Thanksgiving for Two Dozen in the Crab Capital of the World
story by Pat Piper • photos by Vince Lupo
Editor’s note: This week we continue our yearly pre-Thanksgiving tradition of visiting the kitchens of notable chefs to borrow their recipes for good food and good times. Read now, and you’ll have plenty of time for planning your own memorable occasion of sharing and thanks.
When you get an invitation to Thanksgiving dinner from the Crab Guru of the Chesapeake Bay, to be held in his home in Crisfield, a town that calls itself the Crab Capital of the World, it wouldn’t be presumptuous at all to expect him to serve a few blue crab dishes along with the standard turkey-cranberries-potatoes
Well, guess what?
“Why would I do that?” asks Whitey Schmidt, formerly of Rose Haven, who has made a career out of eating crabs, picking crabs, rating and writing about crab houses, inventing crab recipes … well, this guy has a thing for crabs. But he may be on to something, because at the first gathering in 1621, Edward Winslow tells of more than 90 people at a feast that most likely didn’t even include a turkey; it was deer meat and probably duck. There are many variations on this theme we call Thanksgiving. What happens in Crisfield this year, and in years past, proves the point many times over.
In Whitey’s World, Versatility Reigns
Whitey opens up the Crab Lab (others call this a kitchen) to about two dozen people this time every year. “Thanksgiving was always a celebration in my house in Carmody Hills, about a mile from the District in P.G. County,” he remembers. “There were eight brothers and five sisters in my family who all came home, along with others who you could call extensions of the family, if only long enough to attend that dinner. We had one table and probably six or seven card tables, some of which were set up on the porch because there wasn’t any room in the house.”
|It’s not all work at Whitey’s house, but guests are expected to help and the television should be given a few days off to allow for conversation.
When Whitey looks back at those dinners, he remembers more about what they had than what they didn’t. The family couldn’t afford a television. But it was never a problem because each brother and sister and parent and friend of the family talked. Conversations like that don’t occur very often anymore. A living room centers around the television now, instead of chairs where people can sit and look at each other and talk. Thanksgiving is a time, he observes, when the television should be given a few days off … even if Kathie Lee Gifford is hosting the Macy’s parade.
That’s the rule in Whitey’s home, despite a guest or two caught taking a peek at a football game on the television in the office. Just a few steps away from the Crab Lab, Whitey’s office is a garage inside of which are stacked his crab and oyster books (he‘s written nine and is at work on a book about Chesapeake Bay soups) to be boxed and shipped around the country.
It’s not all work here. There is a new slate pool table around which many games of eightball are played while a Dave Brubeck CD plays on a boom box. The walls are lined with oyster cans and old tobacco signs, antique scales and restaurant signs picked up in Whitey’s travels around the Chesapeake while researching his books. The one thing missing from the garage is a car. In the World According to Whitey, cars stay outside.
Inside is where Thanksgiving dinner is served and where versatility reigns. The pool table is covered with a sheet of plywood to become a buffet table. A pair of 13-foot, century-old pews from Marion Baptist Church are carried by guests from a porch (where crab feasts are held in the summer), as is a long table built by a local waterman. A third church pew, this one built by the Quakers and designed so that its back can be raised to become a tabletop is used, albeit sacrilegiously, for a bar.
“Thanksgiving is always a tradition of food,” the host will tell you. “You can be from Chicago or you can be from New Mexico, but whenever the topic is Thanksgiving, food is part of the discussion. It‘s a center around which people have always gathered. And that‘s what happens here,” he says, waving a hand around the Crab Lab, which is filled with wooden bowls, fresh fruit and vegetables, herbs, plates and bottles of olive oil and vinegar.
“Cab Calloway does a tune called ‘Everyone Eats When They Come to My House,’” Whitey observes. “I don’t know all the words, but I understand what’s Cab’s saying. He’s right.”
Many Hands Make Light Work
For most of us, the idea of hosting 26 of our closest friends (some of whom might also be family) can be akin to being asked to recite all the verses to “American Pie.” It’s a nice idea, but let someone else do it. Even if it’s only six people, the idea can be daunting. Not to worry.
“If you are the host, it goes without saying that when you start inviting people, everyone is going to offer to bring something,” Whitey says. “If they don’t make the offer, you know never to invite them again. So before you start making the calls, have an idea of what you will do and — more important — what guests will do.”
