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Lunch With: Maryland Humanities Council’s Dr. Phoebe Stein Davis

It was cool to have lunch with Phoebe Stein Davis, Ph.D., Executive Director of Maryland Humanities Council where “opening eyes, opening ears and opening minds” is their mantra. To sit with a stranger at lunch, discuss and share ideas; philosophies, art and food and I get to share that with you in this “Lunch With column.” There is something about breaking bread with someone new, taking the time to get to know what makes their world rock.

Autumn lunch at Gertrude's Restaurant at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Maryland Humanities Council Executive Director Dr. Phoebe Stein Davis. A fine rendition of Maryland Crab Soup
photographs by Dara Bunjon©
Dr. Phoebe Stein Davis enjoys Maryland Crab Soup at Gertrude's Resaurant
photographs by Dara Bunjon©
  • Dara: Instead of St. Peter at the pearly gates, you met Julia Child, what would she ask you?
  • Phoebe: If you love French food so much, why don’t you ever cook it? I think she would tell me to be brave and bold in my cooking and try making French food. I’m intimidated by all the steps.

After ten years as Director of Public Affairs for the Illinois Humanities Council. Dr. Stein, a native Marylander returned to her home state five years ago to take charge of the Maryland Humanities Council. Many of you have heard her Humanities Connection on WYPR Radio covering the gamet of topics like Holocaust Remembrance Days, Looking Forward from the 45th Anniversary of the Catonsville Nine Actions, or Morality: Science or Humanities. All thought provoking subjects. Most recently the Maryland Humanities Council’s Dine, Dish and Discover event – 13 courses covering 130 years of Maryland cuisine at the Woman’s Industrial Kitchen was a sellout event with a second one in the works.

  • Dara: What was your culinary epic fail?
  • Phoebe: Once I tried to save time by microwaving pre-seasoned salmon fillets in their plastic pouches.
  • Dara: What is the oldest thing you have in your refrigerator?
  • Phoebe: Tomato paste in a tube

Dr. Davis, Phoebe, is a cousin to the late Gertrude Stein, the world renowned, influencer of the arts and the avant-garde lifestyle in the early 20th century. Dr. Stein and Gertrude are kindred spirits when it comes to the humanities and art. Gertrude Stein held Saturday night salons in her Paris home hosting literary illuminati like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thornton Wilder and more. There were artists as well; Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and art collectors -Baltimore’s own Cone sisters, Dr. Claribel and Etta. It was Gertrude Stein, who nudged the door open to art collecting for the Cone sisters when they were neighbors in Paris.

  • Dara: What has been your most memorable lunch?
  • Phoebe: With my father at La Closerie des Lilas on the Boulevard du Montparnasse in Paris. It was a beautiful warm fall afternoon, and I had the single best thing I’ve ever eaten, their chocolate tart. I don’t even remember what I had for lunch, just the dessert!
  • Dara: You can choose anyone to have lunch with living, fictional or dead – who would it be?
  • Phoebe: Gertrude Stein. I would love to hear her memories of my grandparents and my father and of course, ask about her incredibly important writing and art collecting. I’d love to hear what she had to say about her time in Baltimore

The Baltimore Museum of Art is home to the Cone sisters’ massive art collection. In fact, Dr. Davis recounted that Doreen Bolger, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art took her on a personal tour of the Cone Collection when she arrived back in Baltimore. It seemed apropos and a delicious choice to have lunch at Gertrude’s at the Baltimore Museum of Art. (This Gertrude is Chef John Shield’s grandmother)

  • Dara: What food could disappear tomorrow and you wouldn’t miss it?
  • Phoebe: Raw zucchini – I don’t like the sliminess
  • Dara: What is the best dish that you cook?
  • Phoebe: This time of year, sautéed kale with cannellini beans and chicken sausage

Our lunch on that cool fall day had Dr. Davis order a hot tea and we both enjoyed one of the better renditions of Maryland crab soup to be found. Conversation was lively; I was intrigued with Dr. Davis’s work and family heritage. Being openly gay in her era, I wondered what would be Gertrude Stein’s thoughts about gay relationships in modern day.

  • Dara: What is your guilty food pleasure?
  • Phoebe: It’s a tossup, S'mores or Annie’s Organic Shells and Cheddar Cheese

We both chose crab cakes for lunch, Phoebe, the Crab Cake Du Jour: Mrs. Kitching’s Crab Cake of Smith Island fame with the basil tartare sauce. I went for Gertrude’s traditional crab cake made with mustard, parsley and Worcestershire sauce; all lump and broiled. Rather than two sides both of us opted for a salad, Dr. Davis the mixed greens and I, the Caesar salad. Pretty full but enjoying each other’s company we ordered dessert, we split the Pumpkin Crème Brûlée which came with a ginger-lemon shortbread.

  • Dara: Top Chef, Chopped, Master Chef, Food Network Star, Hell’s Kitchen or Iron Chef?
  • Phoebe: Really don’t watch much television. I would say Iron Chef, I’m a sucker for drama.
  • Dara: Truffle Oil?
  • Phoebe: Over risotto in a fancy restaurant, sure! At home, I wouldn’t know what to do with it.

Get caught up with other “lunch with” interviews with Baltimore locals – a meal, a conversation, culinary answers and great food: Gino Troia – Restaurateur, Enoch Pratt’s Roswell Encina, and Tom Iacoboni founder of Baltimore’s Italian ListServe.

Gertrude’s – John Shield’s Restaurant at the Baltimore Museum of Art
10 Art Museum Drive
Baltimore, MD 21218
Twitter: @GertrudesBalt

Maryland Humanities Council
Twitter: @MDhumanities

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