The Alice Byrd Tawes Nursing Home in the Maryland town of Crisfield draws a clientele of lively oldsters -- former skipjack crewman, crab pickers, oyster shuckers and farms wives.
One thing they have in common, aside from rich memories of work-filled lives and farm hands on their wheelchairs, is an unflagging interest in the basic cuisine of Maryland's Eastern Shore: fried chicken, crab cakes, black-eyed peas, fresh greens, butter beans.
It's all part of the culture James Michener wrote about in "Chesapeake."
So naturally, they sometimes do not take kindly to the meals carefully prepared for them by the home's reigning dietition, who, often as not, comes from some outlandish place like Pennsylvania and has a tendency to go off the deep end with things like sweet and sour pork, lasagna and, land's sake, something called "quiche."
Not that the old-timers don't get their fill of authentic victuals.
The home, an adjunct of the McCready Memorial Hospital, is always staging things like crab feasts, pig's feet festivals and watemelon bashes.
Still, the residens, more or less as a between-meal avocation, miss no opportunity to gripe about the food and to point out that they could do it better if only they could get into the kitchen.
One day, while they were sitting around complaining that the corn bread (a favorite) was too crumbly, Rebecca N. Blizzard, the home's activities director, flung down a challenge. Why waste this wealth of Eastern Shore cooking lore? Why not compile a cookbook of their favorite recipes, telling just how they would do it? From that moment, Blizzard found herself the editor of what at times seemed to be a wholly unmanageable publishing venture. Recipes were flung at her from all directions, as the residents reveled in memories of years of good eating in those glorious days before the terrible C's -- calories, cholesterol and carcinogens.
"Often, though, they couldn't remember specifics, like how much of this or that," Blizzard said, "so we turned to their families and relatives for help."
As the literary fever mounted, down-home gourmets throughout Somerset County heard of the great work in progress and contributed their favorites.
The result is a 119-page, softbound cookbook, "Grannies Goodies from Somerset County," containing more than 350 recipes divided into sections on appetizers, breads, cakes, cookies and candy, main dishes, pastries and salads. It also has an indexed list of 427 "household hints," rich in lore about everything from "eliminating beetles" to "washing chintz."
Some are basic dishes, others are regional rarities that, if Blizzard and her helpers hadn't seized upon them, could have been lost forever.
One such is "Daniel's Delicious Crisp-Fried Fish Roe," contributed by Daniel Jones, a one-time Deal Island skipjack captain, who used to whomp it up for his crew while oystering on the bay. He died at age 99, not long after the cookbook was published.
The same is true of "Fletcher's Crisfield Cooked Muskrat," that requires overnight preparation by the chef and a stout set of taste buds on the part of the guests. It was provided by Fletcher Ford, a farmer and muskrat fancier, who died before the cookbook came out.
Still living at the home is George Waters, 77, who contributed a formula for another rare dish, "George's Coon and Sweet Potatoes," which can be properly appreciated only by aficionados of well-done raccoon.
For plainer fare, one must turn to Alice Sterling's "bean fritters," made from left-over boiled navy beans. from left-over navy beans. Created in Depression times to serve large families, it has risen in status to become a side-dish for gourmets.
Sterling, 83, whose eyes still light up when she recalls the bean fritters served by her mother, gave the recipe from memory: "Drain liquid from beans. Add 1 beaten egg and a pinch of salt and enough flour to thicken. Drop by spoonfuls into hot grease and fry until brown."
The honor of contributing the recipe for "Maryland Crab Cakes" went to Bertha Waters, 73, who said the secret is not so much in the ingredients as in the way they should be handled -- gently. That is, the cakes should not be patted into compact balls but formed "very lightly."
A sure way of turning out firm, non-crumbly corn bread was supplied by Agnes Edwards, 73. She and her late husband, a corn bread buff, devised it for themselves. "Our corn bread," she insisted, "won't crumble the way they do it here."
From her wheelchair nearby, the bean fritter expert Sterling nodded vehemently in agreement. "Isn't it a mess what they call corn bread here," she said.
When it came to picking a recipe for that Eastern Shore staple, "Stewed Jimmy Crabs," the residents got into an argument over whose was the best.
The winner was Elva Tull of Crisfield, who before her death at 74 wrote it down word for word and advised against editing.
It reads: "Pull off backs of crabs, clean out dead men's fingers and yellow fat. Scrub crabs with brush and cut in half. Place in large pot with a little water. Cook approximately 1 hour. Fry out bacon strips, crumble, add to crabs, also the drippings. Sprinkle flour on top to make thick gravy. Add dumplings if desired."
For the "best homemade rolls in Crisfield," the book compilers turned to Emily Coulbourn, who occasionally brings them freshly made to her husband, Wilbert (Scobie) Coulbourn, a resident at the home.
Despite the popularity of her rolls, she refused to divulge the recipe until the cookbook was proposed. Then, because it was a "good cause," she agreed to reveal it.
Originally, the cause behind the cookbook was to raise money for McCready Hospital's new wing, but later it was decided the book's profits should be used to buy a mini-bus with a built-in lift to hoist wheelchairs aboard.
In the year or so since publication, about 300 copies have been sold, mainly by word of mouth, at $3.50 each. The bus fund, including book sales and profits from charity bazaars, totals about $4,000 toward the $19,000 vehicle.
Since the cookbook came out, though, the happiest development has been the hiring of a new chef, Vera Evans, a real down-home cook from nearby Smith Island.
"Things are looking up," said the home's oldest resident, Janie Tyler, 100, a native of Smith Island.
Copies of "Grannies Goodies from Somerset County" are available by mail for $3.50 plus 50 cents for return postage. Write the Tawes Nursing Home, Hall Highway, Crisfield, Md. 21817.