Burton on the Bay

Vol. 8, No. 25
June 22-28, 2000
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Will Our Beautiful Swimmers Shell Out Another Treasure?

A mind is a terrible thing to waste.
—United Negro College Fund, 1972

Anything is a terrible thing to waste, I might add. I guess it’s part of my heritage, being both a New England Yankee and a product of the Great Depression.

This week, we’re going into an aspect of waste involving our beautiful swimmers, as well as other aspects of blue crabs. But first a one-question quiz.

In whose words did our opening line gain further fame?

If you make a wild guess, never in a million years will you be on the mark. So, I’ll give you a hint or two: He was a prominent and controversial Republican though not known for brilliance, eloquence or popularity among the electorate. Look to the very end of this column for the answer.

Crab Trash — or Treasure?

Now to the subject of waste — the remnants of a process, what’s left over — and waste — to waste, not to put leftovers to productive use.

We’re all familiar with the problem of what to do with leftovers from crab picking and processing facilities along the shores of Chesapeake Bay. There’s an awful lot of pungent waste involved, and it’s costing packers up to a hundred grand a year to get rid of it.

In the old days, it just went back into the Bay or its tributaries, and that was that. But pollution thinking and times changed. Too much of the dregs stacked up, and complaints abounded that the scuttled piles were fouling the Bay.

So, in recent years, mounds of the leftovers were turned over to farmers, incinerator and landfill operators or anyone else who could dispose of it — at a hefty cost of $12 to $40 a ton. Meanwhile, the tons kept piling up at processing plants.

So along comes Pat Condon of Cambridge, who figures he has a solution. He will recycle crab wastes, transform them into flakes called chitosan, which is a natural polymer used in diverse products from curing arthritis, to making bandages and to lubricating drills that dig into the earth for oil.

It’s a complicated chemical process, but in the end there could be a base for products usable for stuff from chewing gum and lipstick to nail polish and cholesterol-lowering agents. What’s more, if things work out, Condon could be paying the processors to take away the stinky piles that litter the grounds in back of the crab shacks.

Necessity is the mother of invention, we’re told, and if all this works out, Condon will be a legitimate hero of Chesapeake Bay Country. Everyone is rooting for him: It’s not often one is paid for something one heretofore paid to get rid of. Beats a lawn sale any day.

For years, I’ve been thinking about all those foul and smelly crab leavings and the expense involved in getting rid of them in an environmentally friendly fashion. I always wondered why they weren’t converted to chum to catch fish.

In the old days, we’d take the leavings from a crab feast, hose them down liberally, then stuff them in mesh onion sacks, drop them over the side at the Bay Bridge and shake the bag vigorously every few moments to hasten the wash of the contents and its scent into the Bay. It worked like chum is supposed to, and baiting our hooks with peeler crab, soft crab or clam snouts, we’d catch rockfish.

The current would wash away any of the tangy seasoning left after the hosing. Not only rockfish, but perch, sea trout, spot and other species would be caught. I guess if hardheads were around then, they, too, would have ended up in the fish box.

So how come some innovative bait wholesaler hasn’t tried packaging the leftovers from plants into frozen blocks of chum something akin to blocks of ground up menhaden now sold in tackle shops? Drop the sacks of frozen crab tidbits into the water for tide and temperature to defrost. Jiggle the bag, and there’d be a chum line.

Hey, what fish doesn’t like a crab? They wouldn’t get any lump meat, even much claw meat, but there are all those other goodies not utilized in the human market. In addition, the scent is a prime motivation for tempting fish.

Of course the secret would be to cool and freeze the waste as soon as the crustaceans are processed for humans. But that shouldn’t be too much of a problem, seeing it’s done with ground up menhaden for chum for rock, blues and other species.

This concept, too, might take some of the pressure off menhaden, those oily fish that appear to be having problems all along the coast. Hundreds of tons of menhaden, whole or ground, are sold to Chesapeake sportsfishermen annually, and the demand for them and the fancy prices involved prompts the commercial fleets to net more and more.

As I said, just a thought.

Blue Crab Futures

Incidentally, the outlook for crabs appears fairly good for ’00. Fair to good numbers of legal crabs are being caught, and an awful lot of small ones, which is another good sign. Most of those small crabs will be of table size by summer’s end.

Only trouble is that we’re cautioned we won’t see prices drop much. The demand is strong, and prices drop only when it isn’t.

The much talked-about foreign imports don’t seem to be prompting lower prices for Bay crabs. Not that much competition, says my crab guru Joe Bernard of Wye River Seafood, specializing in soups and spices for the crab market.

In Joe’s carryout business at his big shop on Route 50 in Queenstown, people want blue crabs, especially those from the Bay, he says, and they are willing to pay the price. So he stays with them, though he can sell imports cooked up for crab dishes not far from the price he pays wholesale for domestic crabs.

Though the lumps are bigger in imported crabs, the flavor can’t match our Chesapeake blues, reports Joe, who adds there are also concerns about sanitary conditions in packing houses from Mexico to India and China.

I’m a booster of Bay products, but I’ll admit to enjoying the imports following an introduction to them via my son-in-law Jon, who cooked me up a batch of crabcakes involving them recently.

They were among the best I’ve ever had — what big lumps of white meat, and spices brought out a flavor hard to match. When I asked Jon why the South County restaurant where he is chief chef used imports, his answer was:

“I originally bought them when domestic crabmeat wasn’t available, put them on the menu and they sold well. Soon as I could get our crabs, I started cooking them again in crabcakes and other dishes — and customers complained. They wanted those big white lumps.”

So, is a crab, a crab, a crab, regardless of where it comes from? Only you can decide. Enough said …

You Answered?

A mind is a terrible thing to waste.

Further fame came when the motto was transformed into these words: “What a waste it is to lose one’s mind, or not to have a mind is very wasteful.” From a speech given to the United Negro College Fund, May of 1989. The speaker: J. Danforth Quayle, vice president of the United States.

Copyright 2000
Bay Weekly