by Allen Delaney
Welcome to summer in Southern Maryland! Grab a crab mallet and join us at the table. And they do, using the mallet with pile-driving gusto and turning perfectly steamed Maryland blueshells into crunchy crab patè. Thats how I can always identify a tourist visiting our fair state.
Upon arrival, the first thing they want to do is go to an authentic crab joint and soak in the atmosphere. Of course the crab houses I frequent dont get many tourists because its not atmosphere the patrons are soaking up. These places have two types of libations, cold beer and warm beer, and the waitresses dont put up with any nonsense so youd better know what you want when asked for your order. For us natives, a menu is not necessary. For starters well have two dozen jimmies and a pitcher of cold beer, thank you very much.
Now I dont mind out-of-towners coming in and spending their money in our local restaurants and hotels, but I hate seeing a perfectly good number-one steamed crab smashed as if it were trying to crawl up their Bermuda shorts. (Tourists: Remember, if its red, its dead.) Then for the next 20 minutes theyll try to separate the microscopic pieces of shell from the mush that used to be perfectly good crabmeat. And that was only one claw.
As for the body of the crab, well, thats a whole different challenge. Many times the visitors last resort is to study the illustrated instructions printed on the paper placemats after wiping smashed crab off of Step Number Four. After carefully scraping off the seasoning, and in some cases trying to wash the dirt off the crab, (Waitress! These crabs are brown on the bottom. Can we have some clean white ones, please?), they carefully open the crab. Our visitors understand how to separate the top of the shell from the body and pretty much know what the lungs, or devil fingers, look like. But they are ill prepared for the rest of the contents, as noted by their kids Ewwwing as Mom and Dad look at each other as if they just discovered theyve been brushing their teeth with the toilet scrubber. Two crabs and two hours later, theyll complain that its a lot of work for a little bit of mush, and theyll order a hamburger.
Then there are us locals who have a dozen or more shells piled in front of us with several empty beer pitchers scattered around the table. We look very much at home conversing with our friends, eating, picking and drinking, all in one seemingly fluid motion. The odd thing is, I dont ever remember being taught how to pick a crab. No one showed me or gave me directions. Its just something that Ive been doing all my life, much like breathing, sleeping and avoiding work.
After a few dozen blueshells, an authentic Southern Marylander will look as if a crab had exploded in front of him. There are bits of shell, flecks of crabmeat and spice scattered about the clothing, face and hair, while the stain and smell of Old Bay lingers under the fingertips for days. Down here we call that carry out.
So if you find yourself in a Maryland crab house staring at something that looks like a giant red spider covered in dirt and youve lost your placemat, dont be shy. Look for a nearby table that has a pile of discarded shells and an empty beer pitcher; then ask its occupants for help. Im sure they would be more than happy to give you a quick picking lesson. And if you really want to make them happy, offer to refill their pitcher.