How we got to be crab debauchers

Baltimore Glimpses

May 25, 1993|By GILBERT SANDLER

IF WE ever get some sustained warm weather, it will bring out hot steamed crab debauchery. There will be the tables piled with with Old Bay-covered hardshells and hammers and knives and beer and the bags for the leavings. It's the messiest feast known to humankind. Who invented it, and how did we become Crabtown?

Theories abound. Here is one Glimpses has put together, having grown up in Baltimore and having listened through the years to tales passed along by old-timers.

In the early 1900s, until World War I, the catching and steaming of hardshell crabs (they measured 9 to 10 inches fin to fin) was already a full-blown industry on the Eastern Shore. Just about all of the steamed crabs were sold, unseasoned, to canners. The canners had the crabs picked of their meat, which was then canned and shipped across the bay to Baltimore for sale. Baltimoreans ate crab meat in those days from the can.

But some watermen were in the habit of snitching a few of the crabs for their own consumption. Their style was to dig the meat out of the crab and eat it -- just as we do today. At some point the watermen discovered that the meat tasted better if the crab was spread with a little spice.

And eventually, of course, an entrepreneur came up with the idea of exporting crabs for home picking. It was a gamble. Would city people over in Baltimore go to all that trouble to pick a crab apart for so little meat? How would you ship the crabs to Baltimore so they'd be fresh and marketable on arrival?

One businessman decided to take the gamble. He made arrangements with an A&P in the city to accept a barrel of steamed crabs. The story goes that he steamed a barrelful, seasoned the crabs with black pepper and salt, iced the whole mess and shipped it across the bay.

The experiment failed. By the time the crabs got to Baltimore, the ice had melted and washed the crabs clean of seasoning. They arrived wet and bland. It looked as if the time for the idea hadn't come.

But others devised an ingenious system to overcome the problems. They wrapped each steamed and seasoned crab in parchment paper. Again they shipped to the A&P. This time the crabs sold -- for $1 a dozen.

Soon crabs started catching on -- first at the amusement parks (Riverview, Carlin's, Gwynn Oak), then at crab-eating "parks" (Bankert's), then finally at restaurants (Dowell's, Wilson's, Dubner's, Rossiter's).

Today, of course, the crabs are transported in refrigerated trucks and steamed right on the premises, so that the crabs you desecrate today may indeed have slept in the Chesapeake last night.

In time the price of the decapods rose to $2 a crab. This spring, with cold, wet weather delaying crab reproduction, some have been paying as much as $4 a crab. And according to Susan Bruno, day manager of Bo Brooks Crab House, the larger crabs have dropped in size from about 10 inches (fin to fin) 25 and 30 years ago to about 5 inches today. Texas crabs, which Bo Brooks sometimes serves, run larger -- 7 to 8 inches. The smaller crabs are the result of excessive harvesting, according to Ms. Bruno. "They don't give them a chance to get bigger."

You may have your own version of how we got to be Crabtown. Maybe there's a scholar out there looking for a subject for his or her thesis who will come up with another version.

But that's the way Glimpses heard it.

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