Volume 14, Issue 21 ~ May 25 - May 31, 2006


What Makes the Bay Great?

Chesapeake Country’s Spidery Specialty

by Helena Mann-Melnitchenko

We did as ordered and discovered what makes the Bay great.

The soft shell crabs are in a revengeful mood, sputtering and popping in the iron skillet. I keep my face averted and turn them with long handed tongs, admiring their dark orange hue. Sliding them on the dense toast, I add a touch of mayonnaise and a thick slice of tomato, plucked just minutes ago from our garden.

As I remember my brother’s excited phone call, I can’t help but smile. “We had this fantastic meal at the best seafood restaurant in Austin. The crabs, soft-shell, were flown in all the way from Maryland!” Ah, yes, all the way to Texas. Our crabs travel far.

We carry our plates out to the table on our deck. We don’t have a view of the Bay, just a wetland, but we know the Bay is there where crabs like the ones on our plates are breeding, making more crabs. As I bite into the sandwich, the delicate sweet flesh and the crunchy legs are in perfect harmony. They bring to mind my first time of tasting the Bay’s delectable creatures.

It must have been 30 years ago. Our neighbors and good friends, Barbara and Pete, invited us to a mysterious evening out.

With great anticipation we stepped onto their speedboat. Pete had prepared us for a fantastic dinner. “You’ve never had a dinner like this,” he crowed.

The boat was swift, but it took a good hour to spy a dilapidated dock and, behind it, what could be best described as a large ramshackle shack. I don’t remember what it was called, maybe Joe’s or Nick’s or no name at all. We tied up at the dock where other small boats swayed in the olive water.

Inside, a motley crew in shorts and T-shirts sat at tables covered with brown butcher paper. “The usual,” Pete ordered for the four of us then winked at the waiter. “It’s first time for these city-slickers,” he said.

I was speechless when the young waiter brought us our plates. Giant fried spiders reclined on thick toast.

“Cover’em with the other slice, close your eyes and taste a piece of heaven,” Pete urged with a devilish grin.

We did as ordered and discovered what makes the Bay great.

Since that time, we have lived in many places and from time to time had in an expensive restaurant a soft-shell crab, no doubt flown in from Maryland. Sometimes it was southern fried, sometimes prepared in the oriental manner. Never have we had one as good as that first time in that shack.

Until we returned to Maryland, I had never prepared my own. Now that we live in Chesapeake Country, I know a great shop and crab house, Tyler’s Tackle, in Chesapeake Beach to get fresh — not flown-in — soft-shells. I prepare them plain, not gussied-up. No sense in meddling with perfection.

When Pete passed away several years ago, Barbara invited a few close friends for refreshments after his services. She stood over the hot stove, patiently sautéing soft-shells, and said, “Pete loved them so much. He asked me to have them with good friends after his funeral.” A smile flitted across her face.

We knew she was remembering good times.

Helena Mann-Melnitchenko of Owings, a fiction prize-winner in this year’s Maryland Writers Association competition, is a regular contributor to Bay Weekly. Her last reflection was Thinking of You, Betty Friedan (Vol. xiv, No. 19: May 11).

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