What makes us eat the things we do? We can blame some of our eating rituals on tradition.
I remember the first time I was exposed to a Maryland crab feast. My new house in Severna Park came equipped with a long picnic table set in concrete. The neighbors informed me this was a crab house and was to be used for crab feasts.
With typical Maryland hospitality, they proceeded to initiate me in the customs of eating blue crab. I watched with fascination as they spread the table with newspaper. They distributed the little wooden mallets and nutcrackers. The paper towels were placed strategically on the table.
Then, horrors of horrors, they brought out a grocery bag stuffed with orange things, crusty with salt and seasoning. These orange things were not pretty. The next step in this "feast" was to tear the limbs off the ugly orange things, peel off the back and expose the carcass. Some of the insides were then dug out and discarded while some were picked out and eaten with the fingers.
The word "tradition" was the only thing that got me through the feast. I kept telling myself there must be some long-held tradition and pleasant memories associated with this rite; otherwise the participants would have been thoroughly repulsed by the procedure. I assumed it must be the memories associated with the activities that made a crab feast so important.
To be sure, there are other forms of food tradition that come into play to explain otherwise irrational food consumption. I'm sure many Anne Arundel wives will be able to relate to my example of a spouse's irrational eating behavior.
Hubby is a native Marylander: born in Annapolis, graduate of Arundel High and the University of Maryland. Like other local boys, he cruised Ritchie Highway in his teen years, partaking of its then-sparse culinary offerings. On one of those cruises he consumed his first Anne's Dari Creme foot-long hot dog.
It must have been one of those magical teen-age nights when everything was perfect and therefore he wasn't fully aware of the gastronomical implications of what he was eating. That first eating must have pleasurable associations, for he continues to eat Anne's foot-longs.
At least that's how I rationalize it, as Hubby's forehead glistens with beads of sweat and he tightly clutches his stomach. He writhes in the grip of indigestion, the agonizing consequence of the legendary foot-long.
Does this agony etch itself indelibly in his memory and cause him never eat another Anne's foot-long? No, drawn like a lemming to the sea, he treks to Anne's regularly and buys almost certain heartburn. Of course he commits this act surreptitiously. Often, when I leave him to his own devices for Saturday lunch and forget to tell him not to eat a foot-long, he sneaks off to Anne's.
Seeking to determine Anne's appeal, I ask him to describe the foot long.
"Well, it has to be a double," he says.
"You mean they put two foot-long hot dogs on the roll?" I ask. I shudder a little because hot dogs aren't my idea of real food.
"Yeah, and they have to have chili on them. Anne's has real good chili," he replies.
"What else is on it?" I demand.
"Just everything," is his answer. He is unable to expand on what "everything" is.
At this point he attempts to justify his indigestion. "You realize they are fried? You know the hot dogs are deep-fried?" he asks in a manner that suggests I should be proud of his heroic self-sacrifice.
My own stomach does flipflops. The thought of a deep-fried hot dog is beyond belief. I grasp for the rationalizing word, "tradition."
I know there must be some tradition, some happy occasion, behind the ritual eating of the foot-long hot dog. No one would endure such pain on a voluntary basis without some deep-seated tradition behind it.
All joking aside, pleasant experiences and the memories of food we once enjoyed can remain forever in our minds. Wilbur Wade, another local boy and Hubby's fellow teen-age cruiser, tried to give me insight into the gourmet delights they enjoyed in the 1960s. Of all the eating places that were teen food sources, only Anne's Dari Creme remains. All the others have gone to restaurant heaven.
The hot spot back then was Submarine Haven, in downtown Glen Burnie, just around the corner from Little Tavern. According to Wil, the piece de resistance at Haven was the cheeseburger sub with mustard and chili. The toasted sub roll made this cheeseburger live forever in his memory. If it wasn't a "sub night" the cruisers had pepperoni pizza at the Haven.
If they had money in their pocket for gasoline, they cruised to the Annapolis Dairy Queen for a chili dog. Do you notice a recurring chili theme in this food tale?
Perhaps the food that holds a special place in the cruisers' memories is Ameche's "powerhouse" sandwich. Served on a sesame seed bun, the sandwich was given the finishing touch of a toothpick flag inserted in the center.
Ameche's was a real drive-in where you placed your order over the intercom and the food was brought to the cruise-mobile by that vanished breed, the carhop. Life was truly wonderful.
Ah, chili dogs, cheeseburgers and foot-longs -- this is the stuff of which memories are made.
Joan Whitson Wallace, a free-lance writer, lives in Severn. She has written about food for a number of publications, and is working on a cookbook, "Mom Taught Me How to Cook."