If you're curious about what Baltimoreans really look like, just attend a local oyster roast.
Late winter is the high season for the local tradition, when school halls, banquet rooms and church basements overflow with tables hungry for the fruits of the Chesapeake. Patrons devour raw and fried oysters, oyster stew, roast beef, sauerkraut and hot dogs, cold cuts and baked beans. Pitchers of cold beer move faster than Rickey Henderson.
And it's a sure sign that an oyster roast is a raging success when the salad goes uneaten. Who wants lettuce on a day like this?
The guest list is as unshakable as the menu: neighborhood residents, people who grew up there and moved away, friends of friends. They wouldn't miss one.
Baltimoreans prize their attendance at a good, well-established annual oyster roast more than they do voting in presidential primary elections.
St. Peter the Apostle Catholic Church, Hollins and Poppleton streets, whose congregation is 150 years old, threw its oyster roast yesterday in the church's basement. It was a grand reunion for Southwest Baltimore.
"It's a good mixture of the young and the old here," said Tony Nemec,the chairman of the event. He lives in the 1300 block of Kuper St. and enlisted seven of his family members to work.
St. Peter's members were especially proud that their roast was not professionally catered. The five-hour-long meal was organized and prepared by local residents.
The Miller sisters -- Mary, Christine and Sherry -- worked the church kitchen range and kept the food coming without interruption.
"This is a real West Baltimore oyster roast. We may be poor, but we know how to eat," said Betty Farace, who attended with her daughter and grandchildren.
Father and son Ed and Craig Roth shucked raw oysters all afternoon. They worked their knives over the shells as though they were dealing cards. Never a misplayed hand. No palms slashed by an oyster knife.
"It's not the knife that causes trouble. It's the sharp shells that split open your fingers.
"We saw a lot of oysters from Long Island and the gulf last year but this year they've been running local -- Chincoteague and Choptank. Nice," Ed Roth said.
He believes the best way to enjoy the taste of a raw oyster is to chew them. "You don't just swallow them down. You don't get any taste that way," he said.
The distinction between lunch and an early supper was blurred. But when people weren't eating, they played a quarter on the game wheels that whirled away. The lucky winners walked off with stuffed toy lavender poodles, scarlet elephants and fuchsia turtles.
Donald the Singing Bush, a gentleman known throughout southwest Baltimore for his vocal prowess, provided renditions of "Because of You" and "I Left My Heart in San Francisco." A local band called "The Ys" played for the dancers -- often a grandmother dancing with a granddaughter.
There was much talk of the old neighborhood. They recalled the B&O Railroad when it employed half the people in the parish. They laughed about the polite term ("He had his fallers") for someone who enjoyed too much alcohol. They talked about the Calvert Hall baseball team of 1929.
People began to drift away as the afternoon wore on. The clock's hands announced it was 5 p.m. The band struck up "God Bless America," and all joined hands for a chorus. By 5:30, the remains of a great neighborhood oyster roast sat in garbage bags.