Happy Thanksgiving, Serious Eaters! - With the Thanksgiving preparation madness winding down, and the cooking madness about to begin, I have to take a moment to reflect on the many, many things...
Sunday, April 25, 2010
Feelin Crabby (Steamed crabby, that is!)
It’s crab season on the Chesapeake! From April until late November, Marylanders can enjoy “local” crabs.
Blue crabs are harvested up and down the Atlantic Coast, on the Gulf and even in some areas of the Pacific Coast and the salinity level of the waters they come from determine their exact flavor. Those of us raised along the Bay will quickly tell you, local crabs taste better. It’s not just the freshness factor. Local crabs tend to be tastier with sweeter and more full-bodied flavor. This is attributed to the brackish waters of the Chesapeake. The meat from local crabs also tends to be of a brighter white color. Us Marylanders (and our neighbors in Delaware and Virginia) prefer our crabs steamed “the Chesapeake way" , not boiled as found in the Deep South, Louisiana and Texas.
Most of us around here grew up steaming crabs at home but we also truly appreciate a good old neighborhood “crab house.” An old fashioned crab house is not fancy. You don’t go there for the aesthetic factor but for the great crabs they serve. Most have basic wooden tables generally covered in brown paper cut from a large roll or even layers of newspapers. Your utensils consist of a wooden mallet and a sharp paring knife. Crabs are meant to be eaten by hand. Your table will include a roll of paper towels in most cases. Expect to get dirty. Crabs are for casual eating. Don’t dress up. You’ll regret wearing white, so don’t. You may want to remove good rings although I’ve simply learned to scrub mine well along with my hands when the meal is done.
The beverage of choice in most crab houses is beer, usually draft. For non-drinkers, it tends to be iced tea or soda pop. Most crab houses serve these drinks by the pitcher. Crab eating makes you thirsty!!
“Going out for crabs” is more than just dining out. Crabs are a social event. At the height of the season, your crab house experience will include fresh corn on the cob (also usually steamed not boiled) and a big screen T.V. featuring a baseball game. (We’re gluttons for punishment and still stand by the Orioles.) Folks at one table chat with those at the next just as if they were great friends. They feel free to yell at the pitcher or outfielder. While we may not know our fellow diners names, we know their faces. Crab houses tend to have a lot of regulars. They also tend to close completely in the off season. Many are not heated, well-insulated buildings. When I was young, they tended to be glorified pavilions with screen walls and picnic tables.
Our crab house opened for the season on Thursday. We were there on Saturday and felt like we’d just returned home. Our waitress greeted us with hug. We hadn’t seen her since they closed in November. We asked about her family she asked about ours. She knew our beverage choice and put it on the table without our even asking. She knew we would want an order of fries with our crabs. It’s our version of Cheers! Where they know our names and are always glad we came. That’s why we go back, week after week.
When in the Chesapeake Bay area, be sure to find a good old fashioned crab house and sit down and try a dozen. That’s how you order them, by the dozen (or by the bushel if you’re really hungry!) Don’t go based on the billboards or ads. Ask a local where they go and then follow them.
Don’t know how to pick a crab? The server will always be able to give you a quick tutorial and the folks at the next table will usually be more than happy to show you “their” method. Go on, give it a try!!