Sailors tackle crabs in feast

August 20, 2008|By ROB KASPER

You join the Navy to see the world and then one night you end up in Baltimore, wrestling with this strange supper called Maryland crabs.

That is my interpretation of what was going through the minds of some of the sailors on the USS Sterett the other night as they sat down to a crab feast in Locust Point. The ship was in town for the ceremony commissioning the guided missile destroyer named after Baltimore native Andrew Sterett. A group of local businessmen put on a dockside feed for the crew, complete with burgers, ribs and, of course, steamed crabs and crab soup.

Some of the Sterett crew, such as Ricardo Mirales, a Chicago native who is one of the ship's cooks, were already fans of blue crabs. "I wish I could have them every night," Mirales told me.

But a few of the sailors were crab rookies. I watched them as they struggled with the mysteries of eating the crustacean. I was reminded of the saying that it was a brave man, or a very hungry one, who first ate a crab. Moreover, I was reminded that dishes we Marylanders classify as delicacies, eaters from other parts of the country regard as weird.

Bruce Estep, a sailor from Rogersville, Tenn., stared at the bright-red steamed crab sitting on the table in front of him. He had never seen a crab before and wasn't sure how to attack it.

One of his shipmates, Michael Akins of Point Pleasant, N.J., was familiar with crab anatomy and offered instructions. Off came the apron, then the top shell and the lungs.

The sight of the crab mustard, technically the hepatopancreas, gave the men pause. I offered the opinion that this was the best part of the crab, but Akins and Estep weren't buying that argument. The mustard looked foreign, so it was discarded.

Eventually, the good stuff, the back-fin lump, found its way to Estep's mouth. "Wow," the Tennessean said, "spicy."

He ate only one; his instructor, Akins, did not have any crabs. "I am a fan of ribs," he said.

Across the table, Timothy Brown, a tall Texan, seemed to know what he was doing. He described his crab dismemberment technique as "trial and error." There are blue crabs on the Gulf Coast of Texas, he said, but his hometown, Andrews, in the western part of the state, was, he said, "a long way from the water."

Brown, like many sailors, delighted in hammering away with souvenir wooden mallets with "USS STERETT" emblazoned on the mallet heads. It was going to be a noisy night on the ship, one sailor predicted.

A second shift of diners arrived at the table; among them was Jessica Flora of York, Pa. Not only was Flora familiar with crabs, she was their advocate, encouraging skeptical shipmates to try them. "It is hard to look at them when you are eating them," Flora said. "But they taste fantastic."

Sheriann Hayase of Maui, Hawaii, was willing to take a chance. Following Flora's instructions, she worked her way through several steamed crabs. "They are messy," she said. "But you don't need butter like you do with lobster. And they have flavor. They are good."

Mark Lombardo of Castle Rock, Colo., was not persuaded by Flora's sales pitch. He tried a small bite of back fin she presented to him, but was not impressed. He comes from cattle country, he said, adding, "I am not much of a fish person."

He also demurred when the crab soup came around. The soup was a vegetable-based version, which Jason White, one of the Sterett cooks, put together following a Maryland recipe.

White said making the crab soup reminded him of making jambalaya, a popular seafood dish in his hometown of Mobile, Ala. The soup got good reviews from the ship's captain, Brian Eckerle, who as a sometime resident of La Plata, Md., has tasted quite a few crab soups.

But one ingredient in the soup caused Lombardo, the sailor from Colorado, to give it wide berth.

"No way," the sailor said when Flora offered him a taste of her cup of soup. "I don't eat anything that has a leg sticking out of it."

* In last week's column I praised the cheese flavor in the scalloped tomatoes dish made by Claire Jones. However, the recipe we ran did not include cheese. Jones told me she forgot to list the 1/4 cup of grated parmesan cheese, which she says she sprinkles on top of the dish before baking.

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