Midway through my hour-long interview with John Shields, we turned our discussion to the Chesapeake region—the environment and the food popularized by the people. Growing up in Maryland, but in the Washington, DC suburbs, I never realized that the Chesapeake region extended in Virginia and parts of Pennsylvania. In fact I learned a number of things from Shields that I had not been aware of including how Maryland had once been the nation’s leading supplier of oysters and the proliferation of the invasive blue cat fish.
Buen Provecho Amigos: So, what brought you back to the East Coast?
Shields: I was in Berkeley and there was this guy John Harris who started a publishing company called Aris Books. It probably was one of the first boutique cookbook publishers in the US. And he used to come up every week to Gertie’s and he’d say, “John, you ever think about writing a book on the Chesapeake?” He goes on. “I’ve researched it. There are no national books on the Chesapeake. You ever thought of it?” I’d say, “No, I didn’t think about it. I’m cooking, shut up.” And so, he would come in every week for years. And then finally, you know, I started thinking about it and I made a plan. So, I did it with him. I came back here—you know, I drove back in my little Volkswagen Beetle—and I got an apartment right around the corner from here and I spent nine months traveling up and down the Chesapeake, you know over 200 miles long, north to south. I went to little towns, little villages, interviewed water men, their wives, people that work in the crab picking houses—anybody that’s integral to the community because I wanted it to be not me telling the story. I wanted it to be the people who live on the Bay to tell the story. And there are so many nuances when you go from up in Pennsylvania to the Susquehanna all the way down to Hampton Roads, Va., and Williamsburg. Just think about the history of all those regions, the demographics in all of those regions. So, the cuisine—I mean you could say Chesapeake Cuisine . . .
Buen Provecho Amigos: But it’s pretty broad.
Shields: It’s pretty broad and growing up here; I only knew here.
Buen Provecho Amigos: Well, you know, what’s funny is I grew up in Maryland in Takoma Park. So, before I opened your book, The New Chesapeake Kitchen, I only thought Maryland. And then you started talking about the Virginia side, and that’s where I live now. I live in Alexandria. I had not thought of Virginia as being part of the Chesapeake landscape. It’s a broad, broad area.
Shields: It sure is. And it goes all the way up Pennsylvania, up the Susquehanna because it’s all, all part of the watershed. So, it’s a pretty big area and it encompasses all kinds of sub-regional American kind of things.
Buen Provecho Amigos: So, what are some of the sub-regions?
Shields: Okay, let’s think of some of those. I hadn’t thought about it in a while. Let’s make believe like we are traveling the Chesapeake. The North . . . the Northeast region encompasses the top of Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania. Up there you would find—which I wasn’t aware of at the time—a huge Pennsylvania Dutch, Quaker, Mennonite and Amish area. And so, you’re going to get all kinds of dishes—what you would think as comfort food. And I would say a lot of that has European, Eastern European and Germanic influences. And those communities are all agricultural in nature. So even then, when I was there, they were still on the land farming and they were farming in a very—we could say now—almost a primitive manner. You know, they weren’t using machines. They were using horses.
Buen Provecho Amigos: Were they rotating crops?
Shields: They were rotating crops. It was an integrated form of agriculture which we’re trying to return to now. But again, I have been pulled out of that for a while. So that was interesting to see as I would go down the Eastern Shore, you had a couple—as you do many parts of the Bay—you have a number of things colliding, usually, English because in many of those towns, the people had come over like in 1600, 1700 and just stayed. So those families have been here like forever, and then you had the African-American, the slavery influence, and that that became more apparent the further south you went on that trip. And then you had a really interesting micro, microcosm on Tangier Island. Have you ever been there?
Buen Provecho Amigos: Tangier Island? I’ve heard of it; I don’t think I’ve been there.
Shields: It’s towards the mouth of the Bay, all the way south, and it sits in the middle. So, it’s a long boat ride out to this island. When it was settled in like, “16 whatever”, those people and families that came over never left.
Buen Provecho Amigos: They’re still on the island.
Shields: They’re still on the island. So, linguists from all around the globe come there because it’s the most perfect form of Elizabethan English spoken in the world.
Buen Provecho Amigos: Wow.
