23 July 2007

The Crabs

My father was from Jersey City.

And as I recall, we'd pulled the motorhome onto a campsite in North Carolina. I must have been seven years old.

Context: I moved to Maryland around age 8 or 9 and grew up a Marylander. I've been to Baltimore Blast games, saw the Skipjacks back in the day, and learned to pick a crab long before I'd managed to master long division. Grew up on Wilkens Ave in that strange hinterland between Arbutus's Westland Gardens to the south, the Paradise 7-11 to the north, Our Lady of Victory to the east, and the Inner Loop of 695 to the west. I played on both the Arbutus and Violetville Little Leagues. Not that any of this means much to someone who isn't familiar with the little culture that comprises the land between Southwestern Blvd. and Frederick Ave., but for those of you who did or do, you know what I'm talking about. I'm a Marylander. I know crabs.

You can tell where someone is from by how they eat crabs. If they smash their crab's shell with a mallet, they aren't from Maryland (mallets are for cracking a particularly tough claw and that's it). If they can't tell the difference between a male and female before opening it up, they are not from Maryland (nature marked the belly-side of the shell for you). If they complain about the 'yellow stuff' in the crab's torso, they are not from Maryland (it's mustard and it tastes great). If they eat the lungs they are definitely not from Maryland; and if they ask you to pick their crab for them and they are either over the age of ten or don't have a baby sitting on their knee, they are not from Maryland.

All you really need to pick a crab is your fingers. A butter knife helps, but is hardly mandatory.

And it's real easy: just turn the crab over (males are better), slide a finger or the edge of a knife under the key, pull it up and the shell starts to rise, turn the crab over and break the shell back towards the eyes. Then, clear out the lungs, break in half, quarter those, remove the claws, and dig in. The best meat is the lump closest to the chest.

My father, mind you, was not from Maryland. He was from New Jersey. In fact, a part of New Jersey where 'crabs' meant only one thing. So I guess -- even in my pre-Maryland state -- I was both confused and excited when he came back to the motorhome with a half bushel of blue crabs.

Just the fact that we were camping in a motorhome should suggest to you a difference between the way my father and I see things. Nonetheless, I was interested in the crabs. They were alive, of course; and they began dropping out of the wet cardboard box he'd placed on the picnic table.

I know that my father had never in his life prepared crabs.

The proper way to prepare a blue crab is to steam it covered with a nice layer of Old Bay seasoning. You throw the crab in alive and blue, it comes out cooked and red. Easy.

My father, however hadn't bother to read the directions.

Which explains the grill.

Yes. The grill.

My father attempted to grill live crabs.

Everything gets a little hazy in my memory at this point, though I do remember hiding in the motorhome as my father ran around the grill cursing the crabs who'd applied themselves to his arms and fingers with their strongest Chesapeake Bay vice-grips.

Maybe the old man should have stuck to kielbasa and pirogies.

But maybe I should give him credit for at least attempting something new. I mean, who would have thought that cooking a crustacean could turn into such an amusing fiasco.

I guess I'm kinda like the old man in certain ways. Especially when it comes to either following directions or finding out the proper cooking procedure for whatever dish you happen to be preparing. Maybe that's got part to do with why I don't cook anything that could potentially attack me. It's bad enough when things get hairy with a vegetable stew.


MJ said...

However, you don't hesitate to try fixing up a tricky dish you have no experience with. Perhaps you got that from him.

mike said...

When I was a kid my dad used to steam crabs himself. He used to dump the bushel of live crabs out onto the kitchen floor and let us kids and the dog run around and play with them. And by 'play with them', I mean 'try to avoid getting bit'. I lucked out but the dog took a few to the nose. Now he buys them pre-steamed.