Bawlamer, Merlin – Days 9 & 10

2009.Oct.12 Monday · 5 comments

in Food & Recipes, Restaurants

“I would never want to live anywhere but Baltimore. You can look far and wide, but you’ll never discover a stranger city with such extreme style. It’s as if every eccentric in the South decided to move north, ran out of gas in Baltimore, and decided to stay.”

– John Waters, film writer and director

There is a saying in Baltimore, or so H.L. Mencken once said, that there are fifty ways to prepare crabs, and all of them are good. After spending a weekend sampling through a few of those, I’m not inclined to disagree. For those of you feeling a trifle faint of heart, or of stomach, perhaps you’ll need some nourishment before digging into this one….

Friday afternoon found me on the Amtrak, for probably the first time in about 15 years, and headed to Baltimore, a place I’ve only been once before in my life, for a day, visiting friends. A snack in Penn Station (NYC) had me ready to go, and my friends had warned me to bring a hearty appetite. Arriving just a couple of hours later at Penn Station (Baltimore), I quickly found myself in the company of a quintet, comprised of Frank, who many of you may remember from NYC visits past as my companion on various museum and dining ventures, along with wife and chilluns. Yes, he’s up and married and inherited a couple of charming young daughters, a cat and a dog, and moved himself back to this town where he lived from 1959 until 1983. He says it’s changed. A lot. And, a friend of theirs joined us, and in short order the half dozen of us found ourselves at Bo Brooks, a 45 year old crab house that started off in East Baltimore and moved to the newly refurbished waterfront in 2000. I’m not sure I was quite ready for a whopping big dinner at around 5:30 p.m., but hey, I’m a pro… I think.

Bo Brooks - steamed crabs

So, there, we quickly tucked in to a dozen “jumbo” crabs, a dozen and a half oysters on the half shell, fried oysters, fried clam strips, crab soup, onion rings, salad, lots of ice tea and beer and I know I’m probably forgetting some other stuff. And yes, the crabs are simply dumped out onto brown paper and you proceed to tear them apart with your fingers and a mallet. And steamed crabs are pretty basic – a huge amount of Old Bay, crabs, and steam – nada más – finger lickin’ good as one might say. We repaired to the house and launched into some wine, whiskey and conversation in the backyard, punctuated by the various growls of dogs and yowls of cats (I think every yard has at least two in some combination) until it was dark and chilly, at which time we called it a night.

Saturday was coffee out in the morning dew, then a trip into the downtown area where we stopped in at the understated and undernoted, but steady draw on the Italian home cooking community – Trinacria Macaroni Works, or as it’s more commonly simply referred to, just Trinacria’s. There we loaded up on hand sliced pancetta, prosciutto, ham, sausages, mozzarella, parmigiano, risotto rice, and a dozen more things that all got packed into boxes that we piled into the back of the car.

Then a two block walk to the more famed Lexington Market, founded in 1782 and the oldest still extant food market in the country, though certainly changed from its beginnings. Here we wandered what once were rows and rows of fish and shellfish stands, butchers, fruit and vegetable sellers, and a variety of other food related vendors, and which now is interspersed with Chinese takeout, popcorn, candies, and what-not. We gathered various items from just as various hawkers and then trotted our wares over to the tables at Faidley, I believe the oldest remaining fishmonger, where we added to our goodies and proceeded into a feast of deep-fried chicken livers and giblets, pizza (for the girls), jumbo crabcakes, soft-shell crab sandwich, oysters on the half-shell, mac ‘n cheese, cole slaw, french fries, potato salad, deviled eggs, and, not surprisingly, lots o’ beer.

Faidley Raw Bar

The Faidley Raw Bar, which dominates the entryway of the market.

Some of the various signs posted around

Some of the various signs posted around – did a double take on the “surf and turf” – they’re not kidding, by the way – and I have to admit, I’d have simply had to try it had it been “in season”, but it wasn’t.

Faidley Seafood

They also sell fish and shellfish retail, and from the vast array, we picked up a half dozen pounds of mussels… you’ll see why soon. They also sell raccoon and muskrat when in season, which, again, they weren’t. I did note that spelling is not exactly a strong point (note the leftmost sign).

