Whitey Schmidt: A life well-lived
Whitey Schmidt said many of his books were about secrets. He traveled to hundreds of crab houses, some off the beaten path (read: far off the beaten path) to write about the well known and the unknown. He talked to locals around the Chesapeake on how they prepared blue crabs and to owners of roadside stands about their favorite ways to prepare an Eastern Shore tomato, cucumber or peach. He introduced us to these people and their recipes through his 11 books about what these waters and lands produce. I can remember him telling me as he searched for a crab house that someone mentioned “was just down the road,” that falling in love with the Chesapeake Bay was the easiest thing he’d ever done.
I saw him in June, in his Crisfield home where he was focused in the Crab Lab (everyone else calls it a kitchen) to figure out a new way to prepare the Maryland blue crab. In the past few years his love took on a new dimension: painting Chesapeake Bay scenes with watercolors. I left Crisfield that day feeling that Whitey was at peace with the world and himself. But you know what? I always felt that way about him.
There are lots of Whitey stories floating around the Chesapeake, but these two come to mind:
Whitey was standing around a kitchen in Rose Haven — in Southern Anne Arundel County, where I first knew him — one evening when the host made the mistake of saying, “Hey, I’m gonna order a Domino’s Pizza.”
“Wait, a second,” Whitey said, putting his hand on the phone. “Do you have yeast? Do you have flour? Do you have a little sugar? If you don’t, I do.” The phone was returned to the receiver.
With that, Whitey prepared pizza dough while everyone watched with amused amazement. Once it was under a damp kitchen towel to rise, Whitey said, “OK, I’m going to my garden for some tomatoes and peppers and garlic, and I’ll be back.”
We had homemade pizza that evening. Years later, after moving to Crisfield, Whitey had a firewood-heated pizza oven built. Whenever someone appeared at his doorstep, the pizza oven was fired up, and everyone became part of making the dough and adding toppings. There were never observers in the Crab Lab. Everyone learned those secrets. Besides, Domino’s didn’t deliver in Crisfield.
Whitey got his start with crab houses while selling tire-repair kits to gas stations around the Chesapeake. As he told me, “nobody knows when their tire goes flat, so you have to put yourself with them when it happens.” His approach was, of course, unusual: He’d walk with the gas station manager to the manager’s car and slam a long metal spike into one of the tires. Yes, there were usually some adjectives used, but Whitey would pull out his tire repair kit and then pull the air hose over to the flat tire and inflate it back to normal pressure. He always made the sale, though he did admit it took a few tries before he realized it helped to have the manager’s car parked near the air hose.
As he traveled making gas station managers’ tires go flat, he’d stop at a crab house along the way. After a few years being asked where’s a good crab house? he had a light bulb moment: Heck, if you can sell tire repair kits, you can sell a guide to making recipes from Chesapeake Bay crab houses. The Crab Cookbook was born (tire repair kit sold separately).
As one who traveled with him in that grey station wagon with the driver-side mirror attached with duct tape, I made it to about a dozen of the 250 crab houses he visited. “I’m doing research,” were his words.
I remember being in his Rose Haven Crab Lab after picking basil and suddenly being told to take the stems off. Then he parboiled the leaves, put them in cold water, adding garlic from his garden outside, then olive oil, toasted pine nuts and grated cheese and mixed it all together. In five minutes pesto appeared. This was long before the Food Channel … and yes, that conversation took place a number of times. Rachael Ray, you wouldn’t stand a chance.
Whitey Schmidt loved to teach. Everyone who met him learned the love of learning. You can be sure as he left us July 18 while watching the British Open Championship in his recliner in Crisfield, there were more secrets he was ready to share. Indeed, all of us die, but not all of us live. Those who had the chance to spend time with Whitey are witnesses to a life well-lived.