The original idea of this post was to rank these types of food based on which ones were most integral to the Baltimore experience. When we surveyed the librarians, we quickly found that ranking them was simply impossible. In fact, not only was ranking them not going to happen but the original list was found to be woefully lacking. Recommendations flooded in. Heated debates ensued about what is good and what isn’t, what belongs on the list and what does not.
Note: I have avoided making recommendations of restaurants or brands, except where the brand is a generally accepted Baltimore cultural institution.
So, without further ado, here is the hotly contested list:
- All Crab Everything: Talking to Baltimore natives about crab is about like talking to Bubba about shrimp. Among the most frequently mentioned traditional Baltimore recipes you’ll find that steamed Crabs, Crab Cakes, and Crab dip are most frequently mentioned. Whatever you do, do not mention boiling crabs!
- Oysters: I’ve got nothing to say about oysters. For you that enjoy them, bon appetit.
- Coddies: Sometimes referred to as “the poor man’s crab cake,” the coddie is a fried patty consisting of salted cod, mashed potato, onion, and saltines.
- Lake Trout: Made notorious by David Simon’s The Wire, Lake Trout is not at all what it seems. It is not trout and it is not from a lake. In fact, it is a fish from the Atlantic Ocean called a Silver Hake or Whiting. In spite of that, Baltimore locals swear by it!
Old Bay Everything:
Even if you’ve just gotten off the plane in Baltimore, there’s a good chance you’ve already seen references to Old Bay. Locals don’t just eat it on everything they also adorn their cars, homes, and clothing with its logo.
Of course, its primary purpose is – you guessed it – crab, but it can be found on a variety of foods, both sweet and savory. Among the savory, you’ll commonly find Old Bay on popcorn, French fries, chips, crackers (Old Bay Goldfish FTW!), and cheese puffs. For the more adventurous, you can seek out sweet Old Bay options like, Caramel Popcorn (so good), ice cream, and milkshakes. You can suss out true locals by asking people their opinion of Old Bay versus J.O. Seasoning.
These simple, delicious, roast beef sandwiches are typically served with raw onion and “tiger sauce,” a combination of mayonnaise and horseradish. It’s a bit hard to explain to those who are unfamiliar because it sounds like a basic roast beef sandwich. In spite of, or perhaps because of its simplicity, pit beef has something special that justifies its place in Baltimore food culture.
McCormick Spices & Domino Sugar:
These two are not so much “must-eats” as Baltimore institutions. So, if you’re going to cook, you may as well do it with some local spice.
What does one say about sauerkraut? Surely, many of you, if not most, are familiar with the salty, tangy, fermented cabbage dish. It makes the list, however, not because of a unique local twist on the traditional ‘kraut but because, in Baltimore, it is considered a traditional Thanksgiving dish. This Thanksgiving make sure you have some alongside your turkey and stuffing, and remember to call your Oma.
- Berger Cookies vs. Otterbein Cookies: It seems like everyone in Baltimore has an opinion on which cookie, Berger or Otterbein, is the superior treat. Berger Cookies are a thick buttery cookie with a sloppy but delicious mound of chocolate on top. Otterbein Cookies, on the other hand, are thin crispy cookies and come in various flavors. Luckily, the two are different enough that you can enjoy both depending on your craving.
- Snowballs: Starting in late April or early May, you’ll start seeing roadside Snowball shacks blossom all over the city. While shaved ice treats are available all over the world, Baltimore has a special claim on the treat, allegedly inventing it in the 1800s. The traditional Baltimore way to eat a snowball is drenched in vanilla egg custard and sometimes topped off with a marshmallow cream.
- Smith Island Cake: This is a basic yellow cake composed of about 8 thin layers and decadent fudge icing. It’s the official state dessert of Maryland. What more do you need to know?
- Peach Slab Cake: Old-fashioned peach cake has been a Baltimore tradition for well over a century. You can still buy them in old-school neighborhood bakeries like the Fenwick and Woodlea. Peach slab cakes have always been a must at every summer function.
- Lemon Sticks: Traditionally available at FlowerMart, the Lemon Stick is a typically Baltimorean way to welcome summer. Simply take a soft peppermint stick and jam it into half a lemon. The peppermint stick acts as a straw for this lemony, minty, refreshing treat.
- Ice Cream: Believe it or not, Baltimore also has a reputation for its ice cream! I once made the mistake of stepping into a debate between fans of Taharka Brothers Ice Cream, B’More Licks and The Creamery. I recommend the ice cream. I don’t recommend the argument.
While we are sure that the preferred research method for this subject is getting out there and eating, don’t forget that, if studying food is your calling, the library has what you need! We’ve got wonderful databases and journals about the history of food, food and culture, nutritional anthropology, and more. Not only that, but we’ve got an awesome collection of historic cookbooks in our Special Collections!