Middle East meets Eastern Shore via crab soup

A cooking lesson brings out cultural histories

  • A bowl of Maryland crab soup prepared by Kelly Belk of Baltimore and Pauline Guiragoss, owner of Gitan Bistro Cru in Canton
A bowl of Maryland crab soup prepared by Kelly Belk of Baltimore… (Steve Ruark, For The Baltimore…)
January 06, 2014|By Rafael Alvarez, For The Baltimore Sun

"People live on memories of food."

— Pauline Guiragoss

The Eastern Shore met the Middle East in East Baltimore recently when a woman from Tilghman Island taught a woman from Lebanon to make Maryland crab soup.

It began with a passing comment in The Baltimore Sun's Taste section: "The best crab soup I've ever had is made by … Kelly Belk, who puts a deep tang into her broth with cabbage."

The mention was enough for Beirut native and Canton restaurateur Pauline Guiragoss to ask her friend Belk for a lesson in preparing Chesapeake Bay crab soup the traditional way.

"All the recipes I've learned are from my friends," said the well-traveled Guiragoss, 49, who with husband John Curtis owned three restaurants before opening Gitan Bistro Cru at the corner of Fait and South Kenwood avenues.

"Whatever culture I'm in, I want to learn what they eat and how they make it," Guiragoss said. "My food is what I know from living everywhere."

It wasn't that long ago that everywhere did not include Crabtown, USA. Though their earlier restaurants were not that far away — Cedars in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, Hard Times Cafe in Laurel and the Wild Buffalo Grill in Savage — they were nowhere close to the blessed burg of backfin.

Now, Guiragoss and Curtis are within sight of the Baltimore waterfront. "Every day we have people coming in asking for crab cakes," said Curtis, a gemologist who met Guiragoss while working at a Lebanese jewelry store in McLean, Va.

(The couple's first date was a night at the Warner Theater to watch the tango on stage. Their son Emanuel, 17, was conceived in Ocean City the first weekend that Guiragoss was introduced to steamed crabs by Curtis' family. Their restaurant's motto is: "Get fresh with us …")

Designed by Curtis with salvaged wood from the Second Chance outlet near Camden Yards, Gitan opened December 2011 in a building that last housed Chazz & Renee's, a neighborhood saloon with a bar of teal Formica. When those owners sold, they took the shuffleboard with them.

The corner business had previously been Raab's, before that Fed's Rainbow, and before that Bill Ciosek's Crest tavern. Somewhere along the line, it was Corky's, and long before any of these gin mills, it was known as Rose Patrone's — for the barmaid who owned it.

The Gitan menu reflects Guiragoss — Christian-born in Lebanon of Armenian and Turkish ancestry — and her background.

Called "Lulu" by her mother — which is Arabic for "pearl" — Guiragoss spent her early years in Beirut. She remembers a bounty of fresh fish and oysters there, but nothing like the Maryland crab. She came of age in Paris, moving there at 17 with her parents Antoine (who was on hand for the crab soup trial run) and her late mother, Sarah.

In Paris, she learned to make exquisite vinaigrette while working at the restaurant L'Entrecote off the Champs-Elysees. The dressing is available at Gitan along with minced beef spiced with cinnamon, cloves and red pepper; brie-filled French omelets finished in the broiler; and Armenian kebabs.

But until now, Guiragoss (who moved to the United States in 1993) and Curtis (the son of an Army officer who was also a West Point graduate) had not ventured into the delicacies for which the Free State is best known.

This is where the friendship with Belk, a veteran restaurant worker and vintage-clothing merchant, came in.

Currently a bartender at the Black Olive restaurant on South Bond Street, Belk is a Highlandtown girl by birth and spent childhood summers on Tilghman Island. She moved to the island off the shores of Talbot County in 1975, fresh out of her teens.

There, she watched with pride as her maternal grandmother — the late Doris Hutchins Higbee — harvested the Choptank River as expertly as any man.

"Nana was a legend on Tilghman," said Belk, who remembers taking Higbee out on a boat at the end of her life so grandmother could fish for rockfish one last time. "She was still going out to catch crabs in her 70s."

The July 16, 1986, issue of The New Yorker magazine — drawn by the late Tilghman resident Susan Davis — shows a woman believed to be Higbee wading in the Choptank with a crabbing net and a dog.

"Nana would go out in the morning with a bushel basket floating in an inner tube and her dog Freida to hunt for soft crabs," said Belk. "Freida would dig the crabs up from the mud and Nana would scoop 'em up. That was her breakfast — sauteed soft crabs and eggs."

It is Higbee's recipe for crab soup that Belk — whose mother, Jackie Whitelaw Criss, tended bar at the Harrison House Country Inn on Tilghman for decades — ised to immerse Guiragoss in Maryland cooking.

Hard crabs, which are cleaned live and halved in many recipes, were not used on Guiragoss' maiden voyage; she used six pounds of blue crab claw meat from Indonesia ($21 a pound) for a big double batch.

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