SERVE IT FORTH
Old Line Plate’s Kara Mae Harris writes a love letter to regional recipes.
If M.F.K. Fischer were still alive and well, we’d expect her to want to share a sherry and pâté with Kara Mae Harris. Few writers have spent more time deeply considering the art of the recipe, with the Baltimore historian devoting the last decade to collecting some 60,000 of them for her online database and regionally beloved blog, Old Line Plate—fittingly named for Maryland’s moniker, the Old Line State, from which every dish hails.
There’s Chesapeake Bay oyster stew, and Senator Barbara Mikulski’s crab cakes, and the iconic strawberry pie from Haussner’s Restaurant. Some were dusted off from local libraries, others were dredged up from historical societies, and a few still have been mailed in from Harris’s growing fanbase. But more than just archiving these meals for the culinarily curious, she also delves deep into the history behind them, discovering the ways in which they have shaped the Mid-Atlantic’s sense of place along the way, as—whether we know it or not—our food so often does.
It’s a scholarly feat of hyper-locavore delight that could intrigue the appetite of even a California reader, and Harris’s brand-new book, Festive Maryland Recipes, has already garnered national acclaim. In an ode to community cookbooks at the core of her research, it’s a collection of over 20 holiday recipes—some classic, like Thanksgiving sauerkraut and Christmas oyster stew, and others unexpected, like Korean chop-chae for the Lunar New Year or Greek koulourakia for Easter—with ruminations on the stories they tell in between. Each was modernized by recipe developer Rachel Rappaport, with a retro design by Sara Tomko and illustrations by Ben Claassen, who are all from Baltimore, too.
Just in time for Thanksgiving, we caught up to talk about the weird and wonderful of what we eat.
Kara Mae Harris of Old Line Plate.
What recipe started you on this path?
It always goes back to a white potato pie. I baked every single pie in The Southern Heritage Pies and Pastry Cookbook. One was a “Maryland white potato pie,” and that just made me curious. What was this? Why was it associated with Maryland? Where did it come from? Who invented it? I ended up doing more research, which led me to the Maryland’s Way cookbook, which came out in 1966, and that led to even more cookbooks. It’s just been a trail of trying to follow these recipes back to their original sources, which, of course, I found you can’t find for most. But they still have all of these incredible stories behind them.
What have you found these recipes can teach us—about a place, about ourselves?
There is so much complexity hidden in these recipes. One thing I didn’t think about when I started this is that some of these cookbooks don’t even necessarily reflect what people were actually eating. Especially when looking at handwritten collections, where people copy family recipes or paste in newspaper clippings, some recipes might have just sounded good or looked interesting—like some books are filled with cakes, and maybe that person just had a sweet tooth. But I like the way that they can show people’s aspirations. You see a lot of recipes like “Delmonico’s fill-in-the-blank,” which is referring to the fancy restaurant in New York, not Maryland. And you can even see the technology changing. For example, around the turn of the 20th century, you start seeing all these recipes that call for chafing dishes...
And even the way they’re written, from implied-knowledge paragraphs to detailed lists of ingredients and methods, shows the evolution of industry, with standardization taking place during the Industrial Revolution. We love how the numbers on cast-iron pans, related to the size of the eye on cast-iron stoves, show that, too.
And even then, recipes didn’t know which stove you had, so they just said, “cook it ‘til it’s done.”
Older recipes tend to be a couple sentences. And then, slowly, we incorporate standardized measurements, which was really popularized by Fannie Farmer from the Boston Cooking School. You start to see lists of ingredients coming before the recipe, which is convenient for people who are shopping for groceries, and over time, we get more and more precise, which is probably why people stopped sharing personal recipes, which tend to be more intuitive. “Maryland fried chicken,” for instance—it died out from cookbooks around the 1960s, probably because it’s difficult to tell someone exactly how long to fry chicken on their stovetop. You have to be there and have a feel for it.
How would you define Maryland cuisine?
