A Chesapeake Thanksgiving

     “I traveled around the world in search of fine cuisine only to learn that some of the finest eating to be found was in my Chesapeake homeland,” writes John Shields. As author of Chesapeake Bay Cooking, host of the PBS show Coastal Cooking with John Shields and proprietor of Gertrude’s Restaurant at the Baltimore Museum of Art, Shields has introduced the world to his native cuisine. 

     To those who ask what exactly is Chesapeake Bay cooking, Shields replies with this litany: the sweet meat of blue crabs, briny Chincoteague oysters and pan-fried rockfish … homemade country sausages and salty, smoked Smithfield hams, crisp fried chicken and roasted wild goose … freshly picked silver Queen corn and vine-ripened tomatoes … pies filled to nearly overflowing with fresh peaches, apples, blackberries or strawberries laced with simmered rhubarb. 

     Season by season, those delicacies shift. For this year’s Thanksgiving feast, Shields shares his favorite seasonal recipes, with oysters replacing crab and black walnuts instead of berries filling pies.

The Main Course

      Turkey? Use your favorite recipe. Add the flavor of the Chesapeake to your dressing. Shields offers two distinctive recipes.

Oyster Dressing

     The flavor of Chesapeake oysters imparts a subtle seafood tang to the dressing, complementing the succulent meat of the roast turkey.

     Mace, Shields notes, is made from the ground outer covering of the nutmeg seed and has traditionally been used in Chesapeake cooking to season everything from seafood, stews, meats, poultry and game to desserts. In 18th century Chesapeake cookery, before mace was sold ground, recipes for seafood soups or stews called for a blade of mace, which referred to a single strand. 

½ pound (2 sticks) butter

1 cup chopped onion

1 cup chopped celery

7 cups day-old bread cubes

2½ teaspoons salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground black popper

¼ teaspoon ground mace

1 pint oysters, drained, liquor reserved and coarsely chopped

½ to 1 cup milk as needed 

      Melt butter in skillet and sauté onion and celery until soft. Combine in bowl with remaining dry ingredients. Mix well. Pour in oyster liquor, then slowly add enough milk to moisten stuffing. Do not make it too wet. Makes 10 cups.

     Stuff turkey loosely with dressing, or bake separately in a buttered pan the last hour of turkey roasting. 

Cornbread Stuffing

½ pound (2 sticks) butter, or use part or all bacon drippings 

1 cup chopped onion

1 cup chopped celery

1¼ cup cooked corn kernels

7 cups cornbread pieces

3 eggs, beaten

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

½ to 1 cup milk as needed 

      Melt butter in skillet and sauté onion and celery until soft. Combine in bowl with remaining ingredients. Mix well, using only enough milk to lightly moisten. Makes 10 cups.

     Stuff turkey loosely with dressing, or bake separately in a buttered pan the last hour of turkey roasting. 

Roast Goose

Goose is the bird of Chesapeake Bay. Invite a hunter to bring a goose to the feast; or buy a farm-raised one. Shields offers advice as well as a recipe for adding goose to your Thanksgiving feast.

     When approaching a wild goose with the intent of cooking it, it’s a good idea to check its credentials, such as age. Senior birds are best stewed or braised, while younger ones are better for roasting. If a goose weighs more than five pounds and was bagged in the fall, it is most likely an older bird. 

     A farm-raised goose has a sweeter, less gamey flavor but requires a slightly longer cooking time, (about 20 minutes per pound) since it is not as lean as a wild bird.

     Traditional apple-chestnut stuffing is perfect for accentuating the dark, succulent meat.


1 goose (4 to 5 pounds)

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1 onion, halved

Apple-Chestnut Stuffing (recipe below)

4 tablespoons flour

     Preheat oven to 400 degrees

     Wash the cavity of the bird with cold water; dry with paper towels. Sprinkle cavity with salt and pepper. Rub goose with the onion. Fill the ­cavity with stuffing and truss the bird. Place on rack in a shallow roasting pan. 

     Reduce heat to 365 degrees and cook for 2 hours, basting frequently. For the first hour, place an aluminum foil tent over the goose, roasting without the tent for the second hour.

     Remove goose to heated platter and keep warm. Pour pan juices into a pitcher and degrease, reserving about 3 tablespoons of fat. Heat fat in saucepan and whisk in flour. Cook, stirring, for 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in 2 cups of pan juices, adding water or chicken stock to supplement, and whisk over medium heat until thickened, about 3 to 5 minutes. Carve the goose and serve with stuffing and pan gravy.

