BALTIMORE — Kara Mae Harris is dedicated to preserving Maryland’s culinary history.
The Remington resident has spent the last few years logging thousands of recipes from historic cookbooks and plotting them on maps to display the region’s geographical relationship with food.
Harris, 40, documents her culinary escapades on her blog oldlineplate.com, which also explores the history of famous Baltimore fare, including the true story of crab cakes and the origins of fudge in Charm City. Since 2011, Harris has been entering Maryland-based recipes from traditional cookbooks she found on eBay and at the Enoch Pratt Free Library into a database that now boasts thousands of entries.
In 2015, she began her blogging career to contextualize the recipes from Maryland history using old newspaper clippings, manuscripts and other research material primarily from the Pratt Library, which she frequents regularly.
“Just flipping through some cookbooks, I found these weird Maryland recipes that I’d never heard of, and I wanted to try them…,” Harris said. “I didn’t really realize that we have our own kind of food culture here, so I wanted to learn more about it.”
Harris made her first map using recipes from the “Eat, Drink & Be Merry in Maryland” cookbook first published in 1932. The book focuses on famous recipes from wealthy Marylanders and champions many historic homes, hunt clubs and hotel restaurants. Using mostly Medusa, the Maryland Historical Trust’s online database of archaeological sites, Harris located where each of the 512 featured recipes originated from and input the information into the database. Her boyfriend, who works in geographic information system mapping, then used geocoding technology to turn the coordinates into a scalable map.
“It seemed like an interesting way to see where recipes were concentrated, and also sites to visit,” Harris said. ”It’s just a fun visualization of data that you don’t usually get to see in a visual way.”
Each pin on the map includes the location, whether a county or specific manor or hotel, recipe and creative originator. Harris, who works as a data specialist, doesn’t mind the tedious work of entering and quality checking addresses. She finds the work meditative and a productive hobby.
Harris also charted “Maryland’s Way: The Hammond-Harwood House Cook Book” using the same method. The mid-century cookbook draws from 19th century historical documents to chronicle the culinary traditions of Maryland’s past. But the book presents “a rosy picture” of plantation life, according to Harris. While most of the recipes are attributed to prominent women of the house, it’s unlikely they are the ones who created them.
“A lot of these recipes would have been taken from enslaved people or servants and then these white women basically claimed them as their own,” Harris said.
The maps also illustrate the differences in access to ingredients across Maryland. In Western Maryland, the recipes were more simple and farm-based, with foods like salt-rising bread and bare steaks. The recipes clustered around Baltimore are more cosmopolitan, featuring exotic fruits and seafood, due to their proximity to trading ports.
In a shift from plotting the culinary legacy of the upper classes, Harris released a map in June that depicted over 500 results of a 1911 Baltimore Sun recipe contest, which she discovered while researching other recipes at the Pratt Library.
“A lot more of these recipes [in The Baltimore Sun] are what people were cooking for their families and not wealthy people taking from their servants,” Harris said.
The contest, which ran for 23 weeks, dedicated one page every Sunday to celebrating Baltimore’s best home chefs. The paper printed 50 of the best recipes for each week’s category judged by the culinary authority Miss Lillian Armstrong, the director of the Young Women’s Christian Association School of Domestic Science. The weekly winner was granted a $5 prize with five $1 runners-up awards.
In total, 1,541 recipes were printed throughout the contest’s run, with foods ranging from oyster macaroni to banana layer cake. The weekly spread featured ornate illustrations of the designated dish interspersed between the winning recipes. Harris used participants’ addresses, which were printed next to their submitted recipes, to create the map. Most of the participants were white women from middle class families.
Gena Philibert-Ortega, who researches women and food history, said that newspapers began running recipe contests in the women’s pages of major publications in the early 20th century to increase readership among women.
“For women at this time, everyday housewives, that’s a big deal. You’re being published in the newspaper. Most likely you’re getting some kind of cash compensation … so it’s great marketing,” Philibert-Ortega said.
Newspaper contests also helped disseminate new recipes to women before cookbooks became popular in the 1950s. The contests also serve as important archival information for historians studying women, as domestic life didn’t leave behind many records.
“At that point in time, food was more regional. It tells us something about where they live, or where they were from. It might tell us something about ethnic origins,” Philibert-Ortega said. “So those recipes can provide us some historical context for women.”