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Culture of Baltimore

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Culture of Baltimore

Some of the more upscale rowhouses in Baltimore, like these brightly painted homes in Charles Village, have complete porches instead of stoops

The city of Baltimore, Maryland, has been a predominantly working-class town through much of its history with several surrounding affluent suburbs and, being found in a Mid-Atlantic state but south of the Mason-Dixon line, can lay claim to a blend of Northern and Southern American traditions.[1] Baltimore's culture has a distinctive flavor with several facets.


Blue crabs

Blue crabs

The most prominent example of Baltimore's distinctive flavor is the city's close association with blue crabs. This is a trait which Baltimore shares with the rest of the state of Maryland. The Chesapeake Bay for years was the East Coast's main source of blue crabs. Baltimore became an important hub of the crab industry. In Baltimore's tourist district (located between Harborplace and Fells Point), numerous restaurants serve steamed hard shell crabs, soft shell crabs, and lump backfin crabcakes. Many district shops even sell crab-related merchandise.

Traditionally, crabs are steamed in rock salt and Old Bay Seasoning, a favored local all-spice manufactured in Baltimore for decades.
Marylanders steam blue crabs, usually in water, beer and Old Bay Seasoning. Southern State cooks, Marylanders insist, boil crabs and along with it, boil away all the true flavor.
The crabs are eaten on tables spread with old newspaper or plain brown wrapping paper. The meat of the crabs is extracted with the use of wooden mallets, knives, and one's hands. It is popular for cold beer to be thrown on the crabs during the steaming process, and made available afterwards.

Crab Cakes

A traditional Baltimore crab cake generally consists of steamed blue crab backfin meat, egg, mayonnaise, Old Bay seafood seasoning, cracker crumbs, and mustard. It is prepared by either broiling or Frying. Baltimoreans typically do not use tartar sauce on their crab cakes; most either eat them plain, or with a dash of Worcestershire sauce and often on Saltine crackers.

Soft Crab Sandwiches

Soft shell crabs are blue crabs which have recently molted their old exoskeleton and are still soft. Almost the entire animal can be eaten, rather than having to shell the animal to reach the meat, with the exceptions of the mouth parts, the gills and the abdomen, which must be discarded. The remaining, edible part of the crab is typically tossed in flour to which some combination of salt, pepper and Old Bay Seasoning have been added, before being deep fried or sauteed in Butter. It is then placed on toasted bread, typically dressed with mayonnaise, sliced tomato and lettuce. Some Baltimoreans find amusement in watching visitors to the city stare in horror as they eat soft crab sandwiches with the crab legs sticking out the sides.


It is a common practice to serve sauerkraut with the Thanksgiving turkey. Baltimore was a leading gateway for German immigration during the 1800s. By 1863, the year President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday, one in four of Baltimore's residents were transplanted Germans and spoke the tongue as their first language.[2]

Pit Beef

"Pit Beef" refers to open pit barbecued meat most commonly served rare on a Kaiser roll, usually found at small stands converted from large sheds in and around Baltimore and the outlying suburbs. It originated on Baltimore's blue collar east side and has through the years spread all over the city. Other varieties of meat, such as ham, turkey, corned beef and sausages are also found on the menus at pit beef stands. Pit beef meat is grilled with charcoal and uses no rubs or sauces so it lacks the wood flavor characteristic of Texas Barbecue and the herbal aromas of Carolina barbecue. Baltimore pit beef uses top round and is shaved very thin on a meat slicer for serving. The typical condiments for a pit beef sandwich is a thick slice of white onion and a sauce made from a horseradish and mayonnaise commonly called "Tiger Sauce" made by Tulkoff Food Products and is unique in that the Baltimore version uses a much more significant portion of horseradish making the sauce extremely hot.

Bull & Oyster Roasts

These are fund-raising events held in Baltimore and neighboring counties. Tickets are sold per person or discounted by the table (seating 8-10 people). They are scheduled during the "R" months (September - April) when oysters are prevalent. The menu may consist of Pit Beef, ham, turkey or oysters, the latter being served raw (on the shell), fried and or in a stew of buttery milk or cream. Typically, a smorgasbord of side dishes (such as mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, green beans, cole slaw) is featured along with a fresh salad bar. Beer and wine may be purchased while standard drinks (soda, iced tea) are included with the purchase of the ticket.

