One of my goals in life is to figure out which color crab soup to sip in which situation. This can be a big, emotional deal. There are folks in Maryland who contend that red crab soup, made with beef and vegetables, is the only true hue.
Other Marylanders support solely white, the crab soup that relies on cream. Both groups of soup sippers have strong feelings.
Like a true coward, I embrace both sides and gleefully spoon down both colors of soup.
But the other day as I polished off a bowl of white, I tried to come up with a calm, middle ground on the crab soup situation.
For me, red crab soup, or Maryland crab soup, is the soup of the proletariat. Its basic ingredients, crab claws, beef cubes and mounds of vegetables, are readily accessible to all. You might have to clean out your refrigerator to make red crab soup, but not your bank account.
Instead of funds, red soup requires an investment in time. One recipe sent to me several years ago by a red soup supporter called for putting hard crabs in the bubbling liquid and cooking them for four hours. That was a long cooking time, even for the take-your-time, red soup set.
I also think that red crab soup is better lunch than dinner soup. It is hearty, reassuring company. Something I welcome in the middle of a day of doing some real work, like cleaning the basement or raking leaves.
White crab soup, on the other hand, strikes me as smooth, creamy and quietly indulgent. A to-the-manor-born soup. In short, it is all the things I imagine the good life to be.
Alas, it is costly. You have to have a free hand with cream and the lump crab meat. Neither ingredient comes cheap.
And like life in the fast lane, white soup-making moves at a hurried pace. It takes less than an hour to put together. In the the slow simmering climate of the red soup, there is time to linger around the soup pot, swapping stories. But with the white soup world, work is a brisk, businesslike operation.
Yet the white soup supporters can still raise a ruckus if you take their favorite off your menu. That is what Richard McClure found out a few years ago when he changed the color of the crab soup from white to red at Carrol's Creek restaurant in Annapolis.
The cream crowd wanted their white soup back and harassed McClure until he struck his colors.
Being a businessman, McClure acceded to wishes of his customers, the white soup returned to the menu and and calm returned to the restaurant.
Recently the restaurant's soup won the title of the state's best cream of crab soup in the 1991 Maryland Seafood Festival, beating soups from 20 other competing restaurants.
It was this winning white stuff I was sipping the other day as I pondered the division of soups.
As I ate, a theory hit me. It was the theory that white crab soup should be served at restaurants with white tablecloths. It should be the crab soup to sip when you are dressed up and feeling elegant.
A bowl of red, meanwhile, should be the kitchen-table crab soup. The one you sip when you are "just folks." It is served where the table cloth is either checkered or absent.
McClure, the general manager of Carrol's Creek, said my theory held some water. Generally speaking, making cream of crab soup is more expensive than making red crab soup, he said. Moreover, he said, in the restaurant business a white tablecloth is a sign of elegant dining. That means more costly ingredients go in the dishes, and the prices are higher than a restaurant that doesn't have tablecloths.
So I finished my soup and felt smart.
I had a neat summary of the red-white difference in crab soup. It all depended on the tablecloth.
That theory lasted about two hours. That was how long it took me to find out which restaurant won the red crab soup division in the Maryland Seafood Festival. I thought it would be a homey place, a bar, or maybe a mom-and-pop place. A place where the tables either had red checkered cloths or were cloth-free.
I was wrong. The red soup winner was Cafe Brighton in Baltimore's Harbor Court hotel. This is a restaurant in a fancy hotel. Not the kind of place you are likely to find somebody who has just raked the leaves.
And guess what? Their prize- winning red crab soup is served on white tablecloths.
And so for me the question of which crab soup to sip remains a murky matter. A matter as unclear as red and white.