Here comes summer (whew! Spring went by fast!). And it’s the time of year to enjoy the virtues of one of the quintessential foods of spring and summer: the blue crab. Though live blue crabs are not widely available down here in the 904, where I’m from, they’re the kings of spring and summer seafood.
The Chesapeake Bay, which splits Maryland’s Western Shore, aka Baltimore/D.C. Loop, and its historical, genteel Eastern Shore, is home to the indisputably best crabs on the planet. They are, of course, blue crabs, renowned worldwide for their delicate, succulent flavor and exquisite texture.
When I was a kid, the extended family would pack into our non-air-conditioned cars during the sweltering summer months and head to the bay. We were not seeking standard fun in the sun beaches or putt-putt golf. Instead, we were headed toward the creeks which empty into the greater Chesapeake estuary. It was there that the crab shacks stood—or more likely, leaned. These were old clapboard structures, precariously purchased on ancient rotting wooden docks.
In the summer heat, folks like us flocked to gorge ourselves on as much hot, Old Bay-
seasoned, steamed blue crab and beer (no doubt National Boh) they could possibly hold. But there was much more to this than eating some crab meat. This was a ritual practiced by generations of locals, a time-honored tradition which involved all of the senses. One did not just stop by and ‘eat some crab.’
These crab shacks were completely open to the outdoors, no windows, just screens and no fancy restaurant amenities, like plates or napkins or tablecloths. You’d sit on old-time picnic tables covered with brown butcher paper. Rolls of paper towels were positioned at each end and, of course, there were several of the most important accessories, small wooden mallets and metal picks.
The beer and sodas were delivered in pitchers and the crabs themselves were brought in a large metal pail by a waitress, dumped directly on the table. Often, there was a good-sized hole in the middle of the table, with a big bucket directly below. That’s where we’d toss the few parts of the delicious darlings of the deep we didn’t eat.
Now the almost-primeval fun begins. Everyone grabs several of still-steaming crustaceans, trying not to burn their fingers. They first tear off the hapless creatures’ legs. Mmmm, the aroma of the exposed meat was beyond intoxicating. Now the mallet was raised up for its first blow to those claws; getting the fatty meat from those pinchers wasn’t easy without a fight. The bodies were then dissembled revealing the back-fin lump meat, which we would dip into a mixture of Old Bay seasoning and white vinegar—some locals dipped the meat in melted butter.
You have no idea how much I wish I was wrist-deep in this ritual right now! And the crab meat was enhanced with sides such as this tangy barbecue slaw.
CHEF BILL’S BBQ COLE SLAW
• 1 cup mayonnaise
• 3 tablespoons cider vinegar
• 1 tablespoon whole grain mustard
• 3/4 teaspoon celery seeds
• Kosher salt, freshly ground pepper
• One 1-pound head of green cabbage, quartered, cored, shredded; yield 12 cups
• 2 carrots, coarsely shredded
• 1 fennel, shredded
• 6 radishes, shredded
• 1 jalapeño, minced
• 1 jicama
• 2 limes, juiced
1. In a very large bowl, whisk mayonnaise with vinegar, mustard and celery seeds.
2. Season with salt and pepper. Add cabbage and carrots, toss to coat thoroughly.
3. Refrigerate until slightly chilled, about 30 minutes. Toss the coleslaw again; serve.