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Culture and cuisine of the Chesapeake Bay

May 1, 2014

You can’t talk about Maryland cuisine without mentioning seafood. And you certainly can’t mention Maryland seafood without talking about the Chesapeake Bay. It’s important to learn, understand and appreciate the distinct foods Maryland has to offer, but it’s even more imperative to understand where that food comes from. The Chesapeake Bay is the life water that runs through Maryland as well as five other states, and is one of the defining factors that have shaped Maryland cuisine.

The Chesapeake Bay is the largest estuary in the United States, spanning approximately 200 miles long. It’s home to two of the country’s five major North Atlantic ports, Baltimore and Hampton Roads, and it produces about 500 million pounds of seafood per year.

Commercial fishing in the Bay began in the 18th century and expanded in the 19th century. However, some of Maryland’s most beloved seafood has been a part of the Bay for thousands of years.

Eastern oysters, also known as American or Virginia oysters, are estimated to have been in the Bay for over 5,000 years. They use to be prolific; According to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in 2007, it is estimated that there were enough oysters in the pre-colonial Bay to filter its entirety in only 3.3 days. However, due to over harvesting, habitat loss, pollution from runoff and disease, harvest levels have fallen to less than 1 percent of historic levels, levels that use to reach tens of millions of bushels a year. Oyster farming, as opposed to harvesting wild oysters, has been a way to combat both pollution in the Bay as well as the over harvesting of Eastern oysters. Oysters are natural filter feeders, and the Chesapeake Bay Program has been using oysters to combat excessive nitrogen compounds in the Bay.

Eastern oysters are essential to Maryland cuisine. They’re sweet yet salty, almost reminiscent of the ocean, as well as meaty and mild in flavor. They’re usually eaten during months that contain an “R” in their names, such as the winter months through early spring. Many cities, towns, organizations and schools have annual Bull and Oyster Roasts throughout the year, where people get together and celebrate by eating barbecue, such as Pit Beef, and raw and cooked oysters.

Striped bass, known locally as rockfish or stripers, is the most important commercial and recreational fish species in the Bay. It has also been the state fish of Maryland since 1965. Unlike oysters, striped bass populations are at sustainable levels. Chesapeake Bay Stuffed Rockfish is a classic Maryland dish, which consists of rockfish fillets stuffed with crab imperial, another Maryland classic.

Yet, the natural train of thought (Maryland … seafood … the Chesapeake Bay) can only lead to one delicious thing: Blue Crabs.

More than one-third of the nation’s Blue Crabs come from the Bay, and they have the highest value of any Chesapeake Bay commercial fishery, bringing in more than $50 million a year. Not only is this keystone species Maryland’s largest and most important commercial fishery, but it’s also the state crustacean.

Watermen, independent fishers who make a living from fishing and harvesting in the Bay, are an integral part to the Bay’s history, culture and the seafood that comes out of it. They fish year-round and modify their catch to the seasons. In the summer, however, they focus on crabs, which they catch using crabpots, the most common method used to harvest crabs. Summer is the season for blue crabs, and there’s nothing like taking a crab mallet to a steamed claw and dipping the sweet meat in vinegar and Old Bay®. There’s soft shell crab (crabs that have just molted), crab imperial, Maryland crab soup and Maryland crab cakes, which are distinct in their use of Old Bay®, lump crab meat, and just enough bread crumbs to keep the cake together. Faidley’s Seafood down at Lexington Market sells one of Baltimore’s most famous crab cakes, but you can find a Maryland crab dish at almost any restaurant, such as Charles Village Pub and Eddies Market on St. Paul Street.

In addition to oysters, striped bass and crabs, there’s a vast variety of seafood in the Bay that contribute to Maryland cuisine, such as bluefish, catfish and bay scallops. However, the Bay and its wildlife have taken a huge hit from over harvesting and fishing, pollution from fertilizer runoff and a general lack of education when it comes to sustainable fishing. Food sustains us, and it’s important that we help to sustain it in order to keep alive the cuisine and culture that surrounds it. Visit the Chesapeake Bay Program and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation online for more information on how to restore and save the Bay.

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