Whitey works ahead. By the time the first guest arrives, he’ll have already prepared one of two turkeys (the second one is in the oven timed for a dinner serving). He will have already prepared his popular Fourth Thursday Salad Dressing, which has been refrigerated for 24 hours to improve the taste and reduce the day’s work. Potatoes have been boiled to be mashed, green beans have been cleaned and are ready to be steamed, and a few pounds of shrimp are about to be added to a mixture of cider vinegar, beer, Old Bay seasoning and pickling spice.
Each dish is nearly ready, the final preparation will be done by one or another guest. “I should have been a sergeant,” Whitey says, “because I know what has to be done, and I know what steps have to be taken to get it done. While someone is doing that, I can go shoot pool.” When dinner time is declared, the table includes ham, turkey, oyster stuffing, green beans, mashed potatoes, gravy, shrimp, red wine, white wine — and all the other colors of spiritus fermenti.
Arriving guests are greeted with a bowl of hot oyster stew. It should come as no newsflash that oysters are a centerpiece of a Thanksgiving get-together at a house whose owner’s most recent book is The Chesapeake Bay Oyster Cookbook. On a porch adjoining the Crab Lab sits a bushel of oysters on ice along with assorted oyster knives and oyster gloves. The bushel of oysters becomes an early gathering place as Whitey strategically places a cooler of iced beer nearby, along with cocktail sauce (never store-bought but made with horseradish, Tabasco, lemon juice, Worcestershire and ketchup. Whitey also serves steamed oysters (put them in the oven until the shell opens) and a number of variations of oysters Rockefeller (green onions, lemon, vinegar, tomato paste): There are 20 recipes in his book.
A tip or two from the Oyster Guru, (who changes his name with the change of Bay season): Bay oysters aren’t as salty as Chincoteague oysters, and many seafood markets will offer “salt oysters” that have actually come from the Chesapeake or Alabama or Texas and are soaked in the Atlantic’s salt water for a few weeks to give them that special taste. But with cocktail sauce and lemon and all the other accessories, Whitey recommends not getting bent out of shape if Chincoteagues or other salt oysters can’t be found. If it’s a fresh oyster, it’s a good oyster. Blue Points, which come from Connecticut, are also good — but never admit to a Marylander or Chesapeake Bay advocate that’s where they came from.
For all the tradition of oysters and the Chesapeake Bay, not everyone is adept or willing to face the knives and gloves and opening. Local oysters that have already been shucked are available in most seafood markets. If you decide to go this route, get some oyster shells and serve the shucked oysters this way. Guests will never know, and you can proudly take credit for having been in the kitchen shucking since 6am.
You Don’t Need to Be Martha Stewart
Plates don’t match. Silverware for 26 people has 27 different patterns. Napkins are sometimes linen, sometimes paper towels. Glasses come in all shapes and sizes.
“I own four forks,” Schmidt says, “and I don’t have two wine glasses that match. Now, some might worry about this. I don’t. If you’re the host, don’t waste money on making your table look like something out of Gourmet. Spend the money on good-quality food. That’s what’s important. That’s what people will talk about when they are driving home.”
A buffet is set up for Whitey’s guests; he says the people at this dinner would get confused about which way to pass a plate if it were done family style. There is nothing wrong with being more formal and preparing each plate to order or sending all the food around the table so that guests select when it’s their turn. “If it’s six people or less, that’s what I’d do,” Whitey says. “But if there’s more than that, like at the dinner table with 14 kids when I was growing up, it’s all for themselves. It’s Darwin: survival of the fittest.”
Room for All at This Table
|Whitey, at left, holds court in the kitchen, assigning tasks and keeping the food coming.
There is a prayer, and while each gathering has had a different person offering gratitude, the words reflect a single theme: The waters have provided for this moment, as has the land, and each person here has provided friendship. Thanksgiving dinner at Whitey’s brings together Catholics, Baptists, Jews, agnostics and even an atheist — but all celebrate this moment in their own way. It works.
After the last Thanksgiving dinner, Whitey discovered one of his guests sound asleep under the pool table the following afternoon. “I had wondered what happened to the guy because he was on my team when we were shooting eightball, and I had to finish on my own,” he recounted with a smirk.
“It’s important for every host to understand that having an open bar means also having a pot of coffee going as well. My pool partner woke up a few hours after I found him, maybe because I started playing Brubeck again. He hates Brubeck. The point here is most folks know when they‘ve had too much. Some will find a spot under the pool table. A good party includes having coffee and having guests who will know when to suggest to someone they can get a lift home and get their car the next day. The thing is, don‘t make it a big issue in front of the person. Do it quietly.”
