It took nearly a decade of dining on Maryland's sweet blue crabs before I happened upon the best. In the most obvious place, at the unlikeliest moment, that meal became my personal benchmark for what a crab should be and how it should taste.
In the years preceding this dinner, there was no stinting on research. I was a Midwesterner who had never seen the Chesapeake Bay until 1988, and I had to make up for lost time.
I'd had considerable experience tackling lobsters on the coast of Maine, so I dismantled my first Maryland crabs with confidence on a gorgeous May evening 14 years ago. I don't recall much about those particular crabs. But I do know they left a very positive impression.
Part of it undoubtedly had to do with a day that had delivered hours of generous winds and blue skies for sailing down the bay, which is what my husband and I had come here to do. At the end, we tied up at a small dock in St. Michaels, walked into town, selected the biggest, liveliest crabs from big boxes at a local market, and cooked them minutes later in the boat's galley.
I couldn't have dreamed up a better introduction. Sailing back north the next afternoon, we pulled out the leftovers chilled in their red shells, picked them apart for every morsel, tossed them with bits of celery and onion and some kind of sweet vinaigrette and enjoyed a crab salad we have never quite been able to re-create. Perhaps that's for the best.
The following year, we moved from Ohio to Washington, D.C., and our family eagerly adopted all the mid-Atlantic crab-feast traditions. Two or three times a summer, we would pull the pine-plank tables from the kitchen and dining room, set them end to end outside, lash newspapers to their tops with tape and scatter a dozen wooden mallets down the middle. Iced beers, a platter of steamed corn and a big bowl of coleslaw were set out ahead of the crabs. This created the illusion of a semi-balanced meal.
It was never just us, of course. A collection of neighbors, friends, our daughters' classmates often had gathered in the kitchen by the time the guests of honor arrived in brown bags or a bushel basket. For the first couple of years, until we began to get the hang of it, the cooking itself was an adventure.
The most athletic of the crabs sometimes managed to leap the walls of the kitchen sink and skitter across the counter or onto the floor. Our ever-alert mutt, Boo, would be on the scene in a flash, while one of us, armed with 18-inch metal tongs, tried to marshal the crustacean back and keep the snapping and barking duo apart.
In later years, we read that running very hot (not boiling) water over the crabs would "anesthetize" them and make them more manageable. I have no idea whether they were actually anesthetized or just in shock - but they certainly lost the will to fight.
I suppose we could have ordered our crabs precooked, but how much greater the appreciation for dinner when you've risked claw-inflicted injuries wrestling them into the pot.
Over the years, the quality of the crabs varied. Occasionally, we were disappointed by crabs with dry, stringy or less-than-abundant meat. Even within a good batch, there might be a handful of puny, watery crabs. But those were the exceptions.
Then came the summer of 1997, when a toxic microorganism called Pfiesteria piscicida killed tens of thousands of fish in Chesapeake Bay tributaries and generated a profound fear of local seafood. Consumers wanted to know before buying where their seafood had been caught. Grocers began importing crabs and fish from out of state. To quell the worries, the governor staged a much-publicized lunch of crab soup and rockfish with his Cabinet at a waterfront restaurant in Cambridge.
Dispatched to the Eastern Shore for two months to help cover the Pfiesteria scare, I watched and wrote and began to get, well, hungry. At the end of one particularly long day, photographer Karl Ferron and I decided we owed it not only to ourselves, but also to the state of Maryland, to dine out on Maryland crabs. We started a 40-minute drive for Crisfield, the shore town that is a center for serious fishermen. The best of Maryland's hard shells reputedly wind up at the rather rustic restaurants here.
At an outside table on an awning-covered deck, the meal began. The crabs came six at a time that night - with bodies that stretched a half-foot, each with the heft of a small lobster. There was no picking and hunting for meat, which seemed almost bursting from the shells. Sweet. Juicy. Dipping them in butter would have been criminal. There was not one of lesser quality in the bunch. I might have managed to eat a dozen crabs of this caliber, no more.
I didn't waste a bite. It was my civic duty.