What're they doing to our soffcrabs?

July 06, 1995|By JACQUES KELLY

Nothing sets my ear on edge so much as a corruption of a time-honored Baltimore word usage.

For a decade, the fancy food crowd has been toying with the soft crab, pronounced here as soffcrab. I think the language people would term this an elision.

The wonderful soft crab has been renamed and expanded. It is now a soft-shell crab. Waitresses inform customers, "We have soft shells tonight." Goodbye, soffcrab.

The other side of this situation is the hard crab, which when described as a "hard-shell crab" becomes even more ridiculous to a Baltimorean's ear. Steamed crabs -- or, occasionally, hard crab -- says it all.

And never steamed hard crabs, just simply steamed crabs. And soffcrabs are never steamed.

This brings up a point. How does a Baltimorean cook a soffcrab?

Well, if you read some fine-food tripe that's recently been printed, soffcrabs aren't good enough. They now require mustard sauce or olive oil, heavy cream, ground pecans and ginger. Maybe this is what a soft-shell crab needs, but not the soffcrabs that my grandmother fried on a muggy July evening.

Were that grand old lady around, she would bean those fine-food types with her cast-iron skillet.

I will admit the soffcrab/soft-shell crab debate has been going on for a long time.

Food novices and bad chefs have long been trying miserably to succeed with this food. Some years ago, the main torture devised was deep-fat frying of soffcrabs. This brought cries of heresy from the traditionalists. Today the fancy food set wouldn't be caught near a deep-fat fryer. Too gross for their refined sensibilities.

No deep fat for these people. They, however, are not satisfied without the overlay of garlic and toasted nuts.

There is a reason why traditional Baltimoreans like their soffcrabs one way -- without additions, improvements and add ons. The soffcrab is not a pizza with toppings.

Soffcrab-ism has to do with the acceptance of local summer rites.

Soffcrabs arrived in the city from the weeds (perhaps we should say aquatic grass) of the Severn, Magothy, Miles, Chester and Choptank rivers and all the neighboring creeks and marshes. These crabby critters came live in wooden crates layered with weeds. The color of a soffcrab is an exquisite shade of dark green, a color that could only be called soffcrab green.

Soffcrab lovers will seek them out at seafood dealers. They will patronize restaurants where the cooks are not afraid to leave them alone and resist the temptation to alter, mutilate and

embroider.

I can recall during one of the more colorful afternoons of a Baltimore childhood the sound of a huckster in the alley. "Soffcrab!! Soffcrab!!!" echoed off the rear walls of the rowhouses.

In this scenario, the women of the houses would take off down the back steps and stop the horse and wagon. The crabs would be lazily rolling around the water weeds in the wooden crate that held them.

There was usually a discussion of price and freshness. It is a given rule that anyone selling a live soffcrab will tell you it was in the water this morning. This is inviolate. There is no such thing as a day-old soffcrab unless it's been frozen. People will buy frozen soffcrabs but they always admit they are not the same as fresh.

If my grandmother decided the huckster wasn't a crook (many failed her test) she bought a tray full and got out the old cast-iron fish skillet.

Then came some butter, never oleomargarine. It seemed like the soffcrabs were out of the misery of their captivity in seconds.

The rest of the meal was usually sliced tomatoes and potato salad, heavy on the vinegar.

After dinner, there could be a discussion about seafood. People who didn't know how to cook soffcrabs in a little butter were mocked and ridiculed. There was no shortage of self-congratulation here. But then, it was a great Baltimore meal, one of the joys of regional cooking and a high point of the summer kitchen calendar.

At the time my grandmother was buried in New Cathedral Cemetery, no one seriously thought about olive oil or garlic or whatever the fancy-fooders are doing to their self-proclaimed soft-shell crabs. Were she here today, she would set them straight about how to cook a Chesapeake delicacy.

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