In addition to the profits from tickets sales, a variety of gambling wheels are featured, such as a money wheel (betting quarters on #'s from 1-6 displayed in dice format on a plastic runner), or a plant wheel (houseplants and occasionally, wrapped baskets of a variety of gift items). At some events, 50-50 tickets are sold, the winner being awarded half of the profits of the sale, and auctions featured with items donated by organizations, local sports heroes, businesses, etc.Example of Auction Items at a Bull & Oyster Roast

Lake Trout

"Lake Trout" is actually fried Atlantic whiting. It is typically served as a sandwich with a number of condiments, such as ketchup and horseradish sauce. Lake trout is an everyday food, and is often served wrapped in aluminum foil in a standard paper lunch bag at small take-out establishments.[3]

Chicken box

The "chicken box" consists of 4–6 chicken wings, served in a fast food carry out box with some kind of French fries (wedged "western fries," curly fries, or regular fries). Toppings usually consist of salt, pepper, and ketchup, although hot sauce is also popular. The item is chiefly sold at independent fried chicken shops and deli/Chinese carry-outs in the city. Chicken boxes are usually enjoyed with "Half and Half," a drink combining iced tea and lemonade[4] (referred to elsewhere in the United States as an "Arnold Palmer").

Berger Cookies

Berger Cookies are a kind of cookie that enjoys immense popularity in Baltimore and surrounding Maryland. They are made from vanilla shortbread covered in a fudge ganache. Originally brought from Germany to Baltimore by George and Henry Berger in 1835, they are now produced and sold by DeBaufre Bakeries.

Polock Johnny's Sausages

A Polock Johnny franchise at one of its locations on the Boardwalk, Ocean City, Maryland.

John Kafka, Sr. decided to specialize in polish sausage so he could use his nickname, "Polock Johnny".[5] He created the now-famous “The Works" sauce which is sold in all of his stores. John scored his Polish sausage with little cuts which became part of the Polock Johnny logo. Today, his granddaughter, Margie Kafka, continues his business of serving these tasty creations at several locations, including Lexington Market.[6]

Rheb's Homemade Candies

Louis and Esther Rheb, as newlyweds, moved into their new home at 3352 Wilkens Avenue.[7] In 1917, a year later, Louis started making candy in the basement of their home. Taffies, brittles, fudge and jellies were the first candies he learned to make. Louis was self-taught, studying from books and experimenting for many years. The candies were sold in the markets twice a week; Esther going to Hollins and Louis to Bel Air. In the mid-30's, they opened in the Lexington Market. As the years passed, Louis developed more recipes, and Esther learned to hand dip the centers in a smooth and velvety chocolate which they had blended to complement each piece of candy and to their complete satisfaction. Many people came to Wilkens Avenue to buy candy, so they decided to convert their garage into a store. The Grand Opening took place in 1950.[8] Nowadays, it is Rheb's main store. On Valentine's Day, outside of Rheb's on Wilkens Avenue, there is typically a long line of customers.

Lemon peppermint sticks

Lemon peppermint sticks are a treat sold at the mid-spring Flower Mart held by the Women's Civic League.[9] These simple 'drinks' are made by cutting the top off a small lemon, cutting a hole into the flesh, and shoving a soft peppermint stick into it. Sucking on the stick and squeezing the lemon produces a sweet, minty, lemony drink. While mostly sold at Flower Mart, throughout summer, people in Baltimore will make these treats at home or social gatherings.

Natty Boh

The city's locally favored beer has traditionally been National Bohemian, commonly referred to as "Natty Boh" or "National" by locals, or "Nasty Boh" by its detractors. The beer and its mascot, Mr. Boh, are traditional parts of Baltimore culture. The historically low price and association with the city make it a local favorite.

