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Helen Tawes: A Maryland Woman of History

A garden named for this Maryland first lady is a fine place to encounter spring

Spring is here, calling us outdoors.     
    Sample the season at Helen Avalynne Gibson Tawes Garden, an out-of-the-way treasure hidden in plain sight at Maryland Department of Natural Resources headquarters in the Tawes Building.
    The gardens are known to local birders as a hotspot for migrating warblers in April, when waves of Virginia bluebells bloom along the walkways.
    J. Millard Tawes, governor of Maryland from 1959 to 1967, gives his name to the building. His wife, Helen Avalynne Gibson Tawes (1898-1989), gets the greater honor of lending her name to five acres of gardens encompassing Maryland’s varied geography.
    Helen Tawes earned her own place in Maryland history by, she said, “winning the Maryland voters’ hearts through their stomachs.”
    Born in the seafood port of Crisfield, she was weaned on regional cuisine. She revered the delicate tastes of local crabs and oysters.
    In support of her husband’s first campaign in 1959, she printed a booklet of 22 of her recipes. Intended to be shared among friends, it met demand so great that 12,000 copies were eventually printed. Her cookbook became a persuasive piece of campaign literature.
    Tawes made Maryland cuisine her avocation. In 1964, she published a full-length cookbook, My Favorite Maryland Recipes, including some handed down to her from her mother and mother-in-law.
    Her famous crab cake recipe features a pound of Maryland lump or claw meat, two eggs, two tablespoons of mayonnaise and a tablespoon of horseradish mustard. She adds flavor with ¼ teaspoon of salt, 1/8 teaspoon pepper, a dash of Tabasco sauce and a tablespoon of chopped parsley. Lightly mixed, formed into a cake and rolled in cracker crumbs, her crab cake is deep-fried and served warm.
    For the Maryland Pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York, she created a fast-food version of the crab cake called a Crab Burger. The three-ounce crab cake served on a hamburger bun sold at a rate of over 17,000 per week.
    Visitors to the World’s Fair weren’t the only non-Marylanders to enjoy her signature cooking. While living in the Governor’s mansion, Tawes learned of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s love of terrapin soup. She took over the kitchen in the mansion and prepared a special pot of Terrapin soup, which was sent by special air delivery to Churchill in London. Churchill later sent a thank you letter congratulating her on the hearty soup.
    As J. Millard Tawes was Maryland’s first secretary for the Department of Natural Resources, the state office building housing that department was named after him. The garden, begun from a flat paved surface, was named after his wife, Helen Avalynne Gibson Tawes.

Visit Tawes gardens from dawn until dusk at 580 Taylor, Ave., Annapolis 21401. For information 410-260-8189.