Planting, Growing, Harvest, Rest

Claudia Kousoulas and Ellen LeTourneau, shown here at the 2019 Literary Hill BookFest, are co-authors of “A Culinary History of Montgomery County.”

Is there anything that better captures the character of an area than how its people produce, prepare, and share food? Claudia Kousoulas and Ellen Letourneau don’t think so. “Food and foodways,” they write, “reflect culture at nearly every level: social life, technology, economy, environment and more.” 

In their new book, “A Culinary History of Montgomery County,” the co-authors focus  on the large, fertile chunk of Maryland that today provides us with fresh produce, dairy products, and more. From the early Native American tribes, whose healthful triad of corn, beans, and squash was adapted by European settlers, to the highly successful chain of Hot Shoppes that dotted the county in more recent times, the stories they tell shine a light on generations of food-related history in this bountiful area.

One critical feature of the county was the C&O Canal, which greatly enhanced the region’s economy, expanding the shipping of its products and drawing city dwellers in need of recreation to the area. This influx of visitors led to the establishment of hospitable stops such as Normandie Farms and the Cabin John Bridge Hotel, renowned for its Maryland fried chicken. Quakers brought their knowledge of agriculture to the area, rotating crops and replenishing soil depleted by tobacco, and wars also changed the landscape of the county. During the Civil War, its bounty was either “requisitioned or plundered, depending on your sympathies,” and the county helped to feed a hungry nation during both World Wars.

As jobs began to shift from farms to factories to the federal government in the 20th century, the county became more suburban, but the creation in 1980 of the Agricultural Reserve ensured that 93,000 acres would remain productive farmland. The authors acknowledge that the Reserve “may look like underuse so close to the national capital,” but contend that it “is part of an economic, cultural and natural ecosystem. Its processes,” they write, “are an immediate reminder that nature and life have seasons—planting, growing harvest, rest.”

Thoroughly researched and replete with first-hand accounts, “A Culinary History” includes mouthwatering menus as well as recipes for such tempting specialties as boatman’s bean soup, beaten biscuits, Maryland corn cakes, and creamed turkey with mushrooms. Excerpts from period cookbooks and photographs—both archival and of recent vintage by George Kousoulas—round out the picture of a region rich in both history and delicious food offerings.

Claudia Kousoulas is a freelance writer and editor who worked as a land-use planner in Montgomery County for more than 20 years. Ellen Letourneau is a fiber artist, baker, and event planner. They are also co-authors of “Bread and Beauty: A Year in Montgomery Country’s Agricultural Reserve.”