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Move Over, Smith Island Cake: Maryland's Unsung Culinary Delights

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White Potato Pie is a lesser-known culinary specialty of Maryland's Eastern Shore.
Eric Shimelonis
White Potato Pie is a lesser-known culinary specialty of Maryland's Eastern Shore.

In her sunny kitchen in Annapolis, Maryland, food historian Joyce White is preheating the oven to bake a Maryland specialty many folks have never tasted, let alone heard of.

White Potato Pie comes from the Eastern Shore, and White says as far as she knows, variations of the delicacy date back to the 1600s.

“It’s interesting because I found a recipe from the 17th century, a British recipe, but it was not just a sweet pie,” she says. “This potato pie [we’re making today] is like a pumpkin pie, in that it has sweet spices like cinnamon, nutmeg; it can have things like lemon. But this other recipe I found combines the sweet as well as bone marrow and vinegar. Which is almost more medieval.”

White has been busy curating a Maryland food exhibit for the soon-to-open Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans. She’s also been traveling to local museums, libraries, senior centers and other venues to present what she calls “A Taste of Maryland”: an hour-long presentation and tasting. She offers up everything from familiar favorites, like crabs and Smith Island Cake, to lesser-known treats like the custard-y concoction she’s whipping up today.

After creaming the potatoes, cream, eggs and sugar, she whisks in cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla and lemon. Then she pours the filling into a homemade crust, and puts the pie in the oven.

While she waits for it to bake, White tidies up the mess and dishes about some other edibles associated with the Old Line State, including one that, most likely, shouldn't be: the iced yellow confection known as Lady Baltimore Cake.

“Owen Wister, who wrote The Virginian, [also] wrote this book called Lady Baltimore,” White explains, which “talked about the Lady Baltimore tea room, set in Charleston, South Carolina, for which they made the Lady Baltimore Cake. So it’s not until after the book is published that you start seeing Lady Baltimore Cakes coming out of Maryland."

Kossuth Cakes — commemorating the Hungarian freedom fighter, Lajos (Louis) Kossuth — were once popular in Maryland bakeries. ( Eric Shimelonis)

And speaking of cake, there’s one that appears to have once been quite popular in Maryland: Kossuth Cake.

“It goes back to 1851, when an anonymous confectioner in east Baltimore created this cake in honor of Louis Kossuth, who was a Hungarian Freedom Fighter,” White recounts. “He led a revolt in 1848 against Austrian rule and he was governor of Hungary for a short time until the Russians interceded and helped the Austrians regain control.”

Consequently, Kossuth journeyed to America “to raise awareness for his cause, but to also raise money,” White continues. He only “raised $25 when he came to the United States, but he did have a cake named after him."

On the more — or less, depending whom you ask — savory side, muskrat is a dish that goes way back in Maryland history. White says it was common on the Eastern Shore in the 1930s during the Great Depression.

“People were struggling to make a living,” she explains. “So one of the ways you could supplement your income was by selling muskrat pelts. And instead of getting rid of the meat, [since] it’s perfectly good meat, people would eat [it].”

White says it was traditionally stewed with sage and onion. And then in 1938, the town of Church Creek inaugurated a National Muskrat Skinning Contest, followed by a cooking contest, where people would come bearing their own muskrat recipes.

Another savory dish — this one from St. Mary’s County — is stuffed ham. To make it, you brine a ham, then stuff it with everything from cabbage to kale to onions to spicy peppers. You tie it all together, wrap it in a bag, and boil it.

“People either love it or hate it!” White says with a smile.

One more food item people may think is associated with Maryland is the Maryland cookie, the sixth-best-selling cookie in the United Kingdom. White has long been intrigued by them, but her interest was piqued when she came across a map online.

The map showed the United States, and each state was labeled with “what foreigners most closely associate with each state,” she says. “And wouldn't you know it: in Maryland it was cookies!”

White’s research shows that the cookie’s recipe goes back to 1956, and was created by an American, “but I cannot confirm whether this person was a Marylander or not. But I found it really fascinating that this cookie is named after Maryland.”

Music: "No, Girl" by Title Tracks from It Was Easy

Recipe: Eastern Shore White Potato Pie

Shafer Family Recipes (submitted by a member of the Essex Senior Center, 2014)

Preheat oven to 375°

3 cups mashed white potatoes
2 tsp. vanilla
2 cups light cream (half and half)
1 tsp. lemon extract
4 eggs
1 tsp of nutmeg
2 cups sugar
½ tsp. cinnamon

Combine potatoes and cream and eggs and sugar. Beat at a high speed until well b1ended. Add flavorings and spices. Pour into two 9" prepared pastry shells. Bake 1 hour or until silver knife inserted in center comes out clean.

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