Friday, February 19, 2016

Old Line Plate Is My New Favorite

Fastnachts - a Pennsylvania Dutch doughnut also called kinklings in
Western Maryland. They're traditionally eaten before Lent...but to me
they look like they'd be great anytime. Photo courtesy of Old Line Plate.
Every once in a while, I'll come across an article or a book or a blog that makes me angry...because I didn't write it myself.

That's how I've been feeling these days about Old Line Plate, a food blog focused on Maryland's culinary history, written by Baltimorean Kara Mae Harris. Isn't the name alone so great?

On Old Line Plate, Harris dives into old Maryland cookbooks, preparing recipes from bygone eras - one each week - and explaining how they fit into the world during their heyday. It's the kind of delicious cultural history study that is my catnip.

Harris is quick to point out that she is not an historian - in that she didn't spend a million years getting a PhD. in history. But as far as I'm concerned, she's doing the work of one, bringing to light recipes that are interesting and important pieces of the cultural history that has made Maryland what it is today.

Harris first made a name for herself in the early part of the 21st century, when she started writing about the history of burlesque. Her interest in food sparked about a decade ago and she started the blog in 2010, though she didn't really pick up speed posting until about a year ago.

The first historic cookbooks she explored were her mother's volumes from the Southern Heritage Cookbook Library, a series of cookbooks of traditional southern recipes (including Maryland!) published in the early 1980's. "I thought it would be neat to try out all these different, old-timey, weird foods," Harris says.

Some of those foods are weirder than others. Paw paw cream pie might not make it onto many tables anymore, but cranberry muffins still feel pretty current.

Harris doesn't simply find a recipe, make it, and post a couple photos. She delves into the history behind the recipe and its ingredients, providing context for the food. She heads down rabbit holes that are both interesting and important - a recent post about the people involved in the creation of the 1975 book 300 Years of Black Cooking in St. Mary's County is a great example of how illuminating that can be.

That post alone suggests Harris might be Maryland's Michael Twitty - though she's far too modest to make that kind of comparison herself (she calls herself "lucky to have his website" as a reference).

Harris's collection of cookbooks featuring vintage Maryland recipes now hovers around 30 or 40 books, including everything from series like the Southern Heritage collection to local one-offs. "They're not all the most significant things," she says. "Some were published as recently as the '90s. Some are church or hospital or fundraiser cookbooks."

She's built the collection organically, starting with her mom's books, combing the bibliography section and hunting down sources mentioned there. She finds other books here and there, and uses Google books to explore the content of books that are online.

Most recently, she's become especially interested in the international roots of Maryland food. One particular author - Mrs. Benjamin Chew Howard, who wrote Fifty Years in a Maryland Kitchen - was exploring international flavors back in the mid-19th century.

"It seems like she's really interested in Indian food, with curries and something that's like a spicy pork vindaloo," says Harris. She notes that Howard was a wealthy and well-connected woman who would have had access to imported spices.

If those flavors were apparent in the middle 1800's, why did they fade from Maryland tables later, Harris wonders. "By the time we were growing up in the '80s, they seemed novel," she says.

That's the type of question that can only be answered by studying lots of texts, over time, to look for patterns and subtle clues. Fortunately for those of us interested in Maryland's culinary history, Harris is on the case - and clearly up to the challenge.

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