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Eat Feature


War and Peas

Michelle Gienow
Michelle Gienow
Miller's Café & Deli

Eat Special Issue 2002

Time to Eat City Paper's Dining Guide 2002 | By Michelle Gienow

1900-1919 A Toast to the New World Power | By Michelle Gienow

1920s Speakeasies, Cocktails, and All That Jazz

1930s Hard Times, Good Eats | By Michelle Gienow

1940s War and Peas | By Michelle Gienow

1950s Rock 'n' Roll 'n' TV Dinners | By Michelle Gienow

1960s Power to the Peoples | By Michelle Gienow

1970s Sideburns and Szechwan | By Michelle Gienow

1980s Blackened Ron and Nancy | By Michelle Gienow

1990s Boom and Buzz | By Michelle Gienow

2000s Onward and Inward | By Michelle Gienow

Eat 2002

By Michelle Gienow | Posted 2/27/2002

The 1940s were a decade divided. During the first half America was at war; it was a time of patriotism, of pulling together and making do. Once the war ended, however, the economy (and the babies) started to boom. Wartime privation gave way to one of the greatest periods of abundance the nation has ever known.

During those World War II food-rationing programs (1942-'46 for most items), a complicated system of coupon books allowed about 28 ounces of meat per person per week; cheese, coffee, butter, and sugar were also controlled. Anyone with access to a square of earth had a victory garden, growing vegetables to supplement allotted food rations. Good old American home cooking was on every plate, and meat and potatoes were the pinnacle of the era's eats.

If Shula's Steak House (Wyndham Inner Harbor Hotel, 101 W. Fayette St., [410] 385-6630) had been around 60 years ago you could have used an entire month's meat-rationing coupons on just one of its mammoth steaks. Joining the "48 Oz. Club" (the Shula chain's national honor society for those who can kill a three-pound, $65 porterhouse in one sitting) would have been out of the question. Today, fortunately, we can order anything we like off the ol' pigskin (Shula's menu is presented on an official NFL football) and eat he-man cuts of certified Angus beef while admiring memorabilia from the 1972 Miami Dolphins' perfect season.

The meat-and-gridiron theme is also on display at McCafferty's (1501 Sulgrave Ave., [410] 664-2200), a classic chophouse with Baltimore sports memorabilia for décor (the place is named for former Colts coach Don McCafferty and is now run by his son). McCafferty's beef is sublime but--unlike at many other steak places--the kitchen pays equal attention to other forms of protein. The melt-in-your-mouth prime rib is wonderful, but there are also terrific lamb chops and a tangy ginger-glazed seared salmon.

At Ruth's Chris Steak House (600 Water St., [410] 783-0033), they present your potential dinner raw and arrayed on a platter like, well, just another piece of meat. Except the seductively marbled, dry-aged steaks aren't just any hunk of beef--when they return to your table cooked precisely to order (the staff accepts a "rare-medium" request without blinking an eye), you can cut them with a butter knife. Which seems only appropriate considering the staggering amount of butter these babies are cooked in.

A newcomer to the city's cathedrals of carnivorism, Chester's Steakhouse (1717 Eastern Ave., [410] 732-9800) is a welcome addition: at last, good steaks that don't break the bank. The house special is "Chester's Steak," a gratifyingly gigantic (20-ounce) ribeye that's too big for its platter--and is a steal at $14.95. The smaller steaks leave more room for Chester's exemplary potato selections: buttery mashed, hand-cut fried, homemade hashed, or classic baked. If you want something green, though, it'll cost extra--in strict steak-house tradition, sides and salads (other than potatoes) are not included, but since you're already deep into coronary country why not splurge on the creamed spinach?

Steak wasn't the only meat of choice during the '40s; delicatessens were also a popular option. They had been around since the previous century, serving the needs of observant Jewish immigrants working long hours in the New World. Delis supplied ready-made kosher foods that were laborious, time-consuming, and difficult to prepare in a tiny tenement kitchen. They were possibly the first "fast food" restaurants, and are still unquestionably the best. During the war, when women left their kitchens for the factories, they needed an inexpensive and convenient replacement for the traditional home-cooked meal--and so Rosie the Riveter turned to the corner deli.

Say the word "deli" to a Baltimorean and the immediate word-association response will be "Attman's" (1019 E. Lombard St., [410] 563-2666), the city's senior shrine to corned beef. Most of the founders of Corned Beef Row have fled or faded, but Attman's keeps dishing up the deli stalwarts to an inevitably long line of hungry customers. Dine in-house in "Stewart Attman's Kibitz Room" to watch the show: the counterpeople bustle behind cases full of kosher delights, intimidating, aggravating, and cracking wise to each customer in turn.

