- Historic Sites
The Taste Of Time
All across America there are restaurants that serve up the spirit and conviviality of eras long past
April 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 2
The Centerton Inn is a stout clapboard building, smack at the corner of two state routes. Inside, it re- tains the aura of the early nineteenth century, not that of its earlier, rougher era. A place would not last long today if it were a truly authentic eighteenth-century tavern. “They were mostly log huts, or a frame weatherboarded,” wrote a traveler of the taverns he stopped at in the Carolinas. “As to edibles, whether you called for breakfast, dinner or supper, the reply was one—eggs and bacon. Ten to one you had to cook the meal yourself.” The Centerton Inn is much more hospitable than that these days, with a long menu and a Mediterranean sensibility in the specialty seafood dishes. The Centerton Inn makes its mark most notably in the way that it has reinvented dessert. The three things usually wrong with dessert are that sometimes the portion is too big, sometimes the portion is too little, and most times as soon as the server brings the cheesecake, you realize how badly you wanted pie. At the end of a meal at the Centerton Inn, no one comes by to take a dessert order. Instead the house sends over a tray with about fifteen miniature portions of all different cakes and pastries; those at the table can sample from it at will, no extra charge. To my mind that tray compensates for anything that the Centerton Inn may have put its guests through at mealtimes 250 years ago.
Early America, being America nonetheless, had to have fast food. People who didn’t enjoy good home lives had to eat out; others, who didn’t plan their days very well, found themselves on the street at mealtime. In either case a person could always grab a quick oyster. Oysters were just like hamburgers today: They were cheap, they were readily available, and however lowly, they could be very good. Oystermen had stands at street corners, serving food in a matter of seconds. The oysterman had a big knife, and he would pry open the number of oysters that a customer ordered and slide them across a board. Customers stood around the board, eating and ordering until they were full.
John W. Faidley Seafood, in downtown Baltimore, was started in 1886, but as an oyster stand it is timeless. Far from being quaint, it has all the charm of a busy workroom, and since that is all that it has ever been, tile-lined and noisy, it is charm enough. All the way around the walls of the one large room, workers clean fish, cook it, or weigh it up to sell raw. A blackboard lists the sources of the day’s catch, typically including every body- of water in eastern Maryland bigger than a horse trough. (A historic restaurant ought to be a bastion of local ingredients. My local supermarket at home in upstate New York boasts that its seafood comes from Thailand; I boast that Faidley’s does not.) The specialty at Faidley’s is the All Lump Crab Cake, “All Lump” referring conveniently to both the exact type of crabmeat used and the shape of the thing when it is done, jumbled up with cracker crumbs, mayonnaise, and a little mustard. Broiled or fried, it is a delicacy at ten bucks for a crab cake about the size of a baseball, but no matter about that; you eat it standing up, elbow to elbow with the other gourmets at the high wooden tables crossing the room.
The all lump crab cake is not, however, the most fun you can have at Paidley’s. The life of the place is the oyster stand in the middle of the room, where customers array themselves and their oysters around a square, eating and talking, while the oystermen in the middle keep a sharp eye on the progress of each, the customers and the oysters. It is choreographed with commotion, a big feed that has been going on a lot longer even than Faidley’s.
Faidley’s is part of the Lexington Market, supposed to be the oldest indoor market in the country, having itself started in 1782. It goes without saying that people could always get something to eat at a market, and many early dining spots grew straight out of such places. The Old Homestead in Manhattan started in 1868 in the meat section of the old Washington Market (most of which has since moved to another borough). After handling giant carcasses all night, preparing them for the rest of the city, the butchers and meatmen dropped into the Old Homestead for their steak dinners at breakfast time. Amateurs followed, at normal mealtimes. Like a lot of New York steak houses, the Old Homestead serves enormous portions. Any place can serve a towering beefsteak, but the Old Homestead even has a nice, big, thick, juicy . . . salmon fillet. The roast beef weighs in at about two and a half pounds. It’s a ceremony of abundance, even down to the grating fact that one plate after another goes back to the kitchen laden with a slab of meat out of which a small corner may have been gnawed. The Old Homestead was brightened up in time for its hundredth birthday, and so it has the air of 1868 as ventilated by 1968. The date that matters to me, though, is 1956, when a little party made up of my relatives had tickets to see the opening night of My Fair Lady. Some families hand down tried and true recipes. Mine handed down the Old Homestead (itself named after a hit play) as an opening-night restaurant; it was theirs then.