I moved to Washington, DC over thirty years ago, and at that time I often heard people speak of Delmarva… and I had no idea what they were talking about. I asked someone where it was and was informed it was the Eastern Shore. Thinking it was a town I responded, “You mean on the Eastern Shore?” “No it IS the Eastern Shore!” The conversation continued and I found Delmarva was a clipped compound of the states DELaware, MARyland, and VirginiA, and runs about 200 miles long, from the northernmost point of the Delaware Canal to the southern terminus of Route 13 at Cape Charles.
It is the Delaware Canal that actually provides an island feel to the land. The fact that one must cross a bridge of some sort to get there enforces this notion. Until 1952, when the fear inducing Chesapeake Bay Bridge was inaugurated, the only way to get there was by ferry, private boat, or driving up to Wilmington, Delaware, and back down the coast - quite a trip! In 1964 The Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel was opened in Norfolk, Virginia.
Much of island/peninsula has been spared of great development, and still maintain a small town feel. Yes, to accommodate beach-goers chain restaurants and big box stores have cropped up, but mostly isolated to certain areas, often resembling the urban sprawl of big cities.
Eastern Shore towns and villages are another story. They pop up at each turn and crossroad, little collections of white frame houses and tree-lined streets, scenes good enough for Norman Rockwell, seldom peopled by more than 300 or 400 Shoremen and bearing Indian and English names that reflect the peninsula's colonial past - Accomac, Onancock, Wachapreague, Princess Anne, Oxford, Cambridge and Canterbury. Often as not, fields creep up to within a block or two of the main intersection and every other side yard seems to hold an outboard runabout or a stack of crab traps, wire enclosures that shoremen call ''pots.''
Isolation has been a preservative for the distinct Eastern Shore accent that traces back to the English colonists who began settling the peninsula in 1608. The sound, filled with twanging vowels, is most obvious in the fishing villages, such as Chincoteague on the upper Virginia coast, Atlantic side, and Crisfield on the lower Maryland coast, Chesapeake side, places where untold generations of fathers and sons have taken a living from the sea, passing on maritime know-how and the accent that goes with it.
Because of the Gulf Stream, the waters and marshes of Delmarva, on both the Atlantic and Chesapeake sides, teem with fish, crustaceans and waterfowl - trout, flounder, bluefish, crabs, oysters, clams, tarpon, ducks and geese. On land, there is a cornucopia of potatoes, corn, beans, tomatoes and grains.
The secret of Eastern Shore cooking is the freshest possible ingredients from sea and garden, prepared with simplicity. No fancy sauces that might detract from the salty tang of the seafood. Stick with butter, lemon, salt and pepper and leave the tarragon or paprika for others. Pan-fry the chicken pieces in lard, after dusting lightly with flour, salt and pepper. A pinch of baking soda gives the turnip greens a bit of a kick, cuts away just enough of the fat-meat residue and keeps the greens from turning black.
The food, as is the architecture and the prevailing attitude towards life, is simple. Not simplistic by any means, just simple - no big city tweaks, no following of the faddish, no disguising what is actually what.
I find it odd that this regional cooking hasn’t caught on more outside the Washington, DC region. There are many restaurants around that offer the most traditional fare, the heavenly Chisfield’s over in Silver Spring comes to mind, and more modern, The Dabney down in The District.
One item that really ought to come back to more menus is one that I haven’t seen in quite awhile is Crab Imperial! What was once commonplace at restaurants and large gatherings seems to have been usurped by the Crab Cake - don’t get me wrong, I love Crab Cakes, but they are everywhere!
Here is my favorite recipe:
Maryland Crab Imperial
(special equipment: 6 cleaned fresh crab shells, glass crab shaped baking dishes, or six ounce ramekins)
8 tbsp. unsalted butter, melted
3 tbsp. flour
2 cups heavy cream
1 lb. jumbo lump crabmeat, picked over for shell pieces
1 cup panko bread crumbs
1⁄2 cup finely chopped red bell pepper
1⁄4 cup finely chopped yellow onion
1⁄4 cup finely chopped parsley
2 tbsp. sherry
2 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
1 1⁄2 tsp. worcestershire
1 tsp. paprika
1 tsp. dry mustard powder
1⁄2 tsp. cayenne pepper
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Toasted, sliced country bread, for serving
How to prepare
Heat oven to 400°. Heat 5 tbsp. butter in a 2-qt. saucepan over medium-high heat. Add flour, and cook, stirring, until smooth, about 2 minutes. Whisk in cream, and bring to a boil; reduce heat to medium, and cook, stirring, until thickened, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the half the bread crumbs, bell pepper, onion, half the parsley, sherry, juice, Worcestershire, half the paprika, mustard, cayenne, and salt and pepper, stir to combine, then add crabmeat and mix being careful not to break up those tender lumps!
Divide mixture evenly among 6 shallow 6-oz. ramekins; place ramekins on a baking sheet and set aside.
In a small bowl, mix remaining butter, bread crumbs, and paprika until evenly combined; sprinkle seasoned bread crumbs evenly over each ramekin. Bake until lightly browned and bubbling in the center, about 20 minutes. Sprinkle with remaining parsley and serve hot with toast on the side.