Apple-Chestnut Stuffing

6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) butter

1 onion, diced

2 stalks celery, diced

2 cups peeled and sliced apples 

2 cups corn bread cubes

1 cup chestnut pieces (see note)

2 tablespoons dried sage

½ teaspoon dried thyme leaves

1 egg, beaten

½ milk or water, as needed

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

     Melt butter in a small skillet and sauté onion and celery until soft. Mix together apples, bread cubes, chestnuts, sage and thyme in a bowl. Add sautéed vegetables and egg. Toss well. Sprinkle in as much milk as needed to moisten. Season with salt and pepper

     Whole peeled chestnuts can be bought in jars. Or buy fresh chestnuts. To shell, cut an X on the flat side of each nut and roast on a pan in a preheated 425-degree oven for about 15 minutes. Remove and, when cool enough to handle, peel away the outer shell and fuzzy membrane.


Side Dishes

Kent County Corn Pudding

     Corn was manna for both Indians and colonists. If you’re not serving cornbread dressing, add this delicacy to your Chesapeake Thanksgiving, substituting frozen for fresh summer corn.

2 cups corn kernels 

2 eggs, beaten

1 tablespoon flour

1 tablespoon grated onion

2 tablespoons sugar

2 tablespoons butter, melted

1¼ cups milk

1 teaspoons salt

¼ teaspoon white pepper

     Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Butter a 1-quart baking dish.

     Combine all ingredients and blend to coarsely chop corn. Pour into baking dish.

    Bake about 50 minutes or until set. Serve immediately.

Maple-Glazed Sweet Potatoes

      If your family, like Shields’, demands sweet sweet potatoes for this traditional feast, use this recipe and advise skeptics that it’s Chesapeake authentic as cooked by John Shields.

6 large sweet potatoes

¾ cup (firmly packed) brown sugar

½ cup water

4 tablespoons (1⁄2 stick) butter

¼ cup maple syrup

Grated zest of 1 orange

Juice of 1 orange

½ cup chopped black or English walnuts


     Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Generously butter a 13 x 9 x 2-inch baking dish.

     Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add sweet potatoes and boil until just tender, 30 to 35 minutes. Drain, peel, quarter and spread in baking dish.

     Combine brown sugar, water, butter, syrup, orange zest and juice in heavy-bottomed pan. Stir to dissolve sugar, bring to boil and cook to syrup, about 5 minutes. Pour over sweet potatoes and sprinkle with chopped nuts. Cover tightly with foil.

     Bake for 30 minutes. Remove foil and bake 10 minutes more. Remove and let stand 5 minutes before serving.


Black Walnut Pie

     The black walnut is the most prevalent nut tree growing in Chesapeake Country. This pie is a mildly bitter version of Southern-style pecan pie.


3 tablespoons butter, softened

1 cup sugar

4 eggs, beaten

2 tablespoons flour

1⁄8 teaspoon salt

1 cup dark corn syrup

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup black walnut pieces

Sweetened whipped cream for accompaniment

     Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

    Cream together butter and sugar in a mixing bowl. Add eggs, flour, salt, corn syrup and vanilla. Mix well. Stir in black walnuts. Pour into pre-baked pie shell (see recipe below).

     Bake for 10 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 degrees and bake 40 to 45 minutes more, or until set. Remove from oven and cool on rack.

     Serve warm or cold, topped with whipped cream.

Pastry Dough for a Single-Crust 9″ Pie

1½ cups all-purpose flour

¼ teaspoon salt

½ cup vegetable shortening or lard

3 to 4 tablespoons cold water 


     Sift flour and salt into a mixing bowl. Work shortening into flour with your fingertips or a pastry blender until the mixture is the consistence of a coarse meal. Add water, 1 tablespoon at a time, and mix with a fork after each addition.      Dough should not be wet but just moist enough to hold together. Form into a ball. Wrap and refrigerate for at least 15 to 30 minutes before rolling.

     Line pie pan with dough, flute edge and prick bottom. Press aluminum foil into bottom and along side edges and fill with pie weights (raw rice or uncooked beans will also work). Bake 8 minutes at 425 degrees. Remove foil, and bake another five minutes. Cool. Add filling, and let sit until firm.