Growing Up Delmarvellous

by Gretchen Hanson

Gretchen Hanson, executive chef of Hobos Restaurant and Bar in Rehoboth Beach is here to tell us the story learning to cook from her grandmother.

Despite my Southern California upbringing, the best memories that I have of growing up at the table are from the Eastern Shore. My mother was in graduate school in San Diego for most of my early childhood and the minute Memorial Day hit she would put us on a cross country flight from San Diego to Dulles. We wore orange cardboard nametags around our necks that clashed with our hand-smocked pinafores, lace ankle socks and Mary Jane's.

My Grandmother would be there to liberate us at the gate from the stewardess assigned to watch us struggle to behave like 'little ladies' on the long cross country flight. She would put us in beach appropriate shorts and tee-shirts in the back seat of the woody station wagon while still in the airport parking lot; liberate our feet from patent leather to canvas, and we would begin the trek immediately to the nation's summer playground over the Chesapeake waterways.

This was before the days of seatbelts, and my baby sister, various cousins, and I would share the back bench seats with bushels of produce that would be collected from her favorite farmers on the way down. Sweet onions, fresh dug potatoes, garden peas and flats of berries kept company with all manner of Ball jars filled with pickles and chutneys.

My Grandfather had served in Italy after the war and my Grandmother became accustomed to the early morning produce shop when they lived in Naples. Once settled for the summer in our little beach shack off the Boardwalk of Rehoboth, she and I would rise with the sun and make our way to our different farm stand destinations and fisherman hangouts before anyone else awoke.

She was a simple cook, rarely doing much but steaming or searing, and frugal as most of her generation was, but she had a sharp eye for quality and loved to teach. I learned to tell if the corn had been picked that morning by the freshness and suppleness of the husks, peel back a few and the corn should be bursting with juice right to the edge of the cob. If those last few rows weren't full it was picked before it was ready and if you punctured a kernel with your finger nail the juice should pop and ooze its white milk. Cantaloupes should indent when you press just ever so slightly at the stem end and you should be able to smell them at the spot you pushed.

If your shrimp didn't have a head or smell of the brine, they would never be juicy or fresh enough to eat lightly steamed with a squeeze of lemon and the lightest trace of Old Bay. Fat blue crabs had to be grabbed pincher like on the apron out of reach from the twisting and tearing claws that were like a dangerous battery operated terminator toy. They had to be heavy and mean and fearsome. The softies that I loved so much should never be purchased without 'fight' and if they were dull or deadened they would not sizzle and spit in the pan or burst when you bit them.

The list of learning was endless as each different vegetable and fruit had its accompanying rules about ripeness. Prices had to be haggled just enough so they knew that she was not to be trifled with but not too much so that they couldn't turn an honest profit. This was long before the days of her political career but you could see the woman she was destined to become as she greeted each farmer and asked after their families.

She remembered their children's names and which children had children. Old men, wizened and crumpled as the furrows of their farm and some as dark as the mud with pink wiped between, stood schoolboy like in front of her, called her Mizz Lamb and doffed their hats. They would pull out special early produce and the morning's fresh catch and offer up a jar of preserves their wives had put up in the Spring. I did not know then that she was considered 'a lady' by folks to whom that meant something. I did not know then how special she was to anyone other than me; all that came much later.

After we had finished our routine morning shop encompassing many country miles we would head back to the postage stamp kitchen to make breakfast as the others awoke. Homemade steel cut oatmeal simmered in the ancient double boiler, eggs still covered with blood and feathers splattered and scrapple sizzled in the pan while I would whip up the biscuits. I was the only other person allowed to do this and I carefully would cut the Crisco in and add the fresh buttermilk to just the right level of stickiness.

I spent part of each summer on the shore with Grandmother long after the other relatives my age had started taking off to do other things. We would still rise with the dawn even though it was only the two of us and we would still collect our daily pantry. Our whole day would revolve around that day's menu; where we were going to acquire it and how we were going to eat it. I would travel and train in increasingly more exotic locales as I hit college and even when I was cooking full time professionally we still kept our Delaware traditions when we were in our beach cottage.

Eventually I married and kept a beach house myself and had children that I brought here each summer. On our drives from Maryland we would pick up the produce along the way just as she did so many years ago. My 'then' husband and I knew the farmers by name and knew to the minute when each crop would be ready. We would traverse the back roads never going in a straight line to wiggle through all the towns that had our favorite farm stands. It was not until we were near the end of Grandmothers life that I settled full time in Delaware (single, again) and her last trip to Rehoboth was when I opened the doors to Hobos. She sat on the patio and sipped her single glass of crisp white Albarino and I served her every dish on the menu.

I have lived in Delaware for six years now and sometimes I will round a rough bend in a country road and find a fallen down chicken house that I have not visited for thirty years, meet a farmer who is the grandson of one who shuffled in the dirt and called her Mizz Lamb. I lose my breath at these moments, I miss her so. I buy for my restaurant from the same families and the same farms as we did when I was a child. I still haggle the price just a little so they know I know what I am doing but not so much that they can't make a fair profit. Our produce is edgier now; progressed to meet what chef's want and consumers demand but there are still the acres and acres of corn that sweep by you in the summer as you drive with the windows down and your hand outside, pushing against the hot, still Delaware morning.