Volume 13, Issue 31 ~ August 4-10, 2005
Crab Catch
by M.L. Faunce

Crab Feasting Culture
How we eat at Maryland’s signature event

Crabs have picked up, which is a good thing, as Martha Stewart would say, what with all the crab feasts advertised on roadside signs and in community calendars. High summer is high time for crab feasts in Maryland, as service-club fundraisers, neighborhood get-togethers, birthdays, anniversaries, reunions and community celebrations. Nothing says summer in Maryland like a crab feast.

Crabs are here in spades now. At J.M. Clayton Seafood in Cambridge, Joe Brooks told me “crabbing picked up in late July. We’re picking 250-300 bushels a day now.” Clayton Seafood supplies some of the crabs to large crab feasts, like July’s J. Millard Tawes Crab and Clam Bake in Crisfield. Shoreline Seafood in Gambrills supplies and steams the crabs for the annual Annapolis Rotary Crab Feast, August 5 this year [See 8 Days a Week].

Regulars to mega-feasts like these have their own routines down pat: get in line early to secure the best tables — in shade in Crisfield, an afternoon event, and under cover in case of rain in Annapolis, an evening feast. The best are able to juggle a tray of crabs, a bucket of beer, corn-on-the cob and bowls of crab soup: a practiced skill. Some go to see and be seen.

I go for the crabs, rarely looking up from the Jimmies spread in front of me, so intent am I on picking crabs and cracking claws. An observant friend of mine eats crabs, too, but always seems to notice the nuances of crab culture around her. For each feast has its own culture, overlaid with individual habits.

A few years ago at the Annapolis Rotary Crab Feast, my Baltimore-raised friend, an avid Orioles fan, struck up a conversation with a feaster at our table wearing a New York Yankees baseball jersey. Never the twain shall meet, I thought, given the jersey preference, but crab dipping sauce proved the divide.

My friend brought her own apple cider vinegar, not the white distilled brand supplied by the Rotary at its annual feast. “White vinegar is not what people here like with their crabs,” she said, dipping her crabmeat first in J.O. seasoning, then the cider vinegar.

The Yankee fan mixed mustard and ketchup, cracked her crabs and dipped the meat into the tangy burnt-umber sauce. Oh boy! The culture shock ricocheted up and down the table of mostly Bay folks, but not a disparaging word was spoken. At crab feasts, bonds are formed by being together and eating together.

Here’s another cultural divide: You may pick and eat as you go, cracking claws, pulling off the backfin for the huge lump of meat wedged there, then carefully picking the body of crab, scraping the mustard, eating it or not. But the neighbor next to you may be a stockpiler, eating nothing, only picking away until the final crab on the table is history. Only then does this style eater indulge, winnowing the neat pile as if it were a meal.

There are even feasters who stealthily scoop claws and crab sections off the brown paper into large plastic baggies on their laps. When they see you watching, they say something like, I don’t want to waste this good crab. I’ll make soup tomorrow. Sure.

The more I go to crab feasts, the more I learn.

Crab feasts are not a yacht club; fashions there are practical. A seasoned friend told me to always wear dark colors, never a white top, to protect yourself from the guy sitting next to you wielding a croquet-sized mallet smashing crabs with abandon. You know who doesn’t really like crabs but came because his boss gave him tickets when you see a guy wearing a dress shirt with the cuffs turned up twice.

Only after buckets of beer sufficient to flush Chesapeake Bay have been drunk and the piles of crab shells rise as high as Mt. St. Helens do true crab feasters retire. The most dedicated feasters disdain the plastic knives usually provided and instead bring their own, carefully wiping it off and putting the knife away before leaving the fray.

© COPYRIGHT 2004 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.