The quote at hand here is a simple run of words, but it speaks volumes about the neighborliness and generosity that characterized life back in the early 1900s in a small, isolated community of watermen families living and working on the edge of Tangier Sound.
“Here, take this and fix it up fer Fred,” Uncle Ike said.
The words are from a 1967 memoir by William I. Tawes, God, Man, Salt Water and the Eastern Shore. Tawes grew up at the southernmost tip of Somerset County, Maryland, in a community he refers to as “The Creek,” after nearby Cedar Island Creek. He starts that book out by talking about the food he recalls from his childhood days. From our vantage point here in the 21st century, it’s easy to imagine that places like The Creek were chock full of delectable meals. The kitchens there must have been chock full of fresh-caught fish, succulent soft shells, home-grown produce, and sweet baked goods, right?
Not so much, actually. The delicacies of Delmarva were far too valuable in the commercial marketplace to ever be set aside for personal use.
Black-eyed peas, navy beans, and pork saltside were the food of the poor, supplemented, of course, by the staff of life, bread in the form of playcake. Oysters, crabs, and salable fish were the gold of the deep and were seldom used in the daily menu.
The Creek folks nearly without exception began their day with black coffee and playcake. Milk, much less cream, was only for the sick, but most of the folks used sugar in their coffee. Also, blackstrap molasses was occasionally used in which to sop their playcake or cornpone.
I have never heard of playcake outside of my home community but I feel it was not entirely original with my people. Playcake was like charity: vaunteth not itself, was not puffed up, and was kind; it satisfied the pangs of hunger when the cupboard was otherwise bare. It was made of dough: flour mixed with a varying amount of shortening, a teaspoon or so of yeast powder, and spread out flat in a pan and baked until brown. … It was of relative virtue; it could be as rich as pie crust, or just plain hardtack, which it usually was, and as hard as cement when cold.
When Creek people had fish for supper, it was croaker stew, cooked in a kettle with a cup of water and some green onions. When they had crabs, it was buckram pie—buckram being the name for crabs that had entered a stage of life where they were too hard and unpalatable to ship off to packing houses and big-city markets. When bivalves made an appearance on the menu during Tawes’s childhood, they were clams, not oysters.
The Creek crabber never brought [softshell crabs] home. They were the finny gold of the shoals and much too valuable to be eaten by their families.
There was one exception to these rules of Creek living, and it came into play when sickness visited a local family. Once, when Tawes himself was bedridden with scarlet fever at a young age, a neighbor came by and gave his mother a diamondback terrapin.
There was a belief in the community that no other food had the healing virtue of broth made from the diamondback. … Only now while I am recalling the incident do I fully appreciate the gift. The bull was worth a dollar for every inch of his belly plate.
Another incident of illness in the Tawes household brings us back to that quote where I started:
I was home when Uncle Ike stopped by when Father was ill and gave Mother a large rockfish he had caught. “Here, take this and fix it up fer Fred,” he said. “It ought to do some good.” The fish was large enough for the whole family’s supper.
Tawes finishes this little section of his memoir by putting this neighborliness and generosity in a broader perspective:
Uncle Ike went home to his playcake and beans, joying in his act of Christian charity with all of its Biblical implications. The Creek folks detested charity in any form. But gifts to the sick person, [that] was another matter; it was … a Christian gesture of sympathy in time of trouble. In a true sense the food [that neighbors brought by in times of illness] was manna from heaven inspired by the innate goodness of the Creek folks.
God, Man, Salt Water and the Eastern Shore is out of print. Copies are available in good used book stores in the region—I found mine at the Unicorn Bookshop in Trappe, Md. There are also used copies available here on Amazon.
–posted by Jim Duffy on March 16, 2019. Copyright Secrets of the Eastern Shore/Whimbrel Creations LLC. All rights reserved.
NOTE #1: This is a rough working draft from a book project I’ve just started working on. The idea is to compile a collection of “Delmarva Wisdom” from days gone by that still have the power to inspire us here in the 21st century. Thank you for spending a few minutes with it. Feedback welcome: SecretsoftheEasternShore at gmail dot com.
NOTE#2: The photo up top here showing a boat full of watermen is from the website of the Saxis Island Museum. It’s dated there as the early 1900s, so these guys quite possibly ventured up into Tangier Sound now and again right around the time Tawes was growing up and Uncle Ike was catching that valuable rockfish and giving it away to a neighbor in need.