Natty Boh was the long-time beer of choice for Orioles and Colts fans at Memorial Stadium. After the Colts moved to Indianapolis in 1984 and the Orioles left Memorial Stadium in 1991, Natty Boh was no longer available to fans at Baltimore sporting events. In 2000, brewing of the beer in Baltimore was discontinued. However, since the 2006 Orioles season, "Boh is Back" and served at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. National Bohemian beer is currently brewed out of state by the Miller Brewing Company and is distributed to Baltimore by the Pabst Brewing Company.

The National Brewing Company was also the "inventor" of Colt 45 malt liquor in 1963.


Baltimore is divided into several vastly different neighborhoods and regions, each of which hold their own reputation on terms of their crime rates and average income, among other stereotypes. Canton, Baltimore is well known for its young, professional population, alongside its several nightclubs and comedy clubs. The Inner Harbor is home to Baltimore's tourist center. Here, Baltimore's history and culture is exploited, featuring restaurants offering blue crab and historical highlights such as the USS Constellation. M&T Bank Stadium and Oriole Park at Camden Yards are also in the Inner Harbor's vicinity, home to the Baltimore Ravens and the Baltimore Orioles.[10]



Simple rowhouses like these in Locust Point make up much of Baltimore's housing stock.

Baltimore is noted for its near-omnipresent rowhouses. Rowhouses have been a feature of Baltimore architecture since the 1790s, with early examples of the style still standing in the Federal Hill and Fells Point neighborhoods. Older houses may retain some of their original features, such as marble doorsteps, widely considered to be Baltimore icons in themselves. Later rowhouses dating from the 1800s–1900s can be found in Union Square and throughout the city in various states of repair. They are a popular renovation property in neighborhoods that are undergoing urban renewal, although the practice is viewed warily by some as a harbinger of "yuppification, particularly when the term "town house" is used instead of "row house." Elsewhere in the city, rowhouses can be found abandoned, boarded-up, and reflective of Baltimore's urban blight.[11][12]


A tour through many of Baltimore's rowhouse neighborhoods will reveal a façade style not found in many other cities, Formstone. Introduced in the 1950s, Formstone was a modern day solution to early Baltimore brick that was so poor it needed frequent painting to keep it from deteriorating. But soon Formstone became an icon of status for many homeowners.

The appeal of Formstone was that, once installed, it required virtually no maintenance. Salesmen boasted that the insulation lasted forever and that the first cost was also the last as no upkeep or repair was required. Salesmen also pointed out that Formstone was also about one-third the cost of other façade improvement solutions. Its colorful stucco-veneer gave a stone-like appearance that could be shaped into different textures. Formstone was particularly popular in East Baltimore, where residents believed that the stone imitation made their neighborhood resemble that of an Eastern European town, which some thought had an appearance of affluence.

Patented in 1937 by L. Albert Knight, Formstone was similar to a product that was invented eight years earlier in Columbus, Ohio, and called Permanent Stone. Permanent Stone was also a veneer. In the 1970s preservationists and rehabbers felt that Formstone took away from the historic and architectural value of the homes and many had it removed. This can be a costly and time consuming process. Once removed, the brick requires a thorough acid-wash cleaning and then repointing of the grout.

Marble steps

Marble steps, East Fort Avenue, Locust Point, August 2014

Marble steps found along the streets of Baltimore are as much a part of the city's culture as crabs and baseball games. The use of marble for steps is due to the presence of high quality white marble in Cockeysville, a town 17 miles north of Baltimore's inner harbor by highway. Indeed, the marble found there is so attractive, stone was hauled all the way from this northern Maryland town to the nation’s new capital, instead of local Potomac marble quarries, for use in decorative construction around Washington, D.C., including the Washington Monument, and 108 columns of the capitol building. During the construction phase of the Washington Monument, that is through the middle of the 19th century, the marble gained in popularity as a decorative stone and was used omnipresently for the steps of rowhouses surrounding Baltimore's inner harbor and in Fells Point. Baltimoreans take pride in the fact that their mundane doorsteps are made from the same beautiful white marble used for the construction of the famous Washington Monument. Scrubbing marble steps has become a tradition in Baltimore. The ritual includes scrubbing the marble with Bon Ami powder and a pumice stone.