Some of our goodies at Lexington Market

Some of the goodies we dug into at the Lexington Market….

Then, a bit of a tour of Baltimore, and back to the house where Frank and I set to on prepping a big Italian feast for the evening. My job – a torta di ricotta, risotto alla salernitana, and black pepper mussels – though we served the latter two separately in this case, in big pots; Frank made fresh fettucini with a fresh sausage, tomato and marsala sauce, and some fire-roasted peppers; Dana, Frank’s wife, who also loves to cook, took my leftover ricotta and the leftover steamed crabs from the night before (we just couldn’t finish everything), and whipped up some light little crab and ricotta puffs that we snacked on at the start of the meal. Throw in some fresh baked bread, lots of red wine, more friends, and we had quite the evening!

Chap’s Pit Beef

Camera phone shot, sorry – but we had one more Baltimore specialty that was on my “must try” list, not that there aren’t a whole bunch of others, but they’re saved for a future visit – pit beef. Which really is just a smoked roast beef sandwich, just don’t tell the folk in Baltimore that. The place, apparently, to go, is Chap’s Charcoal Restaurant, usually just called Chap’s Pit Beef, in the midst of a short highway stretch that includes a strip club, casino, liquor store and easy access drive-in ATMs. There’s also a neighboring AAMCO Transmission, so I guess you could drop your car off for a tuneup while making the rounds. Back to the sandwich – really good, smoky roast beef, and topped with mayo, horseradish and pickles (we missed the raw onion slices in the bottom of the bag which are apparently part of the de rigeur sandwich, Dana found them later. On the side, “macsalad” and green beans – the former a somewhat sweet version of macaroni salad in mayo and the latter, thin sliced green beans stewed in tomato sauce. The french fries were something, it turned out, to be avoided – greasy, soggy and sort of charcoal grey – we dumped ’em. There was more beer around, though by this point I was sticking with water.

From there, off to the airport, a few hour flight to Miami where I found that my flight continuing on to BA had been cancelled (in the morning, but they didn’t bother to notify anyone), and I had a 7 hour wait until they could get another plane in for all of us waiting – dinner was a bacon-blue cheese burger at the only thing open in the international terminal after 7 p.m. (other than McD’s and Starbucks), the Corona Bar & Grill – was actually pretty good, great fries, and an excellent “Mexican Salad” on the side (why arugula, tomatoes, crumbled bacon, olives and onions constitute a Mexican Salad I have no idea, though the dressing did have a bit of a jalapeño kick to it). Unlimited ice tea – I miss that here – nobody does free refills on sodas and tea in BA, at least not that I’ve encountered. It was all certainly better than the dismal looking sandwich that LAN was fobbing off on everyone in the waiting area as some sort of consolation for the wait – and filling enough that I didn’t need to continue with dinner service at 1 in the morning when we’d finally gotten underway.

Next up, catching up on the last dinner from before leaving, which I never got around to posting, and then tomorrow, we launch into a new round of cooking classes (still have a space or two in both morning and afternoon Italian Basics class…), some fun dinners coming up, and a vegetarian Asian cooking class starting up next Monday.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Ken Sternberg October 12, 2009 at 22:30

Wow, Dan. This sounds like maybe your best east coast return trip yet. Baltimore and your friends sound really wonderful. If that was Miami International you were talking about, it’s about the worst airport in the world as far as I’m concerned. You’re lucky you had only a seven hour wait.

Dana November 1, 2009 at 13:09

Dan, We had such a great time with you. I got stuffed all over again just reading the blog. The photoes are beautiful. Our family welcomes you back to our home any time. Thanks for the kind comments on my crab puffs. And yes, Irish girl that I am, there is always plenty of beer along with lots of red wine for my dear Italian husband.

BTW: Your descriptions of Baltimore were right on (not like that not-to-be-mentioned NYC “chef” who trashed my beloved hometown).

dan November 1, 2009 at 19:38

You know, if he’d have seen the side of Baltimore that you guys showed me, he probably wouldn’t have trashed it either. But his handlers have to get him into the nitty-gritty, which isn’t generally the best picture of… anywhere.

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