That’s what’s so interesting. A lot of people might think of the Chesapeake Bay and know about our crabs and our oysters, but there’s also Pennsylvania Dutch influence, where we have scrapple and sauerkraut, and then in Western Maryland, there’s an Appalachian tradition, so we have apple butter and salt-risen bread, too. We’re a combination of things, and I joke, “Oh, Maryland, it’s the most unique—but so is everywhere else!” We all have many stories to tell, and many ways in which we tell them. Cities like Cincinnati have German heritage, too, and yet sauerkraut is such a thing in Baltimore, especially for Thanksgiving.
Festive Maryland Recipes by Kara Mae Harris, out now.
Why focus on the holidays for your new book, Festive Maryland Recipes?
I was originally planning to do a small zine of weird Christmas recipes that I’d come across, but it grew from there, because I was finding so many others associated with celebration, like the German fastnachts for Fat Tuesday. In post-pandemic times, it seems like people are appreciating the ceremony of doing something special, even just as an excuse to be together. And there seems to be more interest in bringing these old recipes back to honor our traditions—and also strengthen our sense of community.
What will you be making for your holidays this year?
This year snuck up on me, but for Thanksgiving, I’m going to go buy some sauerkraut from the Polish store and make it the way that a lot of local people do with apples and sausage. It’s really special and it makes sense for the palate of the Thanksgiving table. I listened to the audiobook of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by Samin Nosrat recently and she talks about going to a friend’s Thanksgiving and there being no acid on the table. I thought to myself, “Well, you weren’t in Baltimore...”
Sauerkraut, featured in Festive Maryland Recipes.
You mention oyster stuffing in your book, too.
Yeah, that’s a fun one, which shows up year and year in the local newspapers, saying that you just had to have it in this region. It basically tells us that, back then, oysters were everywhere, so much so that they were practically a condiment, like the anchovy of the Chesapeake Bay.
Of course, crabs are a state symbol in these parts, but they don’t show up in the book. Why was that?
When I started my blog, I thought, “There’s all this other Maryland food that’s not just crab, and that’s what I’m going to talk about.” But once I researched the history of crab cakes, it turned out that crab is actually pretty interesting—from the traditions that combined to form crabcakes to the evolution of the crabmeat grading scale of “flake” to “jumbo lump.” Surprise, surprise, right? I think if we had included it in the book, it would have just been a Maryland crab feast, which is a holiday unto itself. For me, that’s the end of the summer, sitting down with family, when the weather is just starting to cool off. But that would have been expensive to test. Also, it’s pretty self-explanatory. And the jury is still out over whether it tastes that much better to steam them at home...
We couldn’t agree more. How does cast iron show up in these old cookbooks?
You know, I don’t find that many specific mentions of materials. But certainly, in all those old “Maryland fried chicken” recipes, when you look at the pictures, it’s always going to be cast iron. Personally, I only fry chicken in cast iron. It’s so much better because it holds that consistent temperature and for so long. But back in the day, there were other mediums that turned out to be dangerous, like pewter, which contained lead. So maybe cast iron is the survivor in part because it wasn’t, you know, killing people. One thing I love to do is look up old catalogs online and they have all kinds of crazy cast-iron pans for cakes and of course that corn-cob-shaped cornbread.
We get asked to make those all the time.
There are so many out there, though, you almost feel bad—those poor, sad, rusty, old corn pans, like they’re some kind of stray animal.
You have over 300 local cookbooks in your personal collection. Is there a favorite?
There’s one called Maryland Cooking, which was put out by the Maryland Home Economics Association in 1948 with all handwritten recipes that documents both Post-War standards and our state at the time. And I always talk about 300 Years of Black Cooking in St. Mary’s County, which is just this slice of culture, and includes recipes for pokeweed greens, white potato pie, stuffed ham... I was looking at a new church cookbook last night, and in the back, there are advertisements from local businesses and members of the congregation. A husband took out a full page to honor his 50th wedding anniversary to his wife, Kitty, and wrote, “One way to a man’s heart is through his stomach!” These cookbooks are full of surprises. And they’re just kind of hiding in plain sight.
Images courtesy of Kara Mae Harris of Old Line Plate. Read Rachel Rappaport’s Oyster Stuffing recipe in Family Receipts.