TYLERTON -- I JOURNEYED to the middle of the Chesapeake Bay to find the sweetest crab meat. I went to the Smith Island Ladies Crabmeat Co-op and hit gold.
Getting there was an effort. I drove to Crisfield, hopped on the Captain Jason ferry boat, and took a 12-mile ride out to Tylerton, one of three communities on Smith Island.
There I bought a pound of crab meat for $14 from Carol Ann Landon. Her husband, Everett, had caught the crabs a few hours earlier in the waters that surround the island.
The crabs had been hurried back to the newly opened co-op in Tylerton. There they were steamed and passed on to Landon, who picked the meat and put it in 1-pound containers bearing the co-op's label.
I paid, iced my container of crab meat down, hopped on a boat back to Crisfield and drove back to Baltimore. That night I enjoyed a supper of crab cakes that was so good, may toes curled with delight.
The crab meat of Smith Island has been sending eaters into ecstasy for years. Moreover, the women of the island have traditionally made extra money by picking crabs caught by their husbands, fathers or brothers. What is new in this arrangement is that rather than picking the crab meat in their own kitchens, the women of the island now pick and pack their crab meat under the roof and auspices of the Smith Island Ladies Crabmeat Co-op.
The co-op is situated in a sparkling structure in Tylerton, a community of about 75 folks. This summer's opening of the co-op represented the end of a tussle between the Smith Island women and the state Health Department.
Four years ago authorities clamped down on women picking crab meat in their homes. At first some of the women of the island bristled at the suggestion that crab meat picked in their homes could be anything less than perfect. But eventually they accepted the notion that to sell their crab meat to the wider world, they would have to abide by the regulations followed on the mainland.
The women formed the co-op, got a few grants, a few donations, and a lot of advice. Last month the co-op's picking house opened for business. It has a steaming room, stainless-steel tables, glistening white walls, and a floor so clean you could almost eat off it.
Last week I was given a tour of the facilities by Janice Marshall, who, along with her daughter, Robin Bradshaw, is among the 14 women who make up the co-op. Each woman has her own, self-selected seat in the picking house. They work all hours of the day and night, some rising before dawn with their husbands. The men ride their boats out to catch crab. The women ride bicycles or golf carts to the co-op to pick the crabs caught in an earlier harvest. There are no cars in Tylerton.
At the picking house, the women begin the day with a Bible reading. The evening I was there, a handful of women talked and kidded each other as they worked.
Rather than using the wooden mallets found in Baltimore crab houses, the women used small, sharp knives to separate the meat from the crab shell. "I doubt there is a mallet on Smith Island," said Christine Smith. "Even the men here know how to pick."
Connie Marshall disagreed. "Mine don't," she said. "They can crack a claw and that is about it."
Some of the women razzed R. Wade Binion, a young, good-looking rural-development specialist sent out from Washington by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help the co-op set up its books.
Binion, who grew up on a family farm outside Indianapolis, told me the structure of the crab-picking cooperative was similar to grain co-ops set up in Midwestern farming communities. Participants share evenly in the proceeds and losses.
Despite their easy laughter, some of the women said they had anxieties about being in business. So far this year crabs have been scarce. "It is not a sure thing," Marshall said. "You're just depending on the bay. It is scary."
Marshall said the co-op had not done any marketing. While it has a few devoted customers, such as Jay Prettyman, owner of the Rusty Rudder restaurant in Dewey Beach, Del., the co-op is looking for more outlets for its crab meat.
Two trucking firms in Crisfield can transport packages of the crab meat to Baltimore and Wilmington, she said. A minimum 10-pound order is required. Rather than separating the lump and claw meat, the Smith Island women put both types of meat in their 1-pound packages.
In a telephone conversation from his restaurant, Prettyman sang to me the praises of the co-op's crab meat.
"In my 30 years in the restaurant business this is the best meat I have found anywhere," he said. He added that at $14 a pound wholesale, the co-op meat is priced higher than other crab meat on the market. But he said he is willing to pay more because "the quality is much better.
"You don't have to handle it, to tear the meat up and look for pieces of shell. The ladies start with such good crabs, caught by their husbands. And when they pack them, it is a matter of family pride," he said.
In their dreams, the women see boatloads of visitors buying freshly cooked crab cakes at the co-op. But for now the only crab meat sold on the premises comes in those pound containers. The only way to get to the island is by boat. The ferry arrives at Tylerton at 1 p.m and leaves around 4 p.m.
If you go, be sure to take a cooler that holds more than 1 pound of crab meat. My family quickly polished off the 1 pound I carried back to Baltimore. Then we were hungry, and a long way from Smith Island.
Pub Date: 7/24/96