I won a crab picking contest. Me, a guy who was born in Kansas, and grew up believing "seafood" was fish sticks. Me, who once thought a crab hammer was something you put in your tool box. Me, who wouldn't know a crab knife from a putty knife, pulled 7 1/4 ounces of meat and some shell from about four crabs in three minutes to win the First Annual Preakness Crab Picking Contest Monday at Harborplace.
I have the placard for my wall, and the cuts on my hand to prove it.
I should remember that this was not a contest for crab-picking pros. The contestants were "local celebrities," which meant the players were anybody who could convince a boss that picking crabs on a beautiful May afternoon was work.
Still, a Midwesterner who picks crabs the way a combine works wheat -- threshing it -- won a contest in crabtown.
This event carries great geographic significance. Winning a crab picking contest in Baltimore is the equivalent of a corn shucking contest in Indianapolis, a chili making contest in Houston or an herb sniffing contest in San Francisco. It proves I can eat like a native.
And it breaks a 13-year losing streak for me. That is how long I have lived in this town, practicing at home, then showing up at contests wearing an ah-shucks expression and hoping to sneak up on the Marylanders. This tactic almost worked a few years ago at a contest at Harrison's Pier 5 restaurant. I surprised former Baltimore Oriole Brooks Robinson, former Baltimore Colt Jim Mutscheller and nine members of the Boumi Drum and Bugle Corps. Nonetheless, I lost that 1989 contest to Jack Edwards, who was then an announcer at WFBR radio. So when I got to Monday's contest at Harborplace, the first thing I did was look around for Edwards. I didn't see him. But I did see people who had beaten me in other food-related contests, like Tony Pagnotti of Channel 2 and Gary Murphy of station WBSB-FM Variety 104.3, one of the sponsors of the contest. Both Pagnotti and Murphy had creamed me in an ice cream eating contest at Lexington Market last year.
As I waited for the contest to begin I sized up some of the competitors. Jockey Charles Fenwick and tailor Steve Haas are both in jobs that require quick hands. Caterer Charles Levine was in his element, food. And professional lacrosse players, Jeff Jackson and Brian Kronenberger, are masters at wielding lacrosse sticks and could, I figured, also do a sizable amount of damage with crab hammers.
But the real sleeper in the field was a sweet woman named Shirley. I didn't get her last name until shortly before I sat down with her in the preliminary, one-picker against one-picker stage of the contest. Her last name was Phillips. She, along with her husband Brice, operate Phillips restaurants, the biggest crab houses in Maryland and probably the world. To get to the finals of the contest, I had to beat the Queen of Crabs.
I was too nervous to look directly at royalty, but out of the corner of my eye I saw that the Queen was going to use a knife to remove the meat from the crab shells. That scared me even more. Real crab pickers, people who live on the Eastern Shore, use a knife. Amateurs, like me, use our fingers. Wielding that knife, she went through that crab like Grant went through Vicksburg. She sliced off legs, then off came the shell, and quicker than you could say, "God bless the backfin," she was lifting great lumps of white meat from the shell.
Mercifully, the one-on-one contest ended. The winner would be the contestant with the heaviest pile of crab meat. The Queen's pile of meat was higher than mine. But just before her plate was weighed, the Queen did a strange thing. She ate a large portion of her contest entry. That is why I won and advanced to the finals. Call it noblesse oblige. Call it good public relations (her restaurant, Phillips, was a sponsor of the contest). Call it a tainted victory. I called it a win. After 13 years of losing, I was willing to take any victory, spotted, stained or soiled.
In the finals I again used my shredder technique, and again I thought I would lose. But when the crab meat stopped flying and the trays were weighed, I had won, edging out the two lacrosse players, Jackson and Kronenberger, by half an ounce and three-quarters of an ounce, respectively.
Looking back I owe my victory to two factors. First, the generosity of the Queen of Crab. She could have smoked me. And the other factor in my win was the fact that both crab meat and crab shell are the same color. My tray was not closely examined for illegal shell parts.
Nonetheless, I have my crab picking placard, and my tale to tell visiting Midwestern relatives.
Most importantly, I'm not from Kansas any more, at least not during crab season.