Work took me to Baltimore a few weeks ago and I spent a short minute calculating how many years passed since my last visit to my mother's birthplace; at least twenty years. The Inner Harbor was rehabbed then, but not quite as fancy as it is today. Deciding between taxicab and light-rail into downtown was short work. Hadn't researched the city properly before touching down, so my decisions were impromptu.
Urban life fascinates me. The walking. The public transportation. Food trucks. The homeless. Buskers. People who don't/can't drive. Once I got that light-rail in my head, and knew it cost less than two dollars to transport me from the airport to downtown, I bought my ticket and hopped on. And that was perfect because it saved me the $30 + tip cab fare that's the flat rate. On the ride, I thought of Ian. Wondered if we lived in Baltimore whether he'd like driving a passenger train rather than a coal train. Then I thought about my mom and her childhood and whether she rode trains when she lived there in the 1950s and 1960s. Naturally, thoughts turned further back to my grandmother and when she lived in Baltimore and whether she and her mother rode a train from Tennessee to Baltimore when they moved there in the 1940s.
Exited the light rail kind of where I thought I should, but not really. Ended up wheeling my carry on behind me along Eutaw Street. Bad idea. Wish I'd known to stop in at Lexington Market where the best Lump Crab Cakes are had at Faidley's. Oh well, missed out on that. They ship. No photos of any of that travail because I wasn't whipping out my camera. Oh heck. I was so out of my element. Everybody knew I was in the wrong place. Several men asked if I needed a ride somewhere. I declined.
My grandparents met in Baltimore after Marie (my grandmother) and her mother, Ada, moved north as part of the Appalachian Diaspora in the 1940s to find work because there was none here. At one time Marie worked at a Planter's peanut plant in Baltimore. Mom and her family returned to Tennessee in the 1960s after Ada died. Thanks to all the years they lived in Baltimore, they developed an everlasting love of crabs, which they shared and cultivated in me by teaching me to eat them and love their taste, and their mess.
The bit of food prep I did prior was thanks to Laura Lippman. If you read mystery, then you may know her work. Lippman writes a series featuring Tess Monaghan set in Baltimore that usually features stake outs in restaurants. The worst part is that Monaghan has shellfish allergies. Terrible thing, that. Lippman also writes other mysteries as well and splits her time between Baltimore and New Orleans, where I'm headed in--oh, let me count the days--six days. I like her on Facebook and she asked what she should blog about. I requested food in Baltimore, because I'm all about food and think everyone else should be too. She and the folks who commented gave me pages of names of restaurants to consider. I kept them accessible in my Droid.
So even though I never lived in Baltimore and had only visited there once before I have a fondness for the city because my mother grew up on High Street, Little Italy, I think. Reading Lippman's books is one small way I pay tribute to my mother. And always carrying a warm fuzzy feeling for Baltimore is another, despite it being quite possibly the dirtiest city I've ever visited. There was trash everywhere. Oh, and a love of John Waters' films.
That initial visit some twenty years ago cinched my love affair with Baltimore and linked the city forever in my mind with drinking because of the city's nonchalant liquor laws. I was twenty but appear younger than my age, which was the bane of my younf life. At thirty-nine, I still get carded and boy howdy it makes me feel gooooooooood. When my ceramics professor took my classmates and I to a crab shacky kind of place near the Inner Harbor for dinner, we sat as a group and ordered drinks, but my experience with mixed drinks was mostly vodka and orange juice, so I was clueless about what to order. Millie, a server at The Peerless, suggested I try a gin & tonic. I loved it. It's been my signature drink ever since for two reasons: It was my first illegal drink, and, as a quasi-Druid who loves all tree-products, (this is how one of my husband's friends described me to him when we first dated "She's a tree hugger. Don't buy her flowers. Buy her a plant") naturally, juniper berries are divine.
Strolling the Inner Harbor after dinner, we entered a shopping area and ordered beer. Again I was not carded. We walked around carrying open containers of alcohol. Just simply unheard of in East Tennessee in 1991 at the time. So, you see, Baltimore had it going on.
Of course, there was the time, the second time, actually, when I worked as an historical interpreter at Rocky Mount. It's one of those historic places that does first-person interpretation where you become the person and lead tour groups around the cabin and grounds in character. I used my name, Rebecca, and worked with the director to develop my character. She was a Catholic woman from Baltimore who wore very fancy costume. Along with her husband and children, she visited the Cobbs because her husband sought trade opportunities along the Great Wagon Road/Southwest Territory, because believe it or not, East Tennessee was, at one time THE Southwest Territory of the US. But she kept her religion secret and they worshipped secretly because if you know much about religious history in 18th century America, Catholics were persecuted. So there's that whole Baltimore connection going on, too.