Baltimoreans have a distinct way of pronouncing words in the English language. Typically, many syllables are simply dropped (e.g., Annapolis becomes Napliss). The accent varies; the accent is not as noticeable when spoken by North & West Baltimoreans but is at its heaviest when spoken by East & South Baltimoreans. Refer to Baltimore accent link below.


Although nowadays the city is extremely culturally diverse, the lasting image of Baltimoreans seems to be the "Hon" culture exemplified most markedly by the longer established families and residents of the Highlandtown, Irvington, Canton, Locust Point, Hampden and Pigtown neighborhoods. Between the 1950s and 1970s, it was common to see working class local women dressing in bright, printed dresses with out-dated glasses and beehive hairdos. Men were often dressed casually, but with a general factory or dock worker look, as many in town did indeed have such jobs.

The name of the culture comes from the often parodied Baltimore accent and slang. "Hon" (, an abbreviation of "Honey") was a common informal name for someone else. It is almost always used at the end of the sentence, e.g., "how bout dem O's, hon?"* Baltimore’s accent exemplifies a dialectal continuum between Tidewater American English, a southern American dialect, and Delaware Valley American English, a common coastal dialect, loosely possessing the vowel shifts of the former and general pronunciation of the latter. For instance, "Baltimore" is pronounced "Baldamore" or even "Balmer," and "Maryland" becomes "Murland," "Murlan," or "Merlin." Other common pronunciations include "ool," "amblance," "wooder," "warsh," "sharr or shaow," "far," "cowny," "tew," and "zinc" (oil, ambulance, water, wash, shower, fire, county, two, and sink respectively). There is also a popular summertime phrase, "goin' downy ayshin" (going down to the ocean, usually referring to Ocean City, MD) as well as popular phrases such as, "my (appliance) went up" (meaning died, shortened from "went up to heaven") and *"dem O's" (meaning them O's, incorrect English but referring to the city's Major League Baseball team, The Baltimore Orioles).

Baltimore native and filmmaker John Waters has parodied the Hon culture, as well as Baltimore itself, extensively in his movies. For a somewhat accurate representation of Baltimorese, one can look to Waters' narration spots in his 1972 movie Pink Flamingos. Waters himself used a local commercial for Mr Ray's Hair Weaves as his main inspiration. The commercial was famous around town for Mr. Ray's thick East Baltimore accent: "Cawl todaey, for your free hayome showink..." was the most memorable line from that commercial (translated as "Call today, for your free home showing).

The term has been established in the culture as it has been used for naming businesses including Cafe Hon, and for the annual HonFest.

"Hon" as a trademark

In November 2010, the term "hon" became a trademarked term in Baltimore by local businesswoman Denise Whiting, who trademarked "hon" for use on napkins, buttons, hats and other promotional material to promote her restaurant, Cafe Hon. The trademark, as stated by Whiting, doesn't prevent anyone from saying "hon," or using it in general conversation.[13]

On November 7, 2011, Whiting held a press conference that also featured Chef Gordon Ramsay announcing that she would be relinquishing the "Hon" trademark; Ramsay stated that with Cafe Hon, "There was a level of hatred that was almost untouchable. I've never known a restaurant to have such a huge issue." The restaurant, and the press conference that was part of Ramsay's visit, was featured on the February 24, 2012 episode of Ramsay's series, Kitchen Nightmares.

Whiting stated that the controversy over trademarking the word "Hon" had a huge toll on her business and her own health, she estimated that since it was first revealed in December 2010 that "Hon" was trademarked to her, she estimated a "20 to 25 percent drop off" in sales and that she needed to sell her IRAs just to meet payroll.[14]


Baltimore's most enduring music legacy might be in the realm of "old school" jazz where a number of natives made the big time after moving to New York City. Chick Webb, Eubie Blake, and Billie Holiday were all originally from Baltimore before moving on. The same zeitgeist also applies to classical minimalist composer Philip Glass, also from Baltimore and moved to NYC.

Others that would find fame in the music business from the area would include jazz-rock composer Frank Zappa,singer Ric Ocasek of The Cars, and pop vocalist Mama Cass.

