Chesapeake Son

The Crab Feast 

“Do they bite, Pap?” 

My grandfather smiled brightly at my 6 year-old cousin Ricky and said, 

“Stick your finger there in the basket and see for y'self, son.” 

It was the same answer he had given me a few years before.  Pap was a big believer in “learning by doing”. 

It was a dumb question. Of course they bit. Hard. Why else would Pap be wearing heavy black rubber gloves in the soggy heat of a way-down-in-August Maryland Saturday afternoon? Even the ever-present Camel stuck to his lower lip looked sweaty as he pulled the Chesapeake Bay blue crabs from a wooden bushel basket and threw them into our stained old steaming pot.  Every once in a while, a sharp claw would work its way through Pap’s glove, and he would refer to the crab in question’s parentage in language little boys probably shouldn’t hear. Some would have doused the crabs in cold water or stabbed them through the shell with an ice pick to slow them down. Not Pap. Pap was particular about crabs, and saw to them his way. Cussin’ and all. 

Before tossing in the crabs, Pap had placed a wire rack in the bottom of the pot and poured in just enough water and apple-cider vinegar to reach the bottom of the rack. 

“We don't boil crabs in Merlin', Raymie…we steam’em,” Pap said. “Boil ‘em down in Virginny…ain’t worth eatin’…goddamn waste of a good crab.” 

Each time he got a layer of crabs in the pot, he would sprinkle in “about half-a-coffecupful” of spicy Old Bay Seafood Seasoning mixed with rock salt, then another layer of crabs, more Old Bay, on up to the top. Pap liked his crabs spicy. Your lips should burn while you were eating them. Before putting on the lid, he looked around slyly and said, 

” Now, don’t tell your Grandma.” Then he dumped in “half-a-bottle” of National Beer. 

“Secret ingredient,” he winked. 

 “Now, get that on into the kitchen. We got two more pots left t’ do”. 

A pot filled with big hard crabs is a heavy load for a twelve-year-old boy, but I wasn’t about to let Pap know, so I wrestled it as best I could up the back steps. 

When my grandmother saw me coming, she yelled through the screen, 

“Herb, are you tryin’ to give the boy a hernia? Here, Raymie, just sit it up on the stove. Did Pappy remember the beer?  Makes ‘em taste better, so they say.” 

Pap, my dad, his brothers and I had crossed the Chesapeake Bay Bridge before dawn to “go crabbin’”on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. At daybreak, we found we had hit the weather and tides just right and managed to catch over two and a half bushels of “keepers” in a few hours.  Some people did their crabbing from piers, with traps or hand lines using old chicken necks and eels as bait. To us, that was crabbing for sissified city folk. We rowed our old wooden boat out to where the crabs lived, and then walked knee-deep in the briny bay water with bushel baskets floating in inner tubes tied to our belts. We flushed the crabs out of the seaweed with long-handled nets and dipped them up into the baskets behind us. 

While the men were busy wallowing in Chesapeake mud, the women had been busy at home covering the two long wooden picnic tables under the oak tree in the backyard with the last week’s editions of the Baltimore News American. They had also carried the small breakfast table out of the kitchen and covered it up. That was the “kid’s table”. A pile of mismatched butter knives lay on each table. They were for cracking and picking the crabs. Some folks had actual crab mallets with little knives built into the handle, but we weren’t quite that uptown. 

When the blue crabs were steamed to a bright red, Pap put the kitchen radio up in the window and tuned to WBAL and the Orioles. They were, in those days, always just a game or two behind the Yankees. I hated the Yankees when I was a kid.  Still do. 

The steaming pots of crabs were dumped straight onto the newspaper, and I took my place along side my sisters and cousins at the kid’s table. Along with the crabs, there were oleo-drenched platters of late sweet corn pulled fresh from the rows behind the house that morning.  Some of the ears had gashes where corn worms had been cut out. There were Tupperware pitchers filled with sweet tea, and steel coolers packed with ice and Coca-Cola in little green glass bottles, the way God intended Coke to be. Some of the men had an icy brown bottle of National at their place, and us kids were always trying to sneak a taste. 

 Crabs are messy, so the women and girls wore sleeveless shirts and old shorts, and the men and boys got down to their cut-offs and t-shirts or no shirts at all.  Everybody had their own way of picking and eating.  Pap picked two or three crabs clean until he had a good pile of meat built up. Then he would butter a piece of Blue Ribbon bread and make a kind of crab sandwich. My mom liked hers with saltine crackers. I wasn’t that patient. I yanked off the shell, carefully scraped out the “Devil”, which is what we called the gills (and, as every Maryland kid knew, were instant death if eaten), cleaned out the innards, broke the crab in half, snapped off a back fin and stuck the clump of meat straight into my mouth. 

As with any great meal, it takes time to enjoy steamed crabs. We took all afternoon. Neighbors would slow down, honk and wave as they drove by on Mountain Road.  We all waved back, even if we couldn’t tell right off who was doing the honking; it was sure to be someone we knew. 

Around the kid’s table, the talk these days seemed to be less about baby dolls and BB guns, and more about make-up and cars, cute boys and pretty girls, and the Beatles. Rumor had it that my sister Sandy had been seen holding hands with a football player after Friday night’s game. I myself had been writing smoldering love notes to Kathy Williams. I tore them up as soon as they were finished, but I was writing them. Soon, nervous, silent boys would appear next to my sisters and girl cousins, and nervous, chatty girls would be perched next to me and the other boys at the table, and our family gatherings would start to feel different somehow. On this late summer’s day, though, it was still just “us kids”, together for a little while longer at the kid’s table, right next to and worlds away from our parents. 

The lazy sun drifted west, the Orioles discovered yet another way to lose to the Yanks, and everyone ate their fill. If they didn’t, it was their own darn fault, as my grandmother would say. We cleaned off the tables, took the garbage down to the pigpen, and collected the few leftover crabs for soup the next day. We washed our hands in the freezing water from the hand pump at the well, and washed the day’s feast down with a Popsicle. Soon, lightning bugs would appear, and we kids would run through the cornfields and catch them in Mason jars. The old house had no air-conditioning, so it was cooler outside, and even the grown ups would stay out for a while on this night, sitting and smoking and talking grownup talk, until the mosquitoes finally drove everyone inside.

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