As CEO of Harford County Public Library, Baltimore-raised bibliophile Mary Hastler is living out a dream she’s had since childhood. “As I always say, I have the best job in the universe. I love what I do.”
She loves it so much, in fact, that in spring 2020, when COVID-19 lockdowns canceled the majority of in-person events, Hastler was determined to find new ways to keep local book enthusiasts connected. One of her ideas was to launch a program that the library planned several years ago: a cooking web series. But this one would be virtual, of course, and reminiscent of a pre-pandemic luxury.
“When you have a dinner party, it may be at a big, beautiful house, but almost everybody gravitates towards the kitchen…to watch as the cook is putting a meal together, or to pour some wine,” Hastler says. “That’s when a lot of the conversations are going on.”
The goal would be to recreate this atmosphere for library attendees, with help of local authors, chefs, and farmers. Luckily, the library knew just who to reach out to.
“We’ve always enjoyed having celebrities and chefs come out to the library, and [chef] John Shields is one that has been in our hearts for many years,” Hastler says. “His cookbooks are amazing and his focus on the Chesapeake Bay region has always really resonated with us.”
At the time, the author, television personality, and beloved owner of Gertrude’s at the Baltimore Museum of Art, was in the midst of launching Our Common Table, a nonprofit devoted to rebuilding and sustaining Maryland’s food economy.
“With my background, I immediately gravitated towards the whole idea of working with local food producers and growers,” Shields says. “And out of that, Chesapeake Farm & Bay to Table was born, and people came to it like crazy. Thousands of people were watching this thing.”
A typical installment of the series—which is broadcast via Zoom and features Hastler as Shields’ sous chef—is filmed in Shields’ home kitchen, with recipe tutorials ranging from seafood to sauerkraut to back-to-school snacks. In each episode, the hosts explore the ins-and-outs of agriculture through resources like fisheries and fresh produce purveyors. The series, now in season two, is meant to be casual and intimate, according to its hosts.
“I’m your basic at-home cook,” says Hastler. “I have no background in being a chef or working in restaurants. The whole point of the show is that we have fun. We’re in John’s kitchen, cooking and laughing.”
Next week, that laughter will undoubtedly continue as Baltimore-based artist Joyce J. Scott, Shields’ longtime friend, is set to be a guest star on the series for a special episode ahead of Valentine’s Day.
“For one of my PBS shows, Coastal Cooking, Joyce did an episode with me called ‘Fry Babies,’ and oh my god, it was so funny,” Shields says. “I mean, it took us forever to tape that show because she had everyone laughing so hard.”
In the Feb. 9 episode fittingly dubbed “A Love Story for All,” Scott will work with Shields and Hastler to whip up delicious treats as they discuss the intersections of food, love, art, and community.
“I like the idea of a total human being served, right? Not just my brain, not just my wonderful body, but having all of these things happen at the same time, and seeing how one [event] triggers the other,” Scott says. “Food not only makes me taste, but it makes me think about the things that have happened in my life, who I was with, and how they happened. All of those things are nutritious. They help to build not only the physical person, but the soul and the knowledge of a person. They all intersect to make a wonderful spirit.”
Shields teases some aphrodisiac-inspired highlights from the menu, including raw and baked oysters, a smoked salmon “sexy salad” with a basil vinaigrette, and profiteroles with amaretto chocolate.
“It’s fun making things that have a double entendre,” Scott says. “Something that can be good to eat, that also has a sensual underpinning. It’s a thing you can approach with an adult kind of humor.”
Shields says that the “meal of love to the Chesapeake community,” is meant to be enjoyed by all. “That whole idea of February being the month of love doesn’t have to just be for your significant other or your partner or somebody you’re dating,” Shields says. “It can be about people that you love, and just wanting to get together with them to celebrate the bond you have.” Hastler agrees: “We wanted to make sure that everybody felt included.”
As Chesapeake Farm & Bay to Table plans to embark on its third season in the coming months, Hastler hopes the series can continue to entertain and educate local viewers.
“I hope that it keeps [viewers] afloat during what’s been a very difficult couple of years,” she says. “I hope they feel that they are valued, and that they are a part of our family.”