Shields: Because think about it. These people came from Elizabethan England, settled there, they had very little contact with the outside world and now obviously that changed in the 20th century.
Buen Provecho Amigos: Yeah, but there must be some great historical records.
Shields: Oh yeah. So, the food mimics that but it also mimics a world of scarcity because the island could only grow—it’s very sandy—it could only grow certain crops and most of the things had to be from the sea and the Bay or things that boats brought over to them. And it was interesting like when I was looking at things even from like 1850, 1860 everything called for tinned milk because there were no cows on the island. So, they had to bring in canned milk—they called it tin—as their source of dairy and they use very little dairy.
Buen Provecho Amigos: How big is the island, would you say?
Shields: It’s significant. It’s not tiny, tiny. I mean, I don’t know how many square miles it is. It’s not huge. But when you think of a Chesapeake island, you think that it’s from here to there. It’s pretty, it’s pretty big and there’s no, no automobiles allowed. They have bikes and they have motor bikes. They are allowed to have motorbikes, but no cars have been allowed on the island. So, it’s a neat place to see. Now it is dead center in climate change because it’s disappearing like crazy. I don’t, I don’t think it’ll probably be there for me more than another couple of generations.
Buen Provecho Amigos: What is the industry on the island?
Shields: Seafood, and that’s another problem. And as the stocks of seafood keep going down, the money they can make goes down. Tourism is a big source of revenue for them where a hundred years ago it was not. It’s an interesting kind of community.
Buen Provecho Amigos: You touch upon the fact that the seafood is declining. Is that, I am assuming, the case throughout most of the Chesapeake?
Shields: Well, yeah, yeah. When I say decline, what I mean is a reduction, a continual but gradual reduction in stocks per species. Do you understand what I mean? So, it’s not like all the fisheries have completely collapsed, but off and on, they’re on the verge of collapse and that’s problematic. Then some of that is due to overfishing. Environmental factors are huge in that. Encroachment of population along the shores of the Bay and loss of habitat for wildlife that are actually beneficial to seafood. Do you know what I mean? It’s all connected. And then one of the other big issues is—besides the decline—is we have the invasive species that have come in. So, I think I talked about it at the . . .
Buen Provecho Amigos: The DC Food Bloggers meeting . . . you mentioned the blue catfish.
Shields: The blue catfish and I talked about the blue channel catfish, which at this time is taking up over 70 percent of the biomass . . .
Buen Provecho Amigos: It’s interesting that you mentioned invasive species. I was having a conversation about this with a friend and his reaction was “well that’s just part of the cycle of life.” It’s migratory—nature and people. You know, it’s reflected in terms of what we as humans do. My friend is a Baltimore native. I said, well, would you want to simply have crab disappear completely. I mean that would be awful.
Shields: It would be awful, and it could happen. But he’s right in the extent if we go look all over the world many native species actually were invasive species two hundred, three hundred thousand years ago. They were invasive species. So, it isn’t evolutionary process. Sometimes it’s a slow evolution or as in the case of the blue catfish, it was a bunch of sports fishermen who brought them and introduced them down in Virginia, so they could catch ‘em. But they had no idea . . .
Buen Provecho Amigos: . . . what it was going to do to the environment.
Buen Provecho Amigos: Had these invasive species in been incorporated into the diet of the region?
Shields: We’re just starting in the last five years. Otherwise . . .
Buen Provecho Amigos: You were trying to figure out how to get rid of him, and now it’s like they’re here so you might as well incorporate them in your diet. . .
Shields: So that’s exactly what we got to do. So, in the book it talks a lot about that. We have a number of recipes using that particular variety of fish.
Buen Provecho Amigos: Are distributors starting to carry them?
