Taking a whack at local ways

Odyssey: The author learns the secrets of hammerless crab picking and tastes fried chicken that rivals only mom's.

July 22, 1999|By Rob Kasper | Rob Kasper,SUN COLUMNIST

The White Haven ferry saves me. The sun is sinking, and so am I. I am beginning to feel weighed down by my eating adventure across the state.

When the boat comes into view, my spirits soar. The dull-gray ferry, which links Routes 352 and 362 at the border of Somerset and Wicomico counties, is not an impressive-looking craft. But finding a boat in the middle of farmland is so unexpected, such a scenic surprise, that it gives me a thrill.

Instead of plodding along another highway, I am floating on a vessel across the gleaming Wicomico River. I am buoyant, if only for five minutes. The ferry, pulled by an underwater cable, travels only about 75 yards.

It connects me to dinner as I continue my gustatory tour of the Eastern Shore. On this day, the trip features tangy pancakes, a crab-picking lesson, crisp crab balls, perfectly fried chicken and amazing succotash.

I am not easy to impress on the flapjack front. But the stack of pancakes with cranberry and orange topping at Cafe 25 in downtown Easton wins me over. The topping is intriguing. The mixture of oranges and cranberries gives the golden pancakes a tart, citrus flair.

Owner Tom Pinto tells me he came up with the idea for the topping after discovering that the town's favorite breakfast muffin is cranberry orange. What is good for the muffin is good for pancakes, Pinto figures.

As I leave town, the streets are coming alive with well-dressed office workers, some kissing their Volvo-driving spouses goodbye as they begin the work day. An hour later, I am driving along the desolate roads of southern Dorchester County near Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. I don't see any Volvos or office workers. This is marsh land, crab country.

I make my way to a remote crab-picking house, Meredith & Meredith in Toddville. I am there to learn the Eastern Shore style of picking crabs. As soon as I enter the room, I notice there is no hammering.

Instead of using the Baltimore crab-house technique of clobbering the crabs with mallets, the 30 crab pickers use small, weighted knives to remove the crab meat. They slice through the crab, severing legs and popping out lumps of back fin with astonishing speed.

"I saw some city folks hit crabs with a hammer, and I told them there is no need to do that," says Evelyn Robinson, who continues to pick crabs as she talks to me. "The crabs are already dead. You don't need to kill them again."

The specialist in removing claw meat is Betty Tall, a soft-spoken woman in her mid-60s. She started picking about 50 years ago when she and her sister were given the task of cleaning the claws at family crab feasts. Claw duty, she recalls, went to the youngsters not skilled enough to pick meat from other parts of the crab.

She took a liking to the appendage, and now she gets the claws that other pickers don't want. She shows me a magic spot just below the pincer. When she taps it with her knife, the shell falls off, leaving a perfect piece of claw meat. I vow to try this trick at home.

I am better at eating crab than picking it. So, when I am served a plate of crab balls at the Suicide Bridge Restaurant outside Secretary, I know what to do. I lift a spicy fritter-like sphere of crab meat and pop it into my mouth. Then I do it again and again.

I also eat a soft-crab sandwich, which, in the generous serving style of the Shore, comes with a few extra ounces of shredded crab meat tucked under its skin.

Owner Dave Nickerson tells me he grew up in a house across Cabin Creek, where the restaurant is located. "The place had about six stools, and crab balls cost 10 cents each," he says.

That was about 35 years ago. Now, crab balls cost $10.50 a dozen. And the once-tiny eatery, little more than an extra room tacked on to the owner's house, has grown into a large, glass structure with indoor and outdoor dining areas, a banquet room and a seating capacity of nearly 600 -- a number that rivals the population of the nearby town of Secretary. The complex also includes a riverboat, the Dorothy Megan, named after Nickerson's mother and daughter. Nickerson bought the stern wheeler, which takes 150 customers on daily lunch and dinner cruises into the Choptank River, a few years ago.

"Running that boat is the closest thing I have to selling ice cream. It makes everybody happy," he says, as we watch a group of day-tripping senior citizens from Laurel return from an outing.

His cheery comments seem odd in a place with the morbid name of Suicide Bridge. But, according to local legend, a nearby wooden bridge, which gives the restaurant its name, is a spot where troubled residents have ended their lives. The bridge, dating back to 1888, is only about 20 feet above water, so most of the victims relied on a gun, rather than the fall, to complete the task.

For the rest of the afternoon, I avoid bridges and am delighted when the ferry at White Haven deposits me and my car on a route leading to Peaky's restaurant in Princess Anne.

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