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Down by the Bay

The town of Wye Mills, not far from Crumpton, is famous for a tree, a church, and a biscuit. I made a quick pass at the Wye Oak, an unimaginably huge and gnarled white oak (when it was felled eight months later by a thunderstorm after 460 years, I felt a wave of guilt about my haste). I paid my respects at the beautiful Wye Church, an exercise in architectural humility whose box pews could throw the fear of God into anybody.

I really devoted myself to the biscuit. "Oh, just go on through the yard and knock on the back door," I was told at the general store. Walking through a stranger's backyard does not come naturally to me, but I did, and somebody started waving from a screen door, and the next thing I knew I was in Orrell's, eating Maryland beaten biscuits, a recipe dating from plantation days. They've been baked here since 1935, in a kitchen that looks like the kitchen most people cannot wait to redo, with linoleum and chipped old white electric stoves. Some of the women in aprons sitting around the porcelain-top table have spent three days a week for the past 30 years shaping dough and pricking it with Orrell's trademark O and cross. Fresh biscuits are a treat today, so visitors like to walk out of Orrell's eating them warm, but originally they were made a day ahead for Sunday dinner, and people liked them hard. And boy, can they get hard.

I kept dipping into the bag all the way to lunch at Mason's in Easton, where a friend of a friend, Chata Smith, was meeting me. Mason's is where the ladies who lunch go, and Chata, who sells and rents houses on the Eastern Shore, has been lunching with them for 25 years. Chata helped me understand why her world is so special, explaining how virtually every body of water in the mid-Atlantic states flows into the Chesapeake Bay, and how five different social worlds and their codes flow here as well, from Washington, Baltimore, Wilmington, Philadelphia, and New York City. She painted a picture of what was at the end of all those long, romantic, tree-lined driveways, the ones with no house in sight. Those are the "back" entrances to the manor houses on the tributaries of the Chesapeake, where you can still find the names of brides and their wedding dates scratched into the old windowpanes, and where when a new tennis court starts sinking you may discover you've built on an unmarked slave burial ground. The "front" of a house is always its water side, because life on the Eastern Shore revolves around boats, so much so that water depth conveys status as much as house size. "Bringing your boat and not being able to dock would be a terribly embarrassing moment for your host," Chata said. Most people have three or four feet of water; eight feet can add a million dollars to the price of a house. "People lie about water depth," Chata said in a life-or-death tone of voice.

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