Get crackin'

It's summer in Maryland and that means it's time to gather friends, neighbors and mallets for a crab feast

July 29, 2006|By LINELL SMITH | LINELL SMITH,SUN REPORTER

Steamed crabs are the great social equalizer, says Courtney Capute.

"There's simply no way you can keep up appearances when you're eating with your hands and smearing crabs on everything you touch," the Fells Point resident says. "Crab feasts break down barriers."

Twenty years ago, Courtney and her husband, Arnold, created the first Apple Alley Crab Feast with neighbors Darcy and Charlie Norton. What better way to unite renters and homeowners - groups who often disagreed on community matters - than in the spirit of feasting and Old Bay?

They sent out invitations to everyone in the surrounding blocks and charged $10 a head for an all-the-crabs-you-can-eat extravaganza. One fine mid-summer night, they closed off the block of Bethel Street between Lancaster and Shakespeare streets and threw a party.

"Arnold made 80 crab mallets, and we borrowed all the tables and chairs," Capute recalls. "It was pretty much a shoe-string operation, but it was a huge hit."

Now in its 20th year, the Apple Alley Crab Feast - Bethel Street was once known as Apple Alley - has moved to September when the crabs are "fatter and cheaper," Capute says. The dinner has increased to $20 a person - but there are still more crabs than anyone can finish. The feasters, 80 or 90 of them, still sit down together at one long line of tables to enjoy another great mallet-banging celebration that brings old friends elbow-to-elbow with newcomers.

Hosting a crab feast is one of Maryland's most prized traditions, a seasonal rite that can be staged at home without cookbooks or much effort. All you need are the basics: Steamed crabs, available for carryout from a myriad of crab houses, cold beer and soda, lots of newspapers to cover the top of your eating surface, rolls of paper towels, bibs, mallets to crack the crab claws, sharp paring knives for crab-opening, some easily obtained crab-picking skills - and an attitude of adventure.

Everything else, you might say, is a variation. To learn some of them, we talked to some veteran hosts.

A lifelong Baltimorean, crab-feaster Mark Burns grew up on steamed crabs and goes for the minimalist approach: Lots of crabs, lots of friends, lots of beer. For his 29th birthday recently, Burns covered his table with newspapers and pulled the TV into the dining room so that everyone could watch the O's play the Rangers.

Chez Burns, crab feasts are sans mallets. You can forget about the bibs, too.

"If you've grown up eating as many crabs as I have, you don't need them," he says. "And I probably eat crabs 10 or 15 times a summer. ... We wear casual crab attire: Shorts and flip-flops."

For the birthday feast at his Parkville home, Burns picked up a bushel of crabs and added some cole slaw and corn on the cob.

"I don't allow leftovers," he says. "All the cold beer and hot crabs must be gone before anyone leaves. And anyone that wants to sleep over at my house is more than welcome."

Over in Mount Washington, Ruth Kravitz has equally firm notions of how to make a crab feast memorable. She began eating crabs in Atlantic City a good 30 years before Burns was even born. Not only does Kravitz believe in crab mallets, but she also favors sprucing up a feast with her signature color: pink.

Seven years ago, Ruth and Sheldon, her husband of 60 years, gained a measure of fame when a pair of food and travel writers observed them eating crabs at Obrycki's and interviewed them for the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

These days Ruth Kravitz - or "Pink Max" to many of her 14 grandchildren - hosts crab feasts on her back porch. She has lots of pink napkins, citronella candles in decorative glass holders to ward off insects, mallets, metal crab crackers and brown butcher's paper to cover the table. (Newspaper is unsatisfactory, she says, because "the print comes off in your hands.")

"Each person except young children should also have a small, pointed stainless-steel knife to open up the crab," she says. "And there should be a container of water with more paper napkins and paper-towel rolls nearby in case the eaters want to wipe the spices off the crabs before they eat them."

When dining al fresco, she recommends staging the action near a hose or water spigot so that crab eaters can also wash their hands. Along with the traditional beer and soda, Kravitz serves rolls in plastic baskets ("hard to ruin") and coffee and tea in plastic cups ("completely disposable").

Dessert?

"Key lime pie seems to be the favorite," she says. "I also make an old-fashioned recipe of rice pudding. The idea is to end up with a different taste in your mouth."

What is a bushel of crabs - that's to say about five or six dozen - costing these days?

"The prices in Maryland are all over the place, depending where you go," says Noreen Eberly, who directs the seafood-marketing program for Maryland's Department of Agriculture. "On average, a bushel's running $150 - about the same as last year. Maryland crabs are less expensive than Texas or Louisiana crabs, which are bigger but not as sweet."

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