A Magical Realm of Crabs and Chickens
When President Biden needs a break from Putin and Mitch McConnell, he vacations on the Delmarva Peninsula, a blend of mid-Atlantic beauty, quirky accents, and tasty treasures from soil and sea. I grew up in the heart of it. Hear my song to this glorious land.
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Long before I found my place in the West, I grew up in Salisbury, Maryland, a town so perfectly boring and flat that a highway overpass near Bubba’s Breakaway offered the airiest views around. (Bubba’s, now sadly gone, served excellent tacos.) Salisbury had maybe 17,000 people when I lived there in the 1980s; it sat at the junction of U.S. Route 13 and U.S. Route 50, about two and a half hours southeast of Washington, D.C., on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
Salisbury was and still is a largely rural place, ringed by fields and poultry farms that feed a processing plant run by the town’s most famous celebrity: the late Frank Perdue, the “tough man, tender chicken” king. His downtown operation, a hulking leaden-blue building with giant fans, could be so exquisitely stinky that we kids would hold our breath and pray that the stoplight stayed green whenever we had to pass it.
How to Eat DelmarvelouslyHere are a few favorite dishes from longtime Delmarva families
To us, being at the junction of these highways made Salisbury something like the fluttering heart of Delmarva, the tri-state peninsula where “slower, lower” southern Delaware and the eastern portions of Maryland and Virginia bunch together in a critter-shaped landmass that divides the Chesapeake Bay from the Atlantic Ocean and its barrier islands, with the skinny Virginia part forming the tail. To most outsiders, Delmarva was little more than a place you suffered through on your way to the beach in Ocean City, dismissed by most as a 170-by-70-mile swamp of speed traps and Shore Stops and very old hamlets with names like Wetipquin, Pocomoke, and Onancock.
Compared with those settlements, Salisbury was cosmopolitan. We had a hospital, a small college, and a mall with an Orange Julius—later there was a second, newer mall that even had a Chick-fil-A—but outside of roller skating at Skateland or pounding ill-gotten Boone’s Farm in the woods off Fooks Road, there wasn’t much for guys like me to see or do. We joked that a sign at the western city limits should read, “Welcome to Salisbury! Only 30 minutes from the beach!”
For most of the 20 years I lived on Delmarva—first in the Del, then the Va, and lastly the Mar—my life revolved around those highways. On 13, as we’d say in the accent that Delmarvans often pick up, we would drive “down the rewd” to Cape Charles, Virginia, which was too small to offer any fast food at all. Or we’d go “up the rewd” to Laurel, Delaware, home to the huge, tax-free Bargain Bill flea market, where people sold awesome pizza and muscle shirts. On 50, you could go “across the bay” to Baltimore to watch Eddie Murray and the Orioles, or east to the beach, which could easily become “down to the beach” once you were actually there. As in: “He ain’t home t’day. He’s down to the beach.”
Christine Mallinson, a linguist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County who studies the way Marylanders speak, says the origins of these sounds and phrases have to do with Delmarva’s English settlers, its historic isolation and identity, and the fact that Maryland sits just south of the Mason-Dixon Line, which led to a blend of both northern and southern dialects. This is not the white, working-class Baltimore accent sometimes called Bawlmerese. Never, ever—and I mean ever—would a beach-bound Delmarvan say, “Let’s go downy ocean,” as a “Baltimoron” famously would.
Delmarva is a presidential retreat now, what with Joe Biden having long owned a summer home there: a six-bed, 5.5-bath Cape Cod with a two-story deck and an elevator. This breezy retreat sits outside Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, a small resort town just 25 miles from where I was born. In Rehoboth, an upscale place that’s popular with the region’s gay community, the president can ride his bike along Gordons Pond Trail near Cape Henlopen State Park, or he can walk the boardwalk to buy taffy—or perhaps a tiny hermit crab skittering around inside a little wire cage.
Does Biden’s presence mean Delmarva is about to get a huge boost in cachet, like Kennebunkport, Maine? I don’t think so. For one thing, despite the generally warm welcome Biden receives in Rehoboth—a blue spot in a very red part of the East Coast—no one will mistake him for a true Delmarvan. He’s spent too many years wheeling and dealing in Washington, or in Wilmington, Delaware, which is north of the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal, the de facto northern boundary between Delmarva and the Rest of the Planet. Can he explain what you do with “the specials” when picking a crab? (You eat them.) Does he know the plural of bunk, a word we use for friend? (It’s bunkies.) Has he ever tasted Delmarva’s most lovingly stewed spirit animal, the muskrat? (No. But, well… neither have I.)
Even so, I’d also bet that 46 knows, as all Delmarvans of a certain age do, how to recite the Bargain Bill flea-market slogan from local TV ads in the 1980s. In fact, I demand that someone in the White House press corps test him on this.
Fox News correspondent: “Mr. President, where would you go if it’s bargains you be seekin’?”
Biden: “I’d visit my daddy’s flea market, this weeken’.”