Are You a 'Picker' or a 'Dipper'?
I was in Maine recently and experienced the pleasure of a lobster dinner at a small seafood restaurant in Bangor. Lobster is king in Maine, plain and simple. The people there, called Mainers, have pictures of lobsters on everything from bibs to bumper stickers, and they are mightly proud of it. My dinner was good, I admit, but it was over kind of quickly. You crack the claws, pull out the tail and then gobble down the bouncy, butter dipped lobster meat. It only takes a few minutes.
The waitress came around to ask me if everything was all right and I replied that it was. She then asked, "Ya nut frum 'round here, aw ya?"
"No, I'm from Maryland, a little north of the Chesapeake Bay," I replied.
She crinkled her nose up and said, "That's where 'ya eat those little crabby things. 'Ya boil 'em or sumpthin' and then ya pick at 'em?"
"Steam," I said, "you steam them with Old Bay seasoning and you eat them, hot and spicy."
"Too much work for me," was her reply as she carried off my plate bearing the empty red shell.
This presented a question in my mind: Is it better to be a picker or a dipper? We all know the answer: We're pickers in these parts! Steamed crabs are a major part of summer around here. A summer without steamed crabs is like the Fourth of July without flags or fireworks. It has become a way of life that we're proud of and very accustomed to, but maybe there are some reasons why folks in "crabless" territories think that we're crazy to eat them.
Take lobstermen for example. In Maine, it is a very rugged and noble profession. They work their pots from dawn to dusk making their living from the sea. Lobster buoys proudly bob to and fro in the chill of the pea green surf.
Now think about how the average amateur crabber in Maryland might explain their crabbing technique.
"First you go to the supermarket and buy 10 pounds of chicken necks. Then you cut up the necks with a sharp knife and tie the pieces about six feet apart all down the length of a 500-foot rope. You place the rope with the chicken in a bushel basket and head out in a boat (preferably your neighbor's) to your secret crabbing spot. Oh yeah, don't forget to tie an empty bleach bottle to each end of the rope. After you've placed the chicken rope in the water you pass back and forth over the rope, dipping the crabs up with a net, until you fill the bushel basket with crabs or your back gives out -- whichever occurs first."
Do you see what I'm driving at? It's all pretty hard to understand if "ya not from 'round here." And it doesn't stop there.
The steaming ritual is just as mysterious. Some crabbers use a mixture of vinegar and water in the bottom of the steamer, while others substitute beer for the water. You then put the crabs in the pot -- not a job for the inexperienced -- and layer them with a mixture of Old Bay and other secret seasonings like rock salt, for those with timid blood pressure, and dry mustard, for those who've never looked into the corners of an open crab shell.
Have we scared them away yet? Let's try eating these things. Here's how you might explain it to a newcomer: "Eat this, but don't eat that. Some people eat this part, but never eat these things here. Take this mallet and whack at this, but pull this out first, and then suck the juice out of these little feeler things. It's simple!"
Fortunately, there is always plenty of beer and soda to occupy your hands and pallet. . . . I've often theorized that Maryland blue crabs were invented in the laboratory of the Coors brewery, but that's material for another column.
The real attraction to steamed crabs is the company that you keep while you're eating them. They're infinitely more enjoyable when you are surrounded by your family and friends. Invitations to crab feasts are rarely turned down because they are great social occasions, where people unwind and create piles of crab shells so high that they can't see the person sitting across from them. It makes your mouth water just to think about it. The red guys on the corner of the bench get special treatment because they caught 'em and steamed 'em.
I can understand the tradition surrounding lobsters in Maine. It's a great part of the country that's nice to visit, but don't take us away from our crabs too long.
We "pickers" are funny like that.
Celebrating Many Cultures
June 13-19 will be remembered as a week of record-breaking temperatures of such a dangerous level that red alerts were issued to "stay cool" and stay inside. All week the 100-plus heat index supercharged by the sun's brilliance baked the green fields of Harford County to concrete dryness. You could fry an egg on the asphalt, where shimmering waves of heat could be seen rising from the road. And oh-h-h the humidity -- so high and so close that it sapped the last bit of starch out of our clothing, minds and bodies. . . .