WPA Guide Series

By Fern Nesson

Fern Nesson takes us on the road following the original WPA Guidebooks. Follow along as she re-enacts these journeys, discovering what’s old and what’s new.

Travels with the WPA State Guides: Traditional Foods of Maryland

The American Guide Series, produced by the Federal Writers’ Project, is one of the most well-known WPA projects. Written as a collection of travel guides, the series included suggested tour routes as well as essays on the history and culture of each U.S. state and territory. Major U.S. cities and several regions were also given their own separate guidebooks.  

The state guides give a fascinating snapshot of American life in the 1930s. Written in a lively and approachable style, they detail and celebrate the rich diversity that our country displayed at that time. The writers’ enthusiasm is infectious and their guide is as much fun to read today as it must have been for travelers in the 1930s.  

Several historians have written about the American Guide Series over the past 80 years, but no one, to my knowledge, has used them as current-day travel guides. That is just what I set out to do. I am an American historian, art photographer, and enthusiastic traveler. I have read each of these guides. I love them for their wonderful enthusiasm and their curiosity about every aspect of regional life—from food, to linguistics, to folklore, to statistics, to geography, to environment, to history—and especially for their liberal attitudes and respect for diversity. In this series, I will be posting photo essays and articles based upon tours recommended in the guides.

Fern L. Nesson

The Maryland State Guide is an excellent source book for Maryland’s traditional foods. As the Guide makes clear, cooking and eating have been a preoccupation in the state since colonial times. The Guide’s section on food is perhaps the longest, most detailed of any state guide:

“Appreciation of good food and the art of cooking it are traditional in Maryland, harking back to provincial days […]

The waters of the Chesapeake supply crabs clams, and the famed oysters; and salt-water and fresh-water fish are plentiful. The tidewater regions produce a variety of wild fowl—duck, geese, swan, and brant. The mountain regions in western Maryland […] yield […] wild turkey, ruffled grouse, game fish […] partridges, doves, rabbits, and even an occasional pheasant.

Most sacred to epicures, however, is the diamondback terrapin, a land tortoise caught in the tidewater marshes and kept in the cellar against the day of his sacrifice.

With such a wealth of native produce to draw upon, it is not surprising that Maryland should have made cooking her principal art.

Old-fashioned fried chicken, Maryland Style, has attained nation-wide fame, though discriminating Free Staters often have difficulty in recognizing the concoction of that name foisted on a gullible public outside the State. The standard recipe calls for a young chicken, cut into pieces, floured, and fried in deep fat. According to the oldest custom it is served on a layer of fried cornmeal mush or a crisp johnnycake with cream gravy poured over the cornbread but not over the chicken.

The choicest Maryland foodstuff, the diamondback terrapin, is no longer as plentiful as it once was…. The terrapin, after being carefully washed, are dropped into boiling water and cooked until […] the toenails can be pulled out. The terrapin are then laid on their backs (so that the shell holds the juices) and, when cool enough to handle, the front shell is removed. The meat and eggs are taken out and the liver is cut into small pieces […] Butter is added in large quantities and a slight seasoning of salt, pepper, and a dash of cayenne. All other seasonings are taboo. The subtle and delicate flavor of the terrapin must not be smothered […] Sherry, or preferably dry madeira, should be served with the course.

Of equal  merit with chicken, and terrapin are the seafoods from the waters that bound much of the State. Numerous ‘raw bars’ in the towns proffer Maryland oysters in a natural state […]

The crab is another staple among the sea foods of the State. Soft-shell crabs are very lightly sprinkled with salt and flour, then fried for about 20 minutes in butter […] Hard shell crabs are steamed, made into crab cakes or soup, or deviled.

According to one time-honored recipe for deviled crabs, two tablespoonfuls of flour are rubbed into one of butter and put into two cups of hot milk. When the mixture comes to a boil, two pounds of crab meat are added and a well-beaten egg is stirred in. The shells of the crabs are then rubbed with onion, filled with the mixture, covered with bread crumbs, and browned in a moderate oven […]

A discussion of Maryland cooking would not be complete without mention of beaten biscuit, produced by generations of cooks who would have considered that a recipe degraded their art into a trade. One and all of these virtuosi would have assured the reader that Maryland biscuit made by rule is an impossibility and a sacrilege […]

Another illustration of the methods that placed emphasis upon quality rather than speed is the recipe for Maryland apple toddy as it should be made. Around Thanksgiving, a dozen large red apples are baked until their skins burst. While still piping hot, they are covered with a mixture of spirits, usually in the proportions of 1 quart brandy, 1 pint rum, and 1/4 pint peach brandy. After being sweetened to taste and, according to some recipes seasoned with nutmeg, allspice, and clove, they are sealed in a stone jar. And woe unto him who opens it before Christmas Day!

