'Smith Island's all I know," says Frances Kitching, whose boarding house had made her the Chesapeake Bay's culinary queen. The island that circumscribes her world is four miles long, 12 miles by boat from Crisfield, Md. For years Mrs. Kitching has been cooking there for guests and for fellow islanders at weddings and church gatherings. Now more than 100 of her recipes, handed down for several generations, are available in Mrs. Kitching's Smith Island Cookbook .
Frances Kitching's reputation as a cook emerged when she volunteered to prepare meals for workers who were installing electric lines on Smith Island in the early 1950s. Word spread quickly, and her boarding house was born as well. Today, visitors may stay for a meal and occasionally for a night or two. The comfortable old four-poster beds upstairs beckon tourists -- but their hopes for tranquility are usually shattered by the nosie from the island's rattletrap cars, most of which long ago parted company with their mufflers.
Through the years the house has expanded; stoves have been changed from kerosene to electric and gas. There are four freezers now, filled with homemade pie crusts, Capt. Ernest Kitching's fish, and vegetables and meat brought over by boat.
Frances Kitching, born on the four-miles ink-blot island 12 miles by boat from Chrisfield, Md. -- is now 63. Her entire life is within an oyster shell's throw of her house. From the window above the sink in her galley-shaped kitchen, she can see the white frame house in which she was born. To the right, looking over a pile of her husband's crab and oyster pots, she can spot her daughter Pam's house and in the distance the bay that defines her world.
Across the street is the Methodist cemetery where all her forebears -- Evanses, Kitchings, Marshalls and Tylers -- rest in their graves. To the right is her son Harry's pizza place and soon-to-be completed pool hall, whose opening is anticipated by the 560 or so islanders with all the excitement of a major city's premiere performance. The Kitchings' other two sons, who also live nearby, go through the year crab-potting, oystering, fishing, clamming and hunting for game.
The Kitching house and yard, like the rest of Smith Island, is filled with old motors, weather vanes, crab pots and shells collected along the island shore only a few hundred yards from the house. It overflows with furniture and bric-a-brac, enough goods for three garage sales. But Frances Kitching won't sell, "not for nothing. If someone wants to buy something of mine, it means it's worth money and I should keep it then."
Relatives and friends have left her tables, cupboards and boxes of still-unused china. She found one plate bordered with gold leaf buried under a cherry tree. "For 14 years I kept it in my dishwasher, recycling it until all the browness left and the gold leaf finally appeared," she insists.
Entry to the house is through the dining room, the center of activity in this clean, cluttered but comfortable home. Print curtains clash with striped, plaid or even flowered rugs in the room where the long dining room table groans with her Smith Island meals. Crocheted handiwork covers the electric furniture that surrounds a wood-burning stove.
Frances Kitching is a slow starter in the kitchen. Pushing herself up by weathered but strong hands, she lights a cigarette and then moves to the kitchen. Apronless -- "never used an apron" -- she takes the food out of the refrigerator or warms it up, taking time to prepare her last-minute fish, caught by her husband that day.
"My worst part is I wait to the last minute to do," she explains. The last minute is when she spies from her kitchen window the "Captain Jason" ferry approaching. (She recommends this ferry in preference to the "Island Belle," operated by Frank Dize, husband of her archrival, the owner of Pitchcroft restaurant.)
As soon as guests have arrived on the afternoon boat, she announces dinner: "Food'll get cold." With little formality she brings out warm, homemade New England clam chowder and flaky baking powder biscuits.Why creamy New England clam chowder in the Chesapeake Bay?"I'm no youngster. That's the way I was taught by my grandmother," she says matter-of-factly.
Platters for the next course quickly fill the table with color: bright orange pickled carrots spread with a tomato sauce, fresh green beans cooked until the ham-boiled water blends into the vegetable flavor, hot apples with cinnamon and allspice, macaroni sald accented with grated pickles and carrot, smooth-as-flan corn pudding, crisp corn fritters and bright red tomatoes stewed down with just a hint of the original shape in their texture. Boiled red drumfish smeared with mayonnaise, cooked to that melt-in-your-mouth tenderness that separates professional from novice cooks, is equally as delicious as delicately light crab cakes. "I dip 'em out with a fork one at a time and don't have a whole load of batter -- that's my trick," she confides.
For those with room for dessert, it's cherry pie with a flaky homemade crust. Frances Kitching molds her pie crusts by the dozens, stacking them in her chest freezer.
"Pies were my grandmother's favorite and I learned everything I know from her. As a child, I was the only one of the 13 grandchildren who had the patience to watch. After church Sunday evenings everyone would come by and eat her pumpkin, cherry, or pineapple custard pies and my favorite, fig cake with preserves from local fig trees. My cookin's the same."
Fresh vegetables are rarely grown on Smith Island except for a few backyard gardens with collards and tomatoes. "A long time ago the island was a heavy farming community. My house was a potato field," she remembers. But islanders say the salt on this sinking island is too strong for vegetables to grow properly. Now, the three general stores on the island include a sparse selection of food. Two other stores were abandoned when the owners died a few years ago.
