Burton on the Bay:

War of the Crustaceans -

Chesapeake Crab vs. Maine Lobster

photo by Louis Dorin Chef Jeffry Burek of Maryland Yacht Club harvests lobsters from a baking pit.

On the shores of Rock Creek, it was like a scene from Don Quixote de la Mancha -- though not idealistic to an impractical degree as with Cervantes' buffoon hero of yore. It was the other way around: Impractical to an idealistic degree.

Diagonally across from me at the wooden picnic bench was the 20th century Quixote de la Mancha doing battle with a miniature windmill more red than a steamed Maryland crab. His sword was a nut cracker; also in his arsenal were a plastic knife and a nut pick.

The modern hero was Vernon Trueth. His steed, tethered nearby at the docks of Maryland Yacht Club, was named Y-Four. Instead of four legs, it had a propeller. It was a 35-foot Egg Harbor.

Trueth de la Mancha was flailing away at not an imposing Dutch windmill but at a Maine lobster, one of 105 flown in by the Ladies Auxiliary of the Maryland Yacht Club from that rocky shorelined New England state earlier in the day at a price of almost five bucks each just for the jet ride. The crustacean itself was extra, though the seaweed was tossed in gratis.

If it's true (or Trueth) that you can distinguish a tradesman by his tools, Trueth de la Mancha was a craftsman. He had the right implements - but the wrong windmill. Yet he was as idealistic as Quixote de la Mancha, and he had lots of company in that department, nearly 100 others of Maryland background who hold the blue crab above all else hardshelled that comes from waters flavored with brine.

Those who favor the flavor of the Maine lobster above the crab of the Chesapeake were in the minority -- at least before they tasted the former via a true Maine lobster bake.

What were these curious creatures doing coming from a big pit dug in the shoreline near the confluence of Rock Creek and the Patapsco in North County, and only a long cast from the Chesapeake itself? Hey, this is crab country. Isn't a lobster nothing more than an oversized and overpriced crab, lacking in the flavor that only the brine of the Chesapeake can instill?

That will be argued forever whether on the shores of Rock Creek in Maryland, or Narraganset Bay at Newport. North of the Mason-Dixon Line, the lobster rules. South of that historic boundary, the crab is king, though not the king crab, nor the Dungeness crab also of the West Coast or the rock crab of the East Coast. The undisputed monarch from Delaware south is the blue crab of Chesapeake Bay.


And the Winner Is

Who's right? Don't ask me. Being a New Englander - though raised in the only landlocked state of that region--- I must admit to prejudice. The most demanding and sensitive of palates favors the flavor of the cold water lobster from points north (which doesn't include the oversized warm water lobster minus the big claw that hail from more southern climes and that to any gourmet is nothing more than a mammoth crawfish).

This is not to suggest that I turn up my nose at a Chesapeake Bay blue crab. I don't. An Eastern Shore crabcake from Harrison's Chesapeake House rouses the taste buds, and a crisply fried soft crab does likewise -- as does a fried hard crab, crab imperial, crabmeat salad and crab soup whether it be of New England white style or red Manhattan.

But let's get to the nitty gritty. The blue crab -- even from the Wye where they're reputed to grow the biggest and tastiest -- isn't in the same league as a fresh Maine lobster. Up in New England, my compatriots don't need overwhelming Wye River or Old Bay seasoning to bring out the flavor of a lobster. No sir, just butter, salt and pepper thank you.

We don't like to inundate our lobster with spices. Why annihilate that sweet, subtle and delightful taste of the supreme crustacean with big-league spices? Enjoy the distinctive flavor of the butter soaked meat beneath the shell a la New England.

Methinks the real test of esteem for a crustacean of the brine is how one rates the species in question. Have you ever heard of a New Englander cutting up a Maine lobster for fishing bait -- as hereabouts is done with soft and peeler crabs? If you know the answer, it's not a question.

God made the lobster to delight humans, not to catch rockfish, sea trout, drum, spot, white perch, cobia, hardheads and such. As wife Lois and I were cracking lobsters open and enjoying the sweet and white flesh, we watched a couple boats near some old partially submerged yacht club pilings drifting crabs for rockfish.

On the shores of the club is some pretty good fishing for rock, especially in late summer and fall. The Patapsco is one of the best kept secrets among those who chase striped bass. And within a short cruise are the rockfish hotspots of the upper Bay. Crabs will take those rocks, but I dare say only because they've never tasted a real coldwater lobster.


How Do You Get the Darned Thing Out?

But much as I'm interested in what fishermen catch, I didn't watch those anglers dunking crabs around the pilings long. It was more amusing to observe Trueth Quixote de la Mancha do battle with his lobster. He pounded the shell, but as much as he raved and ranted it held firm. A lobster's shell has firmness unknown to a blue crab. It has to, protecting the tastiest flesh known on Earth.

A knife placed on the shell and pounded was to no avail. Stomping, cussing, even pleading didn't help. Lobster claws have to be cracked with a nut cracker at the right spot, which obviously Trueth Quixote de la Mancha didn't appreciate.

The pieces of delectable flesh he got by dribbles he did appreciate, though for a time earlier in the day there was a question whether there would even be a lobster bake. Former club manager Steve McCusker, newly transplanted from Maine, arranged the bake, but at the last minute was called away for a family emergency, which left chef Jeffry Burek and new manager Heather Boughey the dilemma of baking 105 lobsters underground.

A true lobster bake isn't done in a yacht club galley. No, a pit has to be dug - this one six feet wide and three feet deep -- rocks heated on a bonfire, then seaweed added, then lobsters, then more seaweed, and then all covered to be steamed for an hour. No dropping a crab in a pot and putting on the cover.

Heather, who happens to be my youngest daughter, had incentive: she was raised on lobster. Jeffry also had incentive: his reputation was at stake. Trueth Quixote de la Mancha also had incentive: those delightful and hard-won smashed tidbits of coldwater lobster.

Enough said.

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VolumeVI Number 38
September 24-30, 1998
New Bay Times

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