This trip I chose my hotel for its proximity to the Enoch Pratt Free Library because I am a librarian. And after the dicey stroll down Eutaw street and a rest in my room, I spent a few hours soaking in the loveliness that is the EPFL, doing a little genealogy research, chatting with the homeless, badgering the reference staff to dig up books on WACS out of their stacks, etc. I've dreamt of visiting its environs for years. It is one of the oldest established free libraries in the US. I am the ultimate library geek. I love books. When I vacation, or travel for business, I learn where the libraries are, and I make point to visit them.
Thank goodness for Yelp! Luckily Tio Pepe was less than a block from my hotel and so dinner the first night was Spanish. The architecture in Baltimore, at least in the Mt. Vernon district where I stayed, reminded me of Boston how so many businesses and residences were at basement level. Tio Pepe was recommended by someone who commented on Lippman's blog post. Spanish food is not something common in East Tennessee. The sangria they served was the best I've ever had. Most sangria I order is bland, but I was amazed. Good bread, nice butter.
There's something about Spanish restaurants and their interiors. At least the ones I've been to. They remind me of dungeons. I like them, but they scare me. Lots of white plaster or brick work. Thick-plank black wooden doors. Dangerous ornamental sconces and light fixtures. Like, if you can't pay the bill or undertip, they'll take you to a back room and strap you to a torture device. Tio Pepe's was understated, lots of photos at their website. I took no photos. Didn't seem like the thing to do. Was a fancy, pricey place. I felt odd enough dining alone.
The Tio Pepe in Tampa, FL was over-wrought, more reminiscent of Ripley's Believe It or Not. At the one in Baltimore, the servers were male and were native speaker of Spanish which made me wonder about Baltimore's ethnic enclaves. I know about Little Italy. That's where my grandfather grew up, even though he was German-Irish.
Since I didn't get the lump crab cake at Lexington Market, I ordered a grouper special topped with crab and champagne. Vegetables and potatoes accompanied it. The grouper was light and delicious, and I mostly ate the crab because I was quite full from snarfing the bread and butter. Too bad there was no fridge in my room to take my leftovers to. Nor were there any homeless between the restaurant and my hotel to foist my leftovers onto, either. Sadly, I find Spanish desserts somewhat lackluster and with a full stomach, there was no quibbling.
I dined at Sascha's 527 Cafe the second night, again because of it's proximity to my hotel. I was carless and walked everywhere. I spied it the previous day, noted it's location, and when my stomach grumbled on Wednesday I walked down the brick-paved sidewalk past the lovely verdigris cafe tables and chairs outside their windows and inside their soaring sixteen foot ceiling space for a very early dinner. Having the dining room to myself was lovely. Bright acrylic portraits limned the walls and someone brought bread-sticks and a green olive thingy (how else to describe it?) for me to snack on while I browsed the menu. Their playlist was lovely: Dolly Parton, Nora Jones, and some other homey feeling tunes that segued into jazz, believe it or not.
Went for the Duck confit ravioli because there aren't enough opportunities for me to eat duck in my real life. It was divine. Here's their description: "Homemade Ravioli w. Duck Confit and Mascarpone, Black Pepper Honey and Sage Brown Butter." I didn't expect sweet. Sascha's serves tasting plates, so I also ordered the cheese plate. It was so-so. It's description outdid the reality. Not outstanding, but it didn't fill me up, and that was my goal. The shame is that I've forgotten the name of the Excellent cocktail I drank. It was all gingered up. Perhaps a ginger martini? Simply delightful and refreshing. Who knew Baltimore could be so hot and humid in mid May? No dessert there, either. I browsed their menu, nothing inspired. Is Baltimore known for carrot cake? It was touted as a special or Baltimore's finest, or some such.
Oh, and to not have the air conditioning at Salamander Used Books? Bad Form. There was a box fan. The man selling books said he was waiting to turn it on later for a book group. Why antagonize your customers and add to their misery?
Actually, I'm eager to return. I didn't visit the art museums. I'm sure there are many more eating adventures I missed out on. There's a cupcake establishment receiving good and bad reviews. There's a pie or cake place featured on the Food Network one Laura told me to visit, but without a car and with no impulse to try the bus system or hop in a cab, I didn't. And another Laura raves about it and so I think I should give it another go for her sake and maybe focus on more nautical pursuits. Or a cocktail tour.
Okay, I got over my fear of taxi cabs about eight years ago and manage them okay. Watching the Bone Collector made me fearful of stepping into strangers' vehicles. I talk to strangers all day, but trusting them with my life is another thing.