God I Love Those Maryland Blues

I got booted from Gettysburg College in the middle of my sophomore year for crimes I did not commit.  And despite my appeal letter that exposed the administration’s gross negligence, along with numerous examples of how they violated their own School and Student Code of Conduct Handbook, I was dismissed anyway in early spring.

Kicked out of school with no job or responsibilities didn’t sit well with my parents, so I sought employment at the local seafood restaurant: Gibby’s.  With weekly specials that included dollar crabs (which had to be terribly illegal to catch and steam) and a wait staff that looked the other way from ridiculously underaged drinkers, as soon as colleges let out across the east coast, I was soon joined by most of my friends either waiting tables, bar-backing, stocking, or bussing tables for the better part of the next two summers.

Tourists would leave dozens of crabs on the tables each night.  As I bussed those tables, I pocketed the left over crabs into a paper bag that I would take home around 2 am and then crack open on my parents’ kitchen table.  And so it went…eating crabs and watching late night episodes of Sports Center deep into the early morning hours–several nights a week.

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If you grew up around Baltimore, crabs are your heritage.  My family used to have a massive crab feast every year at my Great Aunt and Uncle’s house.  Their property was expansive….cornfields, a pond, and pools.  Out in the country, dozens of family members would converge to eat bushels upon bushels, fish in the pond, and then play a game of baseball.  Tall tales emerged of heroic baseball exploits, gargantuan bass caught in the pond, and the number of crabs eaten.  All are still a part of family lore.

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One of the only memories I have of our old house in Bel Air, and my dad, was of him bringing live crabs home to steam in our kitchen.  And since my dad was a goofball, he let a few of the crabs loose to race around our kitchen–scaring the bejesus out of me.  All in good Maryland fun.

I was having a conversation with a colleague this week…after many delicious sushi rolls and some of the best saki I’ve ever had.  The discussion turned to crabs.  “My father-in-law likes to get them live and then steam them…because it reminds him of when he would get crabs and they would chase my wife around the kitchen when she was a young girl.”  I immediately went back to the exact experience I had as a youngster in Bel Air.

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People who come in from out of town and demand bibs and butter and bullshit about how much work and time it takes to pick crabs “for so little meat” frustrates the hell out of me.  First of all, if I was on death row and they asked me what I wanted for my last meal, it would be a dozen crabs.  (Not only would that be true, but hopefully it would take long enough for me to eat them for my lawyer to get an injunction or an appeal approved.)

But those people don’t understand that eating crabs is part eating, and most parts ritual.  It’s not a meal you rush through.  Learning how to pick crabs is a rite of passage.  Crabs are too damn expensive these days for a bunch of whiners to sit down and leave half the meat in the shell.  I’d rather you out-of-town complainers fill up on corn and fries and leave the crabs to those who can do them right.   And after my 10th beer I’ll yell at you for being a sissy.  If you’re lucky.

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I used to go down to Ocean City three times every summer.  On one of those trips, back when I was eight or nine, my dad took me to what was once Wallace’s Crab House on 31st Street.  As we started to feast, Mrs. Wallace herself came out of the back.  Upon seeing a young, impressionable future crab expert, she sat down at the table with us.  “Do you know how to pick crabs?” she asked.

“No, ma’am,” I replied.

“Well, let me talk to you about it.”  And she proceeded to teach me where to crack the claws, how to break the backfin, and ultimately I figured out my own way to eat them.  I’ll never forget that Mrs. Wallace helped me figure out how to pick crabs.

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No culinary triumph conjurs up as much emotion in me as crabs.

My family has thrown numerous crab feast engagement parties.  My company has an annual crab feast.

When I was dating my better half, there was one summer we went to L.P. Steamers crab house in Locust Point 11 Sundays in a row.  On the 12th Sunday, we happened to get into a huge fight on Sunday morning and she drove home.

I went to L.P. Steamers by myself anyway and had a dozen.

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We go to the Outer Banks every year.  Last summer, for no apparent reason at all, my stepdad had a hunkering for crabs.  At 11am.  “I want to get some crabs…is that crazy?” he asked.  Never mind that most people don’t eat them prior to lunch.

As soon as I heard him say that, and my cousin’s husband heard him say that, we were in the car 5 minutes later on the phone, placing an order.

I will never, ever give up an opportunity.

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And so it was, I was flying home from Miami on Saturday night and the cover article on the Southwest magazine was “The Best Breakfast I Ever Ate.”

Written by a guy born and raised in Maryland, it talks about his experiences growing up in a crab-crazy family.  And the best breakfast he ever ate was on Opening Day in 2013 at the Sip & Bite — sitting with his brother, drinking Natty Bohs and having a crab cake breakfast sandwich appropriately dubbed the “Eastern Shore.”  The Best Breakfast He Ever Ate.

And that’s why eating crabs taps into emotion.  Because all of the riots, murders, bad press, and being overshadowed by Philly and D.C., nothing can take away something that is purely ours.  I always remember the times I ate crabs.

Whether it’s memories of being chased around the kitchen by live crabs when you were young; or running a thousand feet of trotline in one of the Chesapeake’s tributaries with hopes held high; or the annual family crab feast; or teaching your kids the difference between male and female crabs and exactly where to smack the claw….it’s an experience that says “home.”

Much like Baltimore itself: the blue collar  worker from the days of yore at Bethlehem Steel near Sparrows Point, or the railyard foreman of Locust Point, the Maryland blue crab is an ornery, salty, and often times angry creature.

But if you get them just right…if you are able to crack the hard shell that encases so much goodness, you’ll find that dair ain’t no better time than Maryland crabs, hun.

 

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