Back to basics: Crabs, friends and conversation

A couple of reminders: Leave the Blackberry, bring the rye bread

July 30, 2011|By Dan Rodricks

A question for people who've been around a little longer than I have — those of you who remember when Young Tommy was mayor and the Orioles were worth watching in August: At classic Maryland crab feasts, were there always a couple of grumbling, impatient people who'd just rather have a hamburger? I'm trying to determine if what I perceived at a recent feast of steamed hard crabs is a modern trend — people made a little edgy, even a little ornery, by getting too much spice on their fingers and not being able to use their smart phones while dining.

Is this another social change brought on by 21st century technology, or was it always thus?

Let me explain where I'm coming from on this:

Thirty-five years ago, back in the 20th century, I attended my first crab feed at Bud Paolino's crab house in Highlandtown (pronounced, to my ear, "Hollandtown"). It lasted four hours, and we drank multiple pitchers of beer. No one was in a rush to go anywhere because, in the middle of the table, there was a foot-high pile of crabs that didn't seem to get any smaller as we picked through them. The waitresses kept bringing additional dozens. (I don't know what we paid back then, but I can assure you it did not approach $100, which is what Henry Hong, a reliable foodie source, tells me a Locust Point place asked for a dozen big Jimmies in May.)

We all took our time picking for the delicious white meat, our fingers schmeared with spicy, reddish-brown seasoning. I was a novice. But after a lesson from the man himself, Mr. Bud, I got the hang of it. It was a Friday evening; no one got home before midnight.

I don't recall anyone griping that crab picking was too complicated, too time consuming. No one ordered a hamburger. The crab feed was as much about conversation as it was about eating succulent lump and drinking beer.

If there's one thing in this world that is not fast food, it's steamed hard crabs.

So maybe some had forgotten this, maybe some were always befuddled by the process, but I detected impatience with picking at a recent crab feast, the first one I had attended in a long time.

Maybe it was always thus, but I don't remember people being anything but happy with the whole scene — pickin' and talkin', talkin' and drinkin', maybe with one eye on an Orioles game on the crab house television. Back in the day, no one had smart phones. Those obsessive distractions didn't exist and, as a result, you had to focus almost completely on cracking crabs and actually talking with those at your table. For some who Tweet and text all week long, a crab feast might seem less like a welcome break than an interruption.

Of course, hunger might have something do with it, too.

If you arrive hungry and rely solely on the crab meat to satisfy your pains, you run the risk of getting a little cranky. I had forgotten about this. It was Frank Lidinsky, an East Baltimore native, who arrived at the feast with two loaves of rye bread to share with everyone at his table. His parents had always served rye bread and butter with hard crabs, he said, "to take the edge off." It not only reduced hunger pains; it softened the Old Bay's scorching of the palate.

Please pardon the getting-reacquainted aspect to this modest essay on the social and operational dynamics of picking crabs. I invoked a personal moratorium on eating Chesapeake blue crabs several years ago because the bay's crustacean population had been declared "fully exploited" by scientists. I thought Maryland and Virginia should have stopped their harvests for a season or two. Since some new restrictions were imposed, there's been better news on the crab front, and I've just started pickin' again.

There is a decent supply of blue crabs coming out of the Chesapeake again — and that's despite a winter blast that killed about a third of the population. Maryland's annual survey of the bay indicates the second highest crab count since the late 20th century.

So just remember, if you're getting back into the game: It's slow food, take your time. Leave the Blackberry, bring the rye bread.

Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of Midday on WYPR 88.1 FM.

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