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At Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore, you will order dishes that will make you want to point your finger and pull out the camera: bone-in ribeye served with crab imperial; flatbread spread with ramp-peanut pesto; wood-roasted oysters; tiny sweet potatoes that look like giants’ toes!
(Disclaimer: I grew up in Baltimore and I love sweet potatoes. I also had my sixteenth birthday party at Woodberry Kitchen. But I am not biased. Those small sweet potatoes are a sight to behold.)
But when I asked chef-owner Spike Gjerde for the recipe that speaks to the philosophy of his restaurant (and career), he told me that it’s not a show-stopping roast but a rather humble oyster pie.
The food of the region, says Spike, can be articulated in the phrase “a cuisine of surpassing plainness” (that line comes from Bernie Herman, a writer who documents the traditions of the Lower Eastern Shore and Northern Virginia).
“It’s such a low bar—a funny place to start. And the oyster pie comes from that tradition of cooking with a relatively short list of ingredients and seeing what you can do with them,” Spike told me.
That tradition of plainness (or, in more a flattering light, simplicity) means that Spike and his team can both expand on the essential recipe, and honor its roots.
To expand, they make a whole-wheat puff pastry, a reflection of Spike’s first professional cooking experience in the pastry kitchen of Pâtisserie Poupon, rather than a traditional pie dough. (The recipe he has shared here, however, uses a rye brisée, for the sake of simplicity for a home cook, though you could use store-bought or homemade puff pastry in its place.)
To honor, Spike throws in a little bit of fish pepper for a kick of heat. “Fish pepper” is not a funny typo: According to Garden Betty, the fish pepper is an albino mutation of a Serrano or a cayenne that was popular among the African-American communities in the Chesapeake region in the 1800s. They would blend the white pepper into the creamy sauces that served fish and shellfish—hence its name—as an invisible source of fire. But when the pepper, grown exclusively by black farmers in the Mid-Atlantic, went out of favor in the early twentieth century, it was nearly lost.
A year or two after opening Woodberry, Spike read about the pepper in the works of culinary historians Michael Twitty and William Woys Weaver and started asking around, seeing if anyone could grow the plant (Woys Weaver had made the seeds available through the Seed Savers Exchange in 1995). One farmer started growing them in the city and, as Spike put it, “they were just as I had hoped"—spicy with just a hint of sweetness.
These days, the chefs at Spike's restaurant use the pepper fresh when it's in season, and they dry it, grind it, and turn it into hot sauce so that they can cook with it all year round, too.
“It’s one of the coolest things we’re doing,” Spike says of Woodberry’s efforts to support the planting, harvesting, and eating of the region's indigenous plants. (Right now, they’re partnering with nearby farmers to produce locally-milled flour.) There was a time, before the commoditization of the food system, when cultivating the immediate ecosystem and crossing local plants to get the best-tasting varieties mattered more to people.
As for the oysters, they come from sustainable oyster farms in the Chesapeake Bay. The decision to support oyster farmers (instead of buying wild oysters that have been caught rather than raised) was one of the first Spike made when sourcing for Woodberry. “The role that oysters play in the ecology of the water quality is undeniable."
Besides, if not for those oysters, there would be no oyster pie.
For the rye crust:
- 2 sticks cold butter, grated on a box grater
- 2 cups rye flour
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 cup ice water
- 1 teaspoon cider vinegar
For the oyster stew base and the assembly:
- 2 cups heavy cream
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 dried fish pepper or cayenne pepper
- 1 clove garlic, crushed
- 1/2 medium onion, chopped
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 branches lovage or a handful of celery leaves
- 1 bunch thyme
- 24 freshly shucked Chesapeake oysters, liquor reserved
- 1 egg, beaten (for egg wash)
What's your favorite way to eat oysters? Tell us in the comments below.