Miller's Café and Deli (2849 Smith Ave., Pikesville, [410] 602-2233) belongs to a very different delicatessen era, the glamorous age of 1930s Times Square delis, when Broadway performers ducked out between shows for a pastrami on rye. Service is still cafeteria-style--line up, order at the counter --but the dining room is stylish, with movie-star photos for decoration. Still, Miller's has the deli bustle, filling its customers' trays with matzo-ball soup, tongue sandwiches, and bagels with lox and a schmear. Great food in a friendly (if sometimes frenzied) atmosphere.

Of course, delis aren't only a Jewish institution. Having recently completed its first century, Trinacria (406 N. Paca St., [410] 685-7285) is one of the city's oldest sandwich counter-cum-ethnic groceries. There's not much of a menu; it's more of a tell-'em-what-you-want arrangement. (We'll have pesto, fresh mozzarella, and tomatoes on warm focaccia.) There are all kinds of imported goodies--sausages, cheeses, pastas, olives--that the personable staff will happily compile into the sandwich (or big take-home bag of treats) of your choice. Word to the wise: A bargain bottle from Trinacria's selection of sturdy Italian reds will transform your take-away into true gourmet.

By the end of the '40s, many moms were back in the kitchen and, for the first time, had a wealth of frozen and pre-made foods to make life easier. Home cooks were spurred by the launch of Gourmet magazine (1941) to tackle chichi recipes such as chicken cordon bleu. A landmark event was the first Pillsbury Bake-off (1949, won by Mrs. Theodora Smafield and her "No-Knead Water Rising Twists"). 1949 was a chart-buster year for desserts: both Pillsbury and General Mills introduced cake mixes to the market, and, for those disinclined to baking even with a little chocolate-cake helper in a box, Sara Lee cheesecake also appeared in grocery-store freezer cases.

Fifty-three years later, the grocery store now devotes an entire aisle to frozen desserts, but food scientists still haven't bested homemade desserts. There is, however, one area where the baking is almost always better left to professionals, and by that we don't mean Marie Callender or Mrs. Smith. Nope, we're talking Serious Sweets, the kind you need a tall white hat and a degree from a culinary school to do right. Plenty of upscale pastry places call themselves "authentic French bakeries," but at Pâtisserie Poupon (820 E. Baltimore St., [410]-332-0390) the claim is true. It's no small achievement--after all, the French invented fine baking. Literally everything we've ever had from Poupon is exquisite, from the petites tartes aux abricots to the opulently delectable wedding cakes ordered by the area's most discriminating brides and grooms.

A recent, ravishing arrival is Bonaparte Breads (903 S. Ann St., [410] 342-4000), where a traditional French breakfast (featuring a choice of two pastries, plus bread and café au lait) costs $6. Any time of day you can find fantastic French pastries: tiny raspberry tarts, pain au chocolate, chausson aux pommes, and so many other salivary stimulants. A special favorite is the lofty Napoleon made of seasonal fruits and luscious custard, but even if we come for the pastry we never seem to leave without one of those rotund loaves of berrichone bread or a light, buttery brioche.

The Fenwick Bakery (7219 Harford Road, [410] 444-6410) is a small, sweetly old-fashioned shop. You'll find no mille feuille here--just a delightful best peach cake (summer only), along with crumb cake, cinnamon rolls, and pineapple upside-down cake, if they're not sold out by the time you arrive. If they are, there always seem to be a few of Fenwick's terrific, light-as-air dinner rolls left on the shelves as consolation.

Calling Vaccaro's Italian Pastry Shop (222 Albemarle St., [410] 685-4905) a bakery is like describing Cal Ripken as a guy who plays baseball: It's true, but woefully inadequate. One-third of this Little Italy shop is taken up by sparkling glass cases full of little Italian cookies, cannoli, cheesecake, fruit tarts . . . name the pastry, it's there. The remaining two-thirds of the space is filled with customers drooling over the array of goodies. Experienced Vaccaro's visitors know to share--the servings feed at least two people. Packed elbow to elbow at the small café tables, they plow into a specialita della casa such as the heavenly apple strudel Napoleon, served warm with vanilla gelato and whipped cream.

No rundown of Baltimore bakeries would be complete without Berger's Bakery (Lexington Market, 400 W. Lexington St., [410] 727-3685). Berger's is just like any other traditional bakery, with one important exception: its famous chocolate-icing-drenched vanilla cookies. They're available at local groceries and even online (www.bergercookies. com), but there's nothing like going straight to the source.

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