Baltimore Club is a locally developed style of breakbeat.

Depiction in Television and Film

Baltimore has become a prime city for filming movies and television shows. Many movies were filmed in Baltimore, one notable one being ...And Justice for All (movie) which depicts an honest young attorney coming to grips with a corrupt legal system. Additionally, television shows such as NBC's Homicide: Life on the Street and HBO's The Wire and The Corner have also been set and filmed in the city.

Barry Levinson, a Baltimore native and filmmaker, made many Baltimore-based films, including: Diner, Avalon, Tin Men, and Liberty Heights. Baltimoreans are extremely fond of Levinson's movies as his actors either use a thick East Baltimore accent or the lighter West Baltimore accent.

Another Baltimore native and filmmaker, John Waters, makes subversive films that glamorize the less socially acceptable side of the city's culture. Many scenes from the 1972 cult classic film Pink Flamingos were shot in the city's Waverly and Hampden neighborhoods. Pink Flamingos was the most popular of Waters' cult films. In 1981, Waters released the more mainstream Polyester with "Odorama" and went on to make Cecil B. Demented, Cry-baby, Pecker, and Serial Mom.

To date, Hairspray, Waters' tribute to Buddy Deane Show-era Baltimore, has been his most successful commercial effort. He released Hairspray as a film in 1988. In 2002, Hairspray was produced as a stage musical. In 2007, a new version of Hairspray was released as a film. Soundtracks for both films and the musical have also proven popular. Waters is currently in the works of making a sequel to Hairspray.

In addition to works filmed in Baltimore, the city is also home to the Maryland Film Festival, an annual film and video festival of international scope that takes place each May, using the historic Charles Theatre as its anchor venue.

In Season 4, Episode 7 of The Tracey Ullman Show, Baltimore actor, Michael Tucker, portrayed father to Ullman's JoJo. The skit was set in a Baltimore row house. Tucker advised Ullman to "take a Liverpool accent and Americanize it." Ullman nailed the accent.

When Welcome Back, Kotter[15] first aired in 1975, some Baltimoreans were shocked to hear the word "sweathog" which, at that time, meant "whore" in many Baltimore neighborhoods. Nowadays, sweathog is used to describe an overweight, smelly woman.[16]


Jousting is the official state sport and competed during the 1970s and 1980s, the school now has a lacrosse club. M&T Bank Stadium, the home of the Baltimore Ravens, hosts the annual lacrosse double-header events, the Face-Off Classic and Day of Rivals, which have featured several Maryland-based teams. The stadium was the site of the NCAA Men's Lacrosse Final Four in 2003, 2004, 2007, 2010 and 2011.

Lore and Traditions

It is customary before a Baltimore Ravens game to tap the shoe of the statue of Johnny Unitas, Baltimore's star quarterback of the mid twentieth century while the Colts were still playing in the city. This is seen as a good luck charm for the game to come.[18]

When the national anthem is played at an Orioles or Ravens game, the word "oh" is emphasized in the line "oh say does that star spangled banner yet wave" by the crowd to show allegiance to the Orioles, using their nickname, the O's. Some national onlookers regard this custom as disrespectful to the nation's anthem.[19]

Nicknames are widely used in Baltimore to refer to certain sports figures or moments. Several Orioles players of the modern era have earned themselves nicknames which have quickly become traditional, such as Chris Davis receiving the nickname "Crush Davis" following his record-setting 2013 season and Nelson Cruz, who's last named is chanted in an elongated fashion whenever he makes a big play at home. The 2012 postseason game between the Ravens and the Broncos has picked up several nicknames, such as the "Mile High Miracle", the "F-bomb", and the "Rocky Mountain Rainbow", each referring particularly to Joe Flacco's pass to Jacoby Jones for a Baltimore touchdown which led to a victory, eventually leading the Ravens to win Super Bowl XLVII.[20][21]

When the Orioles are thrown into situations where they succeed spectacularly, especially when overcoming an adversarial situation, it is know by the Baltimore community as "Orioles Magic". This term was popularized by the local station WFBR when announcers reacted to Doug DeCinces' walk-off home run over the Detroit Tigers in 1979 by shouting "it might get out of here", followed by an eruption of fan cheering at Memorial Stadium.[22]

