Crabs And Hot Politics

July 16, 1992|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Staff Writer

CRISFIELD -- With a frying-pan hot asphalt parking lot underfoot, the thermometer almost reached triple digits here yesterday at the annual J. Millard Tawes Crab and Clam Bake.

But the most significant numbers had little to do with the temperature as 5,000 seafood lovers jammed around Somers Cove Marina at the edge of Tangier Sound.

Steamed crabs? Try 250 bushels.

Clams? How about 35,000?

Corn on the cob? No fewer than 700 dozen.

Toss in 1,500 pounds of trout, 150 watermelons, 54 kegs of beer and who knows how many pounds of french-fried sweet potatoes, onion rings and clam strips, and you've got what has become the biggest annual seafood festival in the state.

Named after the late state governor who was born in this Somerset County waterfront town, the festival had its modest beginnings 16 years ago to benefit the local Chamber of Commerce.

Proceeds this year are earmarked for community improvements, Fourth of July fireworks, and Crisfield promotions.

The festival since has evolved into a unique celebration of spicy Chesapeake Bay seafood and Maryland politics, the latter sometimes hotter than the crabs.

Because most of the state's leading Democrats were in New York for their party's national convention, yesterday's Tawes festival saw fewer backs slapped and hands shaken than in most previous years, when anyone in elected office or seeking it was bound to make the long trip to Crisfield.

A handful of state delegates showed up.

Reps. Tom McMillen, D-4th, and Wayne Gilchrest, R-1st, were there working the crowd.

The two incumbent congressmen, who were thrown into the same district when congressional boundaries were redrawn last year, will face each other in the November general election.

Mr. McMillen breezed through the crowd for about an hour.

Mr. Gilchrest stayed close to a tent reserved for Republican supporters. Showing how much he had learned about the event -- and its traditional sweltering conditions -- Mr. Gilchrest arrived without the tie he wore to his first festival several years ago.

More apparent than ever this year were the number of tents sponsored by area corporations.

Of the 5,000 tickets sold to the event, 3,400 were bought by corporate sponsors, said Scott Tawes, festival co-chairman.

Del. Charles McClenahan, R-Somerset County, said 47 businesses had reserved 55 tent spaces, the most in festival history.

The tents, which offered shade against yesterday's brutal sun, were crowded with company employees and guests.

Businesses were promised space on the festival grounds if they bought at least 30 tickets.

The gradual takeover by corporate sponsors has had the effect of toning down what once was a near free-for-all in the search for crabs, beer and friends among festival-goers.

Still, the event retained its friendly air.

"Everybody knows somebody," said Mr. Tawes.

Bruce C. Bereano, State House lobbyist and festival regular, said he bought $3,000 worth of tickets and distributed them among friends and clients.

"I wouldn't miss it," he said.

The number of locals who once filled the festival grounds in previous years appears to be declining.

Part of the reason is the $25 admission fee. The county has suffered some of the state's highest unemployment rates for the last decade and money here is tight.

Another reason may be that crabs and clams are taken for granted in Crisfield, which once billed itself as the seafood capital of the world.

"Why would you want to eat seafood if you live here?," asked one local resident. "I'd rather have steak and taters."

Tony Bruce, chairman of the Economic Development Commission of Somerset County, said new faces are welcome at the festival.

"It gives the county visibility," he said.

"People coming here will realize it's a nice place to be located. Maybe they'll choose it if they decide to relocate."

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