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John Shields Cooks Up “The New Chesapeake Kitchen”

Tom Pelton

I’m at Gertrude’s Restaurant on North Charles Street in Baltimore with its owner, famed Chesapeake Bay chef and author, John Shields.  I’m here to talk about his newest book, The New Chesapeake Kitchen, which makes the case that we should all make our eating habits more sustainable.

He escorts me into his inner sanctum: the kitchen.

“These are the single fried oysters, right here,” Shields said, lifting a clear plastic container brimming with mollusks.  “So you see here, you have the shucked oysters, and you make a mixture of cornmeal and flower. You just shake off the excess, and then it goes right over there, into the deep fryer. No muss, no fuss!"

As the breaded morsels sizzle and brown in the roiling oil, it becomes obvious that when Shields says he’s making his meals more environmentally friendly, he’s not doing what some people might associate with the term: inflicting hardship and denial, perhaps by demanding that we only eat kale and tofu.

When the oysters are done, he leads me into the dining room, where he sets his dish on a white tablecloth.

“It’s a Chesapeake classic, it’s the Chincoteague single-fried oysters,” Shields said. “And you can’t get better. You have big fat plump oysters that have been lightly breaded with a little bit of cornmeal flour and a bunch of seasonings.  We also have a three-mustard sauce and a remoulade sauce here, for a little dipping.”

Although it sounds – and tastes – decadent – the meal is sustainable because he uses farmed oysters. These aquaculture oysters are often grown in cages and so do not require watermen in workboats dragging heavy metal dredges across the bottom of the bay. The harvest of wild oysters can rip up bay grasses, overharvest the badly-depleted oyster population, and bulldoze the bottom habitat for crabs, fish and other life forms.

Some consumers shy away from farm-raised seafood because they think it’s unnatural.  But if it is done right, farm-raised seafood can better for nature, because it's an alternative to the chronic overfishing that has devastated the bay and oceans around the world.

The oysters that Shields serves are genetically altered to be sterile -- they’re called "triploid" oysters – so that all of their energy is focused on producing meat, not eggs and sperm. These triploid oysters also have a culinary benefit, especially in the summer, Shields argues.

“If you would eat a wild oyster in the warmer months, they’re spawning and they’re going through the reproductive process,” Shields said.  “So they’re thin -- very very thin. There’s nothing to them.  So that’s another reason to use the farm raised oysters for this kind of dish.”

In his new book, The New Chesapeake Kitchen, which is being published this fall by Johns Hopkins University Press, Shields presents a galaxy of scrumptious bay recipes seasoned with a subtle ecological consciousness. He buys from local, organic farms and farmer’s markets.  He serves up invasive species, like blue catfish, as a way of controlling their population growth.

And he leans heavily toward plant-based ingredients, making his meat portions smaller, because the livestock industry creates a tremendous amounts of water pollution and greenhouse gases.

“We use an eight once steak, where traditionally if you would go to any other kind of steakhouse or restaurant, minimal size would be 12 ounces, optimal would be 16 ounces,” Shields said. “So what I’m trying to do with meat – even if it's for the meat and potatoes people -- is to reduce the size of that.”

Less is more, if it’s served with a sauce of wisdom and wine.

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.