Though the best Maryland cooking is found in private homes […] public eating places have had their share in making Maryland food famous. Along old Market Street in Baltimore there [are] numerous oyster ‘bays’ or bars, usually in cellars, each with its distinctive clientele. Most famous of these was one on South Street near Lovely Lane, rim by a Scotsman named Boyd, and frequented by many of the actors of its day.

After the presidential election of 1936, Maryland hospitality was sampled by the Republican candidate, Alfred M. Landon, at a dinner given by H.L.Mencken. The menu included:

Chesapeake Bay Oysters, Olives, Stuffed Celery, Nuts, Terrapin a la Maryland, Maryland Beaten Biscuits, Fried Chicken à la Maryland in Cream Sauce, Grilled Bacon, Corn Fritters, Potato Croquettes, Maryland Ham, Maryland Hearts of Lettuce, Maryland Water Ices. And good Maryland rye whiskey was used in the cocktails.

It is Maryland’s belief that Mr.Landon was somewhat consoled [by this dinner] for the loss of the election.”

Maryland Guide p. 168-9.

With such enthusiastic a recommendations in mind, I set off with my husband to see whether Maryland could still offer a foodie adventure. Oysters were our first stop. We ordered a dozen at a traditional raw bar in Baltimore and quickly asked for more. All told, we ate two dozen (and one crab leg).

Our first stop the next morning was at Faidley’s for crab cakes in Baltimore’s historic Lexington Market. The Guide’s description of the Market perfectly represents its aspect today:

“LEXINGTON MARKET […] is one of the oldest and most picturesque markets in the nation. It has been operating since 1803. Flowers, vegetables, fish, poultry, homemade candy, cake, pickles, and preserves are displayed on open counters or modern display cases. Stores lining the street have merchandise ranging from cheap liquor to socks at five cents a pair. Sidewalk ‘competitors’ overflow the surrounding curbs to the dismay of motorists and traffic police.

The market is part of the pre-Revolutionary estate of John Eager Howard, who presented the land to the city in 1782. In spite of congestion, any effort to replace the old market is apt to raise a storm of protest.”

Faidley’s Seafood anchors the market. Founded in 1886, it still draws crowds and praise for its iconic crab cakes, “bigger than a baseball, smaller than a softball.” (Style Magazine, November, 2003.)

Although it was only 10 AM, customers were standing at the counter eating oysters and crab cakes were emerging hot from the frying pans. We couldn’t resist. And, just as USA Today put it, we enjoyed every bite.

 “You don’t sit at Faidley’s, you stand, leaning against waist high counters bolted to the old market’s floor. And in that position, you enjoy perhaps the best crab cake you’ll ever have the pleasure of eating.”

USA Today, Life Section, November 19, 2003.

 Next, hard shell crabs:

Hard shell carbs were plentiful in the Lexington Market but we drove to the source, the Eastern Shore of Maryland for steamed  blue crabs, rubbed with Maryland’s famed Old Bay Seasoning.


The next day we ate spoon bread:

And fried chicken in cream sauce:

And biscuits:

But terrapin was not on offer. A bit of research explains why. Throughout the 19th and early 20th century, Maryland diamondback terrapin was in great demand at the world’s finest restaurants. In the 1920’s in New York City, one serving could cost $100 dollars. The demand was  such that terrapin were close to becoming extinct.

Finally, in 2007, the Maryland legislature banned commercial harvesting of terrapins. This from the Baltimore Sun in 2018, “So have your oysters, your crab cakes, heck, even snack on some frog legs. But leave this delicacy to the history books, and to the University of Maryland, which boasts the turtle as its mascot.”

No more turtle soup was a good outcome for the terrapins and the planet and perfectly fine with me. Maryland food is rich, delicious and just plain wonderful. It was no hardship to be limited to traditional foods that were still plentiful.

February, 2022