Shields: Yes. Well, I don’t know if I talked about this or not, but actually there is an interesting story. There are some women from DC who are involved in homeless population solutions and feeding. They heard about this problem with the blue catfish being an invasive species. I don’t know if it was ten years ago or more, 12 years ago or 15. Anyhow these women went to fishermen all over the Chesapeake and said, “hey if we could find you two or three wholesalers that will take as much of the blue catfish as you can catch, would you catch it?” Cause they weren’t catching blue catfish because there was no market for it. So why catch it? You know what I mean? There’s no market; you’re not going to catch it. So, a few fishermen said sure. It became what’s known as the Wide Net Project and a percentage of all the fish that sold to the restaurants from the wholesalers goes back to the Wide Net Project which helps to feed the homeless in DC. They have a great website and a lovely introductory video on the whole thing too that gives a good background about it. So anyway, that flips the thing, getting back to what you and I have been talking about. There’s the past, kind of what went wrong and some of the bad news, and then I go on to say but that’s not what The New Chesapeake Kitchen is about. This book is about hope and about the good things that are happening. So, I start to talk about the Wide Net Project and all the proliferation of farmers’ markets that are now springing up. There’s a whole new generation of young farmers who are making a viable living growing in-demand produce to consumer, direct to consumers and making a good living with what we call high-value crops. And then you have all these young people that are now joined in cheese-making, artisan cheese-making and wine-making. They’re doing whiskey-making. Mead-making. They’re doing oyster-farming. Oysters were the biggest industry in the Chesapeake beyond anything.
Buen Provecho Amigos: Even more so than crabs?
Shields: Way more. Crabs were déclassé. You didn’t want to eat crabs. They were trash fish. So, the oyster was king in the Chesapeake. There were wars fought on the Chesapeake. They called them the Great Oyster Wars. But the oysters were over fished, and some bacterial problems took hold. As of 10 years ago, one percent of what was harvested during the heyday of oysters was being harvested. The industry was down to one percent of the height of oysters harvested. The oyster industry collapsed for a time. And now we have young people who are farming oysters of those old varieties that were once plentiful all over the Bay. They’re farming them, which is not like farming shrimp or farming salmon. It’s just growing them in floats, and you don’t feed them. They just need all the Plankton that’s in the Bay just like normal oysters.
Buen Provecho Amigos: So, they’re grown in a natural habitat, not in a warehouse?
Shields: And there’s no chemicals involved. There’s no antibiotics. There’s nothing but what they eat.
Buen Provecho Amigos: But you have to have some skill to start farming them.
Shields: You do and that’s where the young innovative people are coming in, like the young man who started Hollywood Oyster Farm. He started about 25 years ago and is a pioneer in the industry. Hollywood Oysters are growing millions of oysters in a whole huge tributary of water. In fact, the tributary has gone back to the water quality of probably of when Captain John Smith sailed into the Chesapeake in 16, whatever it was. It is completely restored. Fish of every kind is growing in there. The quality, the health is unbelievable. And so now young people are doing that all over the Bay.
Blue Cat Seafood Hash
In addition to selling blue catfish to restaurants, the Wide Net Project (WNP) also sells the fish at retail. I was able to find it in the Washington, DC area at MOM’s Organic Market, but if you are outside the area, Wide Net will ship a minimum of 25 lbs of blue catfish directly to your home. All proceeds go to WNP and its efforts to support hunger-relief organizations and the environment.
Serves 4 or 5
3 cups diced cooked potatoes
2 cups flaked cooked blue catfish fillet
1/2 lb smoked salmon or other type of smoked fish
8 ounces (1 stick) butter or 6 tablespoons of olive oil
1 small yellow onion, diced
3 green onions, minced
2 teaspoons chopped garlic
1 teaspoon Tabasco sauce
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
3 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf (Italian) parsley
1 tablespoon dill
1 tablespoon chopped dill
1 tablespoon chopped chives
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
Old Bay seasoning to taste
3 tablespoons or so of vegetable oil, for frying
8-10 freshly poached eggs
Combine the potatoes, cooked catfish, and smoked fish in a mixing bowl and mix well. Melt the butter in a large skillet and sauté the yellow and green onions and garlic until soft. Add the Tabasco sauce, Worcestershire sauce, and lemon juice. Then pour into the bowl containing the potato-fish mixture. Stir in the parsley, dill and chives, mixing well, but take care not to mash the potatoes. Season the hash with salt, freshly ground pepper and Old Bay to taste.
Heat the vegetable oil in a skillet and fry the fish hash mixture until browned on the underside. Flip and brown the second side. Divide the hash onto serving plates and serve immediately, topped with poached eggs. For a fancier brunch, you can top the eggs with a Hollandaise sauce and a sprinkling of Old Bay Seasoning.