The local village, called Aquasco, has a long history. The first deed on the property dates to the late 1600s. The settlers grew corn and wheat, enjoyed the rich bounty of the Patuxent River, gathered and exported sassafras leaves for medicinal tea, and later grew tobacco. Southern Maryland had a reputation as one of the best tobacco-growing areas in the world. The region was also excellent for dairying and horse farming. British soldiers crossed the property during the War of 1812—there is an old military road on the south boundary of the farm—and just west of us John Wilkes Booth made his famous ride to stay in Dr. Mudd’s house after he assassinated President Lincoln.
We soon discovered that any kind of food culture had long since disappeared from this rich land. The local supermarket has a whole aisle for Jello, and a large display of “healthy spreads” in forty-five-ounce tubs. You have to reach for butter on the top shelf, while other shoppers transfer two, three and four tubs of spread from eye-level shelves into their carts. The market does have a small section of organic produce and once, when I picked up an organic sweet potato, a stranger grabbed my hand and said, “Don’t buy that, that’s organic!”
But the original owners of our house ate well. Mr. Philander Bowen and his wife Rachel purchased the property in 1862 and build a grand farmhouse in 1870. The Bowens grew tobacco as well as corn and wheat. The mill on the property ground the grains into flour, making Aquasco an almost self-sufficient community in those days. According to an interview with their grandson Harry Lee Bowen, published in 1984, the Bowens had ten to fifteen dairy cows, housed and milked in a brick stable built behind the house (we found old bricks from the stable when we moved in.) The property also had an ice house, chicken house (on metal pillars, to keep the snakes out), corn crib and of course, a tobacco barn.
According to Harry Lee, Rachel Bowen was an excellent cook who “used large quantities of milk for her rich dishes.” Milk—presumably butter milk and skim milk remaining after the production of butter and cream—was fed to the pigs—the major source of winter meat. Elaborate pens behind the stable sheltered the pigs.
The first Monday after the first frost in November was the day for slaughtering pigs. The hams and shoulders were cured in barrels. Five to seven hams went into each barrel, which was filled with water. Two eggs were dropped in the barrel and then salt was added until the eggs rose to the surface. After ten days the hams were removed, smeared with salt, saltpeter and molasses and put into sacks, which hung in the smokehouse for two years. It was a crime to eat a ham less than two years old, said Harry Lee. When ready for eating, a ham was soaked in water overnight and then boiled all day. The best and most tender hams had white worms in them called “skippers.”
The Bowens also kept salt herring in their basement and in the winter a barrel of oysters which they fed with oatmeal so fresh oysters would be available!
Harry Lee described Mr. Bowen a stern man who didn’t allow card playing or drinking in the house. But he kept a barrel of whiskey in the basement and took a drink every day before dinner (the midday meal).
Soon after we moved in, I interviewed Vivian Edelyn, age ninety-three, who was born in Aquasco and spent her childhood here. She described a leisurely life among the gentlemen farmers. People “didn’t really work very hard.” They produced everything on the farms except salt and sugar.
Breakfast started around 9:30 in the morning; dinner was from 3-4 and supper was served from 8-9. Breakfast could be eggs with sausage or bacon, or oatmeal with sugar, especially on Fridays. Sometimes they had corn cakes—on the Eastern Shore they ate buckwheat cakes. Mrs. Edelyn was very emphatic that “people in this area did not eat grits.” The people of the region, mostly of Scottish descent, ate oatmeal! On Sunday mornings they enjoyed steak with creamed potatoes.
Dinner could be chicken, duck, turkey, lamb, beef, squirrel, rabbit, pheasant or pork. Sometimes they had brains or liver. (The hired man got the kidneys.) Fried chicken was a favorite—fried in lard, of course. They never had sandwiches, she said, but a proper meal, one that included greens, corn bread, spoon bread, muffins or hot rolls, and sometimes popovers or Yorkshire pudding. At Easter they had stuffed ham. One nutrient-dense food she remembered was herring roe.
People drank lots of milk, she told me–there was always a jug of milk on the table. That would be creamy raw milk, of course. And there was always a plate of butter on the table also. I spoke to one old-timer who described the butter as deep yellow, almost orange, rounded into a half ball that looked more like cheese than butter. He said that everyone took a slice of the butter—not just a timid scraping—but a slice of one-half to one inch—he described this beautiful butter to me at a Farm Bureau dinner where they served only margarine.
