Food & Drink

Cameo: John Shields

We talk with the Gertrude's owner and cookbook author.

Gertrude’s owner John Shields has spent a lifetime devoting his career to crabs and all incarnations of Maryland seafood. “I was born in Baltimore at 25th and Greenmount,” he says, “and I started cooking with my grandmother Gertie at St. Ann’s church in the basement. We’d go to all the municipal markets and there was fresh fish everywhere.” And summers were spent on Eastern Shore workboats and crab boats, where Shields’ great uncle ran the Tilghman Island seafood-packing plant.

Shields writes about those experiences and more in the 25th anniversary edition of his cookbook, Chesapeake Bay Cooking, due out this fall. We talked to the chef about his transition from the Bay Area to Chesapeake Bay, what to expect in his cookbook, and his time spent picking crabs on Tilghman Island.

You had a French restaurant in Berkeley, CA in the early ’80s called A La Carte. How did you go from French fare to Chesapeake cuisine?
I was rolling out pastry one day, and suddenly it came to me: “Do what you love, do what you miss,”—and that was Chesapeake Bay cuisine. For my first shipment, I went to the San Francisco airport in my Toyota Corolla, and there was a palette of these big airfreight containers packed with crabmeat, oysters, and rockfish. I had to unpack the containers and just stuff everything in the car because I didn’t have a truck. I literally had oysters on the floor of my car up to the window on the passenger side. After that, no one would ever ride in my car again.

The 25th anniversary edition of Chesapeake Bay Cooking is due out this fall. What was the book’s genesis?
The publisher of a boutique cookbook company came in to my restaurant, Gertie’s Chesapeake Bay Café, all the time. He’d ask me, “Have you ever though about doing a book on the Chesapeake cooking? There’s no definitive book.” I was like, “I’m running a restaurant.” For months, he’d come in asking. Finally, I took a sabbatical, drove my VW Beetle across the country, and went around the Chesapeake to write the book.

What’s your favorite anecdote from researching your book?
On Tilghman Island, I was in this room with women who had just finished picking crab. One picker said to me, “Exactly what are you doing here?” And I said, “I’m writing a book on the cuisine of the Chesapeake.” She said, “We don’t have a cuisine here—it’s just the way we cook.” That’s what it’s all about—taking the best that the bay has to offer, and treating it simply.

When Capt. John Smith first sailed on the Chesapeake, he had diaries and he wrote that “the fish in the bay were so thick, we attempted to catch them with frying pans.” That’s what Chesapeake Bay cooking is—taking it fresh from the water right into the frying pan and onto your plate.

So you’re a crab-cracking expert, then?
Of course. When you’re born here, you’re genetically predisposed to being able to crack a crab.

If you could share one thing about Maryland seafood with someone visiting the state for the first time, what would you want them to know?
There’s way more to Maryland seafood than crabs. Most people think that crabs are the only thing in the bay, but we also have oysters, rockfish, shad, shad roe, clams, perch and more.