The gathering this year will include guests from Washington, D.C., New Jersey, Manhattan, Maryland and Virginia. Like many Thanksgiving dinners around the country, these few hours are the only time the calendar makers, retired airline employees, ballet dancers, television production-staff members, crane operators, mortgage brokers, handymen, watermen and cooks come together. This pattern will soon be repeated everywhere, because when people share a meal, they share themselves. Each comes away from the table better in spirit than when they first sat down.
At this table in Crisfield, the food has a place with everyone else.
Pat Piper, who has attended Thanksgiving dinners in Crisfield for a number of years, last wrote the Reflection “Too Much and Not Enough” for Bay Weekly on March 25.
Whitey’s Fourth Thursday Salad Dressing
This salad dressing is one that I learned while cooking at Steamboat Landing Restaurant on the West River back in the 1980s. I always make enough to last at least a couple of weeks. The secret is to begin with equal amounts of mayo, buttermilk and sour cream.
- 1 cup mayo
- 1 cup sour cream
- 1 cup buttermilk
- 6-8 cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped
- Dash of Tabasco Sauce
- Crumbled blue cheese or gorgonzola
- chives, chopped
Mix all ingredients well and refrigerate for at least one hour. Sprinkle with chopped chives.
Whitey’s Easton Cornbread & Oyster Stuffing
After I fill the turkey with stuffing, I cover the opening with the heel slice of bread. It worked for my mom, and it will work for you!
- 4 tablespoons butter
- 2 large ribs celery with leaves, chopped
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 1 pint oysters and liquor
- 1 package (8 ounces) cornbread stuffing mix
- 4 slices whole-wheat bread, cut into 1&Mac218;2-inch cubes
- 1&Mac218;2 cup chicken stock
- 1&Mac218;2 cup chopped fresh parsley
- 1 tablespoon crumbled dried sage
- 2 teaspoons crumbled dried thyme
- 1 teaspoon crumbled dried marjoram
- 1&Mac218;2 teaspoon salt
- 1&Mac218;2 teaspoon black pepper
In a Dutch oven over medium heat, melt butter. Add celery and onions and cook, stirring occasionally, just until tender — eight to 10 minutes. Remove from the heat.
Drain and chop the oysters, reserving the oyster liquor. Add the oysters, cornbread stuffing mix, bread cubes, 1&Mac218;2 cup of the reserved oyster liquor, the chicken stock, parsley, sage, thyme, marjoram, salt, and pepper; toss well.
Spoon the stuffing into your turkey or a lightly buttered two-quart baking dish. Cover tightly with foil and bake at 325 degrees for 45 minutes.
Whitey’s Golden Cheddar Loaf
I found this bread in The Fleishchmann’s Yeast Story. It’s a perfect bread with great flavor, great color and great appeal.
- 31&Mac218;2 to 4 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 1 package Fleischmann’s RapidRise Yeast
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup water
- 1&Mac218;3 cup milk
- 11&Mac218;2 cups (6 ounces) grated sharp Cheddar cheese
- 1 egg white, lightly beaten with 1 tablespoon water
In large bowl, combine 11&Mac218;2 cups flour, sugar, undissolved yeast and salt. Heat water and milk until very warm (120 degrees to 130 degrees); stir into dry ingredients. Stir in enough remaining flour to make soft dough. Knead on lightly floured surface until smooth and elastic, about 6 to 8 minutes. Cover; let rest on floured surface 10 minutes.
Knead in cheese. Divide dough into 3 equal pieces; roll each piece to 14-inch rope. Braid ropes; pinch ends to seal. Place dough in greased 81&Mac218;2 x 4 1&Mac218;2-inch loaf pan. Cover; let rise in warm, draft-free place until doubled in size, about 30 to 45 minutes.
Brush loaf with egg white mixture. Bake at 375 degrees for 30-35 minutes or until done. Remove from pan; let cool on wire rack.
- 1621 — First feast is held after harvest, between September 21 and November 9. Pilgrims and about 90 Indians attend. After this gathering, there were no subsequent ones for quite a while.
- 1789 — George Washington declares November 26 a day to give sincere and humble thanks.
- 1863 — Abraham Lincoln signs a proclamation making the fourth Thursday in November a national holiday to be called Thanksgiving. For many in the South (the Civil War had just ended), this decision was viewed as one more Yankee event that would erode their quality of life.
- 2004 — Whitey Schmidt invites 26 guests to Thanksgiving dinner.
- Food served hot needs to be very hot. Warm isn’t hot enough.
- Oysters need to be kept very cold. Cool isn’t cold enough.
- Don’t be proud. Ask for assistance in, say, cutting turkey or shucking oysters.
- Plan ahead. Being spontaneous is fun, but having a game plan makes for a successful dinner.