According to Vivian, everyone had orchards, where they grew English walnuts, apples, pears, peaches, cherries, chestnuts and pecans (there were no orchards left here when we bought the property). People grew melons and potatoes in their gardens.
Vivian remembered the hams as brined in brown sugar, baking soda, salt and black pepper, then put in a cloth and smoked with walnut chips and hickory chips. Like so many southerners, she yearned for the delicious sausage of her youth.
One product of the hog butchering was scrapple, also known by the Pennsylvania Dutch name Pannhaas or “pan rabbit,” a mush of pork scraps including organ meats, cooked in broth and combined with cornmeal and wheat flour, often buckwheat flour, and spices, then congealed in a loaf pan and covered with lard to preserve it. Slices of scrapple fried in lard were typical breakfast fare, a delicious way to get a daily dose of organ meats. Scrapple is a true mid-Atlantic folk food, still popular in the states of Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Virginia.
The local population—both European American and African American—tended to be tall, slender and handsome. Wide facial structure was common, as typified by the tin type above, thought to be Margaret Ellen Morton, the sister of Mrs. Bowen. “Rich dishes” were a recipe for good health, in spite of the growing use of sugar.
For infectious illness, Vivian remembers drinking sassafras tea in March as it was a good “blood cleanser,” made with the inside of the bark and added sugar. Other folk remedies included a teaspoon of lard with sugar or molasses with butter for sore throats; very sticky orange juice (was that canned orange juice?) with sugar for swollen tonsils; and whisky with lemon juice for a bad cold.
People drank local whisky, not beer or wine—as a Tom Collins mixed with ginger ale, as a whiskey sour or as highballs, and they enjoyed mint julips in the summer. Eggnog was a drink for the holidays. During prohibition, there were lots of stills in the Aquasco woods. College students from Georgetown University made spending money by carrying the bootleg to Washington in the trunks of their cars.
World War II changed lives completely, said Vivian, much more so than World War I or the Civil War. In World War I they had meatless and wheat-less days. In World War II they had food stamps and gasoline stamps. Few folks grew their own food after World War II—since most people now had cars, it was more convenient to purchase food at the grocery store. Soon cornflakes replaced eggs and bacon and margarine replaced butter. Liver was toxic, the doctors began to say, and lard would give you heart disease.
Although the regional food ways have largely disappeared, a few do remain. Local blue crab is highly popular. Those living on the Patuxent river catch their own—you can buy crab pots in the local hardware store—and restaurants serve softshell crab from April to mid-September. Oysters and shad roe are two other nutrient-dense foods that the locals still enjoy.
And you can buy scrapple in the supermarkets, usually frozen but also fresh. The label lists the ingredients as pork stock, pork, pork skins, corn meal, wheat flour, pork hearts, pork livers, pork tongues, salt and spices–all good ingredients except the “spices,” which probably includes MSG. (The scrapple we sell in our farm store, made by our Mennonite butcher in Hagerstown, is seasoned only with salt and pepper.) Some modern recipes for scrapple call only for ground pork, corn meal and canned, condensed milk—talk about the corruption of a truly nutritious traditional food!
The long-smoked hams are a thing of the past. I have a letter written by my grandmother Susie to her daughter (my mother), dated in the early 1950s. The letter describes a family gathering that my mother (then living in California) could not attend—they had a crab feast with watermelon, and Susie had purchased a Smithfield ham to feed the crowd. “The ham is cured by a new method,” wrote Susie, “much less expensive.” In these few words, Susie captured the moment when the food supply began to change. A “new method” that allowed the company (at that time a local company, and small) to use chemicals for shortening the cure time, undercut artisan producers and consolidate power. Today Smithfield is the largest pig and pork producer in the world, and recently purchased by the Chinese.
One regional food we don’t find mentioned is cheese—cheese was a Yankee food, brought to New England by the Dutch. In fact, the word Yankee is a corruption of the words “John Cheese” in Dutch. So we are definitely introducing a new food to local agriculture. And we do have high hopes for a lively food culture to return to Southern Maryland—we have all the basic ingredients here to rival the food traditions of France—wonderful climate (except maybe in July and August), terrific seafood, well-draining soil (excellent for vineyards), good dairy country and woods full of mast for pigs. All it takes is for us to purchase our food from local farmers and not from conglomerates like Smithfield!
Take the 50 percent pledge! Pledge to purchase at least 50 percent of your food from local farmers and artisans—with the rest of your food budget you can celebrate how small the world has become! This campaign is sponsored by the Weston A. Price Foundation, your source of accurate information on diet and health.