisp white wine with her on the porch in the evenings than to swill watered down beer or high proof concoctions from a red solo cup. We would still rise with the dawn even though it was only the two of us and we would still collect our daily pantry. Our whole day would revolve around that day’s menu; where we were going to acquire it and how we were going to eat it. I would travel and train in increasingly more exotic locales as I hit college and even when I was cooking full time professionally we still kept our Delaware traditions when we were in our beach cottage. Paramount was the seafood and the produce and who we would visit to buy it. I had managed to infuse some edgy recipes into her repertoire and she would faithfully keep track of where we could find the funky herbs and produce the younger farmers were producing and that my fusion style was becoming known for. I would bring my mise en place and create exotic tagines and paellas and curries and noodle bowls. My favorite cuisines were always based on the sun and the sea and I would make the dishes she had as a young bride when Grandfather and she had travelled the world. She would sip her single glass of wine and watch me simmer and chop increasingly content to be my back staff and official taster.
Eventually I married and kept a beach house myself and had children that I brought here each summer. On our drives from Maryland we would pick up the produce along the way just as she did so many years ago. My husband and I knew the farmers by name and knew to the minute when each crop would be ready. We would traverse the back roads never going in a straight line to wiggle through all the towns that had our favorite farm stands. It was not until we were near the end of Grandmothers life that I settled full time in Delaware (single, again) and her last trip to Rehoboth was when I opened the doors to Hobos. She sat on the patio and sipped her single glass of crisp white Albarino and I served her every dish on the menu. She had a tiny little bird stomach from advanced Parkinson’s and a taste was almost more than she could manage. When she was filled beyond capacity the table was barely touched.
I have lived in Delaware for six years now and sometimes I will round a rough bend in a country road and find a fallen down chicken house that I have not visited for thirty years, meet a farmer who is the grandson of one who shuffled in the dirt and called her Mizz Lamb. I buy for my restaurant from the same families and the same farms as we did when I was a child. I still haggle the wholesale price just a little so they know I know what I am doing but not so much that they can’t make a fair profit. Our produce is edgier now; progressed to meet what chef’s want and consumers demand but there are still the acres and acres of corn that sweep by you in the summer as you drive with the windows down and your hand outside, pushing against the hot, still Delaware morning.
This piece was written for the Delmarva Almanac and Moonshell Productions DPR