Knife vs. mallet: Crab fans strike on both sides of bay

July 05, 2006|By ROB KASPER

How you crack the claws of your steamed blue crab says a lot about where you live.

If you use a wooden mallet, wielding this so-called crab hammer, then more than likely you reside west of the Bay Bridge.

If you use a knife, then chances are good you live on the Shore, east of the Bay Bridge.

That is what I learned after talking with a handful of experienced crab eaters on both sides of the bay.

There are exceptions to this Bay Bridge rule. The most notable one is Ocean City, a mallet stronghold. This can be explained. Tossing aside the geographic fact that this community sits on the extreme eastern edge of Maryland, the reality is that during the summer - high crab season - Ocean City is populated with eaters from Baltimore and other big cities. In other words, when it comes to cracking crabs, Ocean City behaves like it is a city west of the Bay Bridge.

The mallet method, smashing the shell around the claw meat with a wooden tool, is effective but noisy. If you walk into a Baltimore crab house from now until Labor Day, you are almost certain to hear the din of hammers connecting with crab shell.

The knife method, attacking the claw shell at strategic points, is much quieter, but requires some expertise.

Levin "Buddy" Harrison, whose family has been in the hospitality business on Tilghman Island on the Eastern Shore for close to a century, told me that the mallet-vs.-the-knife matter is a question of style, not taste.

"Whether you get at the crab meat with a knife or a hammer, it all tastes the same," Harrison said. Nonetheless, Harrison reported that on Tilghman Island, the blade reigns over the hammer.

Harrison said he uses a knife, tapping it with the heel of his hand to crack the shell. Crab-cracking mallets are dispensed at his Chesapeake House restaurant on request, he said, an accommodation for customers visiting from the "wrong" side of the Bay Bridge.

In Dundalk, Shawn Hartman, who used to catch crabs for a living on the Western Shore but now sells them at the Salty Dog carryout on North Point Boulevard, said he thought claw-cracking practices were linked to childhood. "You do whatever you were taught as a kid," said Hartman, a lifelong hammerer.

Some folks I spoke with saw the difference in crab-claw-cracking procedures as an example of the larger urban vs. rural outlook on life.

"City slickers use those ... old mallets," said J. C. Tolley, a longtime resident of Dorchester County who runs Meredith & Meredith Seafood in Toddville. "Those mallets are not worth 5 cents."

And Betty Tall of Toddville, perhaps the state's premier claw cracker, said the mere sight of a crab hammerer clobbering crab shells makes her uneasy.

"I cringe when I see them smashing that pretty claw meat to smithereens," she said. The claw meat, she said, deserves kinder, gentler treatment.

Tall, 73, is a professional claw cracker. She has been picking crab meat since she was 7 years old and has worked at various picking houses on the Eastern Shore since she was 16.

Now she and her sister, Audrey Murphy, work at one of the Shore's few remaining picking houses, Dorchester Crab Co. in Wingate. Workers are paid according to how many pounds of crab meat they pick. Tall and her sister specialize in claws, separating meat from shell with a few swift moves of the claw knife.

In a telephone conversation conducted from her home a few hours before she started her late-night picking shift, Tall gave me a detailed explanation of her claw-cracking procedure.

Her tools, she said, are a hefty knife, a cracking stone and a determined attitude.

Her claw knife is about the size of a paring knife but has a stout build. "A claw knife is heavier than a normal knife," Tall said, adding that the brand of knife she uses, Murphy, no longer is manufactured.

The weight of the knife, rather than the keenness of its edge, is what matters, she said. A claw knife, she said, is rarely sharpened.

Her knife works in concert with her cracking stone, a flat piece of rock that she places the crab claws on when she delivers her knife blows. Her cracking stone once served as a weight on the bottom of a duck decoy, she said. Duck-decoy weights make superior cracking stones, she said, because they are solid and just the right height. In the course of her 57-year career as a claw cracker, she has carried her stone from job to job. "Have stone will travel," Tall quipped.

Tall told me she picks up a crab claw and turns it over and places it on the stone. She then strikes two blows with her knife. The first is aimed at the crab's pincers, just above the nearest joint. It is not a love tap. "You got to hit him hard, give him a good whack," Tall said. "If you just give a little tap, tap, tap, nothing will get done."

Then she grabs the pincers and uses them to pull "a whole, lovely" piece of claw meat out of the fractured shell, she said.

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