Island cooking still includes evaporated milk in chowders, dipping batter for fish, corn fritters and homemade cream pies. "Once cows grazed here but we always saved the fresh milk for the children. When that pasteurized stuff came in, everyone sold the cows or they died off," she recalls.
Breakfast varies, but homemade pomegranate and fig preserves, made from fruit picked off of Smith Island is always available. While talking, Frances ykitching takes a frying pan filled with the residue of scrambled eggs left over from an earlier rising guest, adds water and uses her perpetual fork to scraped off the clinging pieces of egg. Out the window she throws the dirty water, over the clam shellfilled stoop and onto the lawn. "Don't know why -- just always did," she says.
As she fries an egg for the next guest, a friend might pass by asking what fish her husband caught. If she likes the islander she'll lead him into the small, crowded backyard shed and give him a bluefish, rock or drum. If she doesn't like him, she'll nod her head sadly: "Bad day. Earnest only caught one or two fish."
Frances Kitching has never looked at a cookbook. Her new publisher sent her one but it lies unopened on the table. Because she rarely measures, she was obliged to spend months testing recipes with coauthor Susan Stiles Dowell. "My cookin' is touchin' feelin'," she explains. "I cook the way these recipes have always been done. I wrote my cookbook for my grandchildren. I want them to know I was somebody worth knowin' and rememberin'." And rememberin'." And that she is. s MARYLAND CRAB CAKES Makes about 12 1 pound backfin crabmeat 2-3 tablespoons self-rising flour or pancake mix 4 shakes Worcestershire sauce (or 1 large dash) 1 large egg 1 tablespoon parsley flakes 1 tablespoon prepared Dijon mustard 2 generous tablespoons mayonnaise Salt and pepper to taste 3/4 cup vegetable oil for frying
Place crabmeat in a bowl and sort through for extraneous shell. Avoid breaking the lumps. Shell encloses the lump meat; it does not perforate the nodes of flesh.
Add the rest of the ingredients, except the vegetable oil, and blend gently with a two-pronged fork. Heat one inch of the oil in a skillet. When a droplet of water spatters upon contact with the hot oil, the crab cakes can be placed in the skillet. Use an ice cream scoop to form and remove the crab cakes from the bowl. Fry a skillet full of crab cakes in the oil until golden brown on one side. Turn and fry on the other side for one minute or until golden. Remove and drain on paper towels. The same vegetable oil should cook the entire batch of crab cakes (that's several skillets full). BROILED FISH IN MAYONNAISE SAUCE Serves 4 to 6 3 1/2-pound flounder, sea trout or drumfish, filleted Salt and pepper to taste 1/2 cup mayonnaise 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce 2 teaspoons lemon juice 1 tablespoon Old Bay Seasoning
Wash fillets in cold water. Salt and pepper to taste. Place scale-side down in broiler. Combine mayonnaise, Worcestershire sauce, an lemon juice. Spread over fish fillets. Sprinkle Old Bay Seasoning over top. Broil, two rack settings below broiler, for 20 minutes or until done when flaked with a fork. CORN FRITTERS Makes about 2 dozen 2/3 cup unsifted all-purpose flour 1 tablespoon baking powder 1/2 teaspoon salt 2 teaspoons sugar 2 well-beaten medium eggs 1/4 cup melted butter 1/4 cup evaportated milk 1 teaspoon grated onion 1 16/-ounce can whole kernel corn, drained Enough vegetable oil to fill frying pan 1/4-inch deep
Sift together dry ingredients, including sugar. Combine eggs, butter and milk, and blend until uniform. Add onion, corn and sifted ingredients. Mix well.
Heat oil in frying pan. When oil is 375 degrees, drop by generous tablespoons into frying pan. Fry each fritter on both sides until golden. Drain on paper towel and serve warm. FIG CAKE 1 1/2 cups sugar 1 cup vegetable oil 3 large eggs 2 cups all-purpose flour 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder 1 teaspoon baking soda 1 teaspoon cinnamon 1 teaspoon nutmeg 1 teaspoon allspice 1 teaspoons salt 1/2 cup buttermilk 1 teaspoon vanilla 1 cup fig preserves 1 cup chopped walnuts
Blend together the sugar, oil and eggs. On a plate, sift together the dry ingredients. Add the sifted, dry ingredients in thirds to the egg mixture, alternating with thirds of buttermilk. And the vanilla and mix until smooth. Fold in figs and nuts. Pour into a greased tube pan and bake in a 350-degree oven for one hour or until a toothpick comes out clean. Serve sprinkled with confectioner' sugar or glazed. (Recipe below.) FIG CAKE GLAZE 1 cup sugar 1/2 cup buttermilk 1/4 cup unsalted butter 1 teaspoon baking soda 1 tablespoon corn syrup 1 teaspoon vanilla
Combine all ingredients except vanilla. Cook slowly in a saucepan until the soft-ball stage is reached (until a small quantity dropped into ice waterforms a ball that does not disintegrate). Remove from heat, add vanilla and beat until well blended. nLet sit until slightly cool. Pour over cooled cake.