Food for Thought
by Matt Mattingly, Manager of the National Colonial Farm and Historic Interpretation
You know what I miss the most about Southern California? It’s not the weather–75 and sunny all year round is great for the first week, but after that… not so much. It isn’t the beaches, or the sunsets, or the laid back lifestyle. What I miss is a decent chicken taco. I love chicken tacos to the point that when I used to walk into Olamendi’s restaurant on Pacific Coast Highway I wouldn’t even have to order. They knew what I wanted… chicken tacos. It’s hard to walk away from something like that, a love so pure. They could have put “piece of mind” on the menu or “slice of heaven” but I would not, could not stray from my muse… my chicken taco. Then I moved back to Southern Maryland… no chicken tacos.
Well, that isn’t true. The restaurants here don’t have the chicken tacos I’m used to. They don’t have, in fact, the particular style of Mexican food that I was raised on which is “Baja” cuisine. Baja cuisine (as in the Baja peninsula) is a very different style than what you would find in New Mexico or southern Texas. There are as many different styles of cooking as there are regions in Mexico, each with its own traditions and its own unique origins. Of course the same is true in Italy, Spain, Asia, and darn near anywhere else in the world, except Northern Europe. Poor, cold Northern Europe. What they all have in common is a certain culture, certain traditions that are all, at their core, agricultural. We have that here in the United States, and those cultures are just as regional and can even be broken down internally. Maryland is a great example of those kinds of food-related traditions. Everyone in St. Mary’s County knows what stuffed ham is–they still have blue ribbon contests! Charles County folks know what it is, and Dr. Mudd even referenced it in a letter to his wife in 1866, “the observance of Lent, the cares of family, changeable weather, bad colds, etc., has tended to depress. This, together with the advent of stuffed ham, boiled chicken, the springing into life of numerous salads, will brace you up to bear more bravely the vicissitudes of your present condition of life.” Not many foods can conjure up that kind of anticipation. Stuffed ham is something that is particularly regional, and there is even considerable disagreement in its preparation between those who live in Ridge and those in Leonardtown–considerable disagreement.
I’ve long held the belief that nothing creates a sense of community more than agriculture. You lose the agriculture and you begin to lose that sense of community and when you lose that… you lose your traditions and sense of place as some kind of sad and slow collateral damage. Without the axis of agriculture upon which so many culinary traditions hinge, those traditions begin to fade. For this year’s Foodways programs we decided that we wanted not only to show how our colonial ancestors prepared meals, but also why they did and what those recipes became over time. We’ve decided to show not just colonial “receipts” but also other dishes that Maryland, in particular our area, are known for. Country sausage, Tidewater crab cakes, corning a ham are just a few examples–and, yes, later in the year we’ll be making a stuffed ham. For those who’ve never had it, it’s what holidays taste like!
Not only will we be cooking outside a la the colonial way, we’ll also be talking about our food itself and how it’s changed over several hundred years. Our format is simple and straight forward: we’ll prepare several dishes and fill you with the lore associated with each meal. Don’t be surprised if you’re asked to help force a cabbage! If you’re one of our “invited guests,” you may even get a chance to sample the dishes! Unfortunately, due a number of issues, we can’t just feed people willy nilly.
Please join us around the kitchen table starting on April 16th for Bristles and Feathers, the beginning of this wonderful trip through Maryland’s unique culinary history. What would our family, the Boltons, have eaten? What meals were beyond their ability? We even have a day devoted to Haute Cuisine!
If you’re interested in taking a more hands on approach we can always use volunteers to help with recipe testing, food preparation and much more! If you’d like to be a Foodways Foodie, please contact Anjela Barnes or Matt Mattingly at 301-283-2113.
And remember: “Strange to see how a good dinner and feasting reconciles everybody.” –Samuel Pepys