Eating Esskay hot dogs and drinking National Bohemian beer at Baltimore sporting events, particularly at Orioles games, has become a long-lasting tradition. National Bohemian is commonly referred to as "Natty Boh" by venues and Baltimoreans.[23][24]

The term "Birdland" is commonly used to refer to the Baltimore area's fanbase for both the Ravens and the Orioles. MASN, the Orioles' broadcasting network, is commonly accredited with popularizing this term thanks to their promos.[25]

The song Seven Nation Army was popularized in Baltimore as the Ravens' official pump-up song. Seven Nation Army was first played at the Ravens opening game of 2011 against the Steelers, and has been played at every home game since. It can often be heard at Orioles games as well.[26]

Tourist attractions






  1. ^ Rasmussen, Frederick N. "Are we Northern? Southern? Yes.".  
  2. ^ Pitts, Jonathan. "Sauerkraut and Turkey: an Essential Baltimore Thanksgiving...". The Baltimore Sun. Retrieved 27 November 2013. 
  3. ^ Fradkin, Susan (April 5, 2000). "A Fish by Any Other Name . . .". Baltimore City Paper. Retrieved 4 August 2012. 
  4. ^ "Sidewalk chefs serve up taste of Pimlico".  
  5. ^ "History of Polock Johnny's". 
  6. ^ "Polock Johnny's Locations". 
  7. ^ "Location of Rheb's on map". 
  8. ^ 
  9. ^ Gorelick, Richard (May 3, 2013). "Consider the lemon stick: The FlowerMart treat has become a Baltimore treasure". The Baltimore Sun. 
  10. ^ "The Ultimate Neighborhood Guide". Baltimore Magazine. 2011. Retrieved 21 July 2014. 
  11. ^ Mary Ellen Haywood & Charles Belfoure, The Baltimore Rowhouse, 2006, ISBN 1-56898-177-5
  12. ^ Alexander Mitchell, Baltimore: Then and Now, 2001, ISBN 1-57145-688-0
  13. ^ "Baltimore Slang Term "HON" Trademarked". PRSafe. 10 November 2010. Retrieved 19 July 2012. 
  14. ^ Gorelick, Richard (7 November 2011). "Cafe Hon owner Denise Whiting drops her right to the 'Hon' trademark".  
  15. ^
  16. ^ The Urban Dictionary . 
  17. ^ [1]
  18. ^ . Maryland Sports Landmarks Retrieved July 21, 2014. 
  19. ^ . Yahoo Sports Retrieved July 21, 2014. 
  20. ^ "Chris Davis Becomes Crush Davis". Baltimore Magazine. Retrieved July 21, 2014. 
  21. ^ "Orioles' Nelson Cruz earns T-shirt night with monster April". Baltimore Sun. Retrieved July 21, 2014. 
  22. ^ "Thirty-four years ago tonight, Orioles Magic was born". MASN. Retrieved July 21, 2014. 
  23. ^ "How to Be a Baltimore Orioles Fan". WikiHow. Retrieved July 21, 2014. 
  24. ^ "NATTY BOH RANKS AMONG WORST CHEAP AMERICAN BEERS". Baltimore City Paper. Retrieved July 21, 2014. 
  25. ^ "Baltimore Orioles: This Is Birdland, Damn It". Bleacher Report. Retrieved July 21, 2014. 
  26. ^ "How "Seven Nation Army" Became The Pump-Up Song At M&T Bank…And The 4 Songs They Almost Played Instead". Mix 106.5. Retrieved July 21, 2014. 

External links

  • Babe Ruth Museum
  • The Baltimore Basilica
  • Radar Redux Arts and culture magazine published by Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance
  • Baltimore Ducks
  • Baltimore's Marching Ravens
  • Baltimore's Painted Window Screens by Tom Lipka
  • Paranormal Research and Investigation Society of Maryland
  • Bawdamorese
  • Baltimore in the 1960s
  • Ghosts of Baltimore
  • Ravens' Roosts
  • Zion German Lutheran
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