Sunday, September 10, 2006

steamed crabs

I'll put in captions for the pictures later.
But here's a nice description for another Baltimore crab fest. Not directly related to the picture above, but it's still a nice description from Zora's blog.

Baltimore: The Saint Francis of Assisi Crab Feast 2006

I knew crabs were a big part of Baltimore, but apparently, they are so important that you get an automatic pardon for taking the Lord’s name in vain in a church basement.

See, there’d been a lull in crab delivery in Hour Three of the S.F.A. Crab Feast 2006, and one of our party had been moved to bellow, “More crabs, God damn it!” while pounding on the Kraft-paper-covered table with his little mallet. The monsignor, it so happened, was sitting behind him, but he only beamed and said, “Keep yelling!”

Not that we were going hungry or anything. Peter knew his way around this feast, as he’d attended one back right after he’d been down here as part of the PO-lice (he still keeps the entrance sticker from the last one in his old wallet with his badge). When we arrived, he took me first to the buffet line in the back of the drop-ceiling basement, where we could load up on tomato slices, corn, three mayo-based salads, hot dogs, pulled-pork sandwiches, and crab soup.

Peter’s old colleagues, his former sergeant and others, scoffed at this lighweight approach, which would surely ruin his appetite for the main attraction. They held out for the first wave of crabs–which were already 15 minutes behind schedule. Peter’s sergeant’s 12-year-old daughter was working the feast, though, so we were guaranteed to get served first.

Also at our table was a partially toothless woman who perhaps had not actually paid for a ticket, but had won an entrance badge simply by plopping down and insisting. The fact that she was a black bag lady made it pretty obvious she wasn’t with our party full of conservative, ghetto-hating cops, but she didn’t seem bothered. And really, neither did the cops. She happily sipped her beer, and smiled vaguely.

When the crabs finally came, she started slipping them into her purse. Eventually it became clear that she actually didn’t know how to clean a crab–unheard-of in these circles–so Peter’s sergeant cracked one open for her in about eight seconds. I was glad not to be the only crab novice at the table, and I felt better getting to watch a second demo, as the one Curtis had given me, the 30-second version specially tailored to Crab Retards, hadn’t exactly stuck.

Another interesting element to the meal, aside from the novelty of finally experiencing a Real Live and Legendary Baltimore Crab Feast, was that this was only the second time I’d met these people, who are from a chapter of Peter’s life I don’t know that much about. They call him “Pete” and heckle him for being a liberal and try to get him to move back to Baltimore. The first time I’d met them had been under very unfortunate circumstances, back when I was getting really sick last fall. We went to another B’more food tradition, a bull roast to celebrate some cop-related thing, and I’d spent the night feeling queasy and mentally calculating the distance to the bathroom or a potted plant, and I was also coughing horribly and worrying about the fact that my ankle was swelling to the size of a baseball. Plus the music was loud and there were tons of people. Oh yeah, and all these people had really, really loved Peter’s old fiancee. So that didn’t go very well.

This time, on a Sunday afternoon in a fluorescent-lit room, with the musical stylings of the Zim Zemelman band (accompanied by the monsignor on trombone) and the alluring tick-tick-tick of the Wheel of Fortune in the background, the social pressure was a little bit less. It was also aided by the simple communion of picking crabs. It kind of reminded me of that part in Moby-Dick when Ishmael is sitting around working the lumps out the whale sperm (not that kind of sperm–read the book!) with his pals, where he gets all loving and affectionate because the stuff is so lovely and they’re all working together as a team:

“I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much as to say, - Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and serm of kindness.”

OK, so it wasn’t exactly like that. (And let me just add, it’s a testimony to how much I love Moby-Dick that it didn’t even occur to me to snicker at this scene until just now.) It was a little harder and prickly, but it was certainly chummy, being up to our elbows in Old Bay, and making massive piles of discarded shells and little spindly legs, and passing the beer up and down. (I guess now that we don’t hunt whales anymore, beer is the new social lubricant.) And I did have that great feeling of all-powerful omnivorousness, where you get to feel so proud for being a clever human with opposable thumbs and sharp teeth and tool-making skills (except the head of my mallet flew off the first time I tried to whack a crab leg with it).

Also, because we had an almost-endless stream of crabs, plus the buffet, the actual dining pressure was off, making it much easier to just talk to people. Slurping and cracking and reaching for beer, we were a sloppy, merry bunch, united in our dedication to sucking as much sweet meat as possible out of these recalcitrant sea creatures–and ocasionally checking our raffle tickets to see if we’d won at the liquor table. It was also just enlightening to hang out with Republicans, since of course in New York these are feared and loathed people swathed in legend and lore, but rarely seen in the flesh.

Despite the grousing about perceived crab scarcity, and the price of tickets, we all went away satisfied. I had managed to finesse my picking skills with each new crab, I’d argued politics a bit (beerily), and I came away feeling like I was no longer just the surprise wife who’d replaced the good fiancee. Thanks, sweet crabs.

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