Sunday, August 18, 2013

Tradition - Feelin' Crabby?

“Feelin’ crabby?”  Crabfeast invitations in Baltimore always started that way when Walt and Peg were on the other end of the phoneline. It was our signal to hop in our British Racing green ’68 VW Bug  and head over to West Baltimore. A quick stop on Frederick Road for at least a 6-pack of Natty Boh (National Bohemian beer to you non-Marylanders) was a must.  Big spenders that we were in those days, we might even have picked up some National Premium, too! 


When that call came, the invitation was never refused. Mark and I knew there was an evening of great stories, lots of laughs and warm friendship ahead…and damned good crabs, too!

Once we pulled up in front of the classically Baltimore red brick rowhouse on Parksley Avenue, we’d hop out, mount the stairs and head straight to the tiny kitchen.  A 50’s-style Formica and chrome kitchen table sat already covered in several layers of the Baltimore Sun, while a pile of wooden crab mallets and sharp knives waited at the ready poised to pry that sweet, succulent pure white meat from crimson carapaces.

But what about those guests of honor? The CRABS! On the counter sat great big brown paper grocery bags, somewhat lumpy, slightly damp and sometimes stained red from a generous amount of Old-Bay-seasoned Callinectes sapidus Rathbun – Maryland Blue Crabs to we non-scientific folks.

Carried to the table, bags were ripped open and hot crabs dumped unceremoniously into the center of the table which signaled the start of jokes, laughter, tall tales and memories that didn’t stop for hours. You see, crabfeasts aren’t so much a dining experience as they are a social occasion. Hot and spicy crabs with dear friends…nothing better!

Well, except maybe a rousing game or three of Pitch – a Baltimore card game (high, low, Jack, game) - played around the same Formica table once the crabs had been cleared away. The beer remained, of course.

In the summers of the 60’s and 70’s we’d all occasionally vacation together...which meant that entire scene shifted to Ocean City, MD. Live blue crabs, that we’d caught by the bushel in the shallows of Big Assawoman Bay, would lounge in the bathtub while Peg readied the big ol’ crabpot. 

Batch by batch, they’d be steamed in beer, vinegar and many heaping handfuls of Old Bay. Games of Pitch would again follow the feast. (That was in the day when Ocean City streets only went up into the 40’s…now the streets number well above the 100’s right up to Fenwick Island.)

The years wore on, faces around the table in Baltimore changed as children, and eventually even grandchildren, were born. The red brick rowhouse was sold and the family moved out of the city to the suburbs, but the crabfeasts continued.  It was never about the place or the crabs…it was about spending time with those we loved. 

That broken finger (Yikes! 1st day at the beach in the surf!) didn't stop Grace!

And now another generation is gathering together in Ocean City. Crabs are being experienced for the very first time by my own grandchildren. I’m looking around seeing faces I love around a table piled high with bright red, spicy crabs. 

As crab-first-timers, those young faces are a mix of excitement, anticipation – and maybe even a little fear. Crabs might be the physical centerpiece of the day, but it’s the tradition that is making me smile…that and memories of family and friends and wonderful times gone by and of the brand new memories being made right here, right now.

One more thing…Peg made incredible Maryland Crab Soup! I came to the beach armed with Peg’s recipe and yet one more opportunity to create another traditional meal and memory. 

Here’s Peg’s very own recipe:

Peg’s Ocean City Maryland Crab Soup

  • 1 1/2 pounds chuck roast, fat removed 
  • onions, chopped
  • carrots, chopped 
  • celery ribs, with leaves, sliced thinly
  • Water
  • 1 LARGE can diced tomatoes
  • 1 can tomato juice
  • 4 potatoes, diced
  • 6 leftover crabs - SEE NOTE
  • 1 pound crab claw meat – either saved from your crabfeast or storebought
  • 1 pound frozen mixed vegetables
  • Old Bay seafood seasoning (the more, the better!)
  • salt and pepper, to taste
  • garlic salt to taste

Add the chuck roast, onions, carrots, and celery to a large soup pot or crabpot, barely cover with water & cook until meat is tender. Remove meat, cut into pieces. Return beef to stock in pot

Add tomatoes, tomato juice, potatoes, claw meat, mixed veggies and seasonings. Add more water, if necessary to almost cover the solids. Bring to boil, add cleaned crabs and the remaining ingredients; lower heat, cover and simmer until done. Adjust seasoning and ladle soup into bowls, placing a half crab on top of each.

NOTE: Clean each crab by removing top shell and cleaning out the gills and the devil (crab term) - be sure to leave legs and claws attached; snap cleaned crab in half along the natural center of the body and toss into boiling stock in pot. Be sure to toss those top shells into the pot, too, for extra crabby flavor!
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