Sunday, July 11, 2010

Thinking About Crustaceans

We had the annual Fourth of July crabfest on the deck last weekend, a family tradition of relatively recent vintage hinged on a group consensus around Maryland hardshell crab.

It has become an exspensive habit - $72 a dozen for large crabs from Captain Pell's out on the edge of Fairfax County, Va. - but my wife, Jane, is a purist in these matters. And, as the man said of Christmas, it's only once a year.

Three dozen, with barbecued chicken and ribs, corn on the cob, potato salad, sliced tomatoes, collard greens (they come with the barbecue). We passed on the desserts this year, and nobody drinks as much as they used to, if at all. Still, plenty of cold beer at the ready.

My brother-in-law, Hugh, makes his own dipping sauce. My sister-in-law, Gwen, has acquired a taste for Woodchuck hard cider at these affairs, a reality that amazed and amused her daughter, Meredith. And my wife prides herself on eschewing the use of wooden hammers and shell crackers, using ony a paring knife to tame the beasts. The rest of us pound away as if we were clubbing the backsides of BP oil executives.

I used to insist on some shrimp at these affairs until I came to understand that I would learn to love blue crab or suffer the marital consequences. And I did. Learn to love blue crab.

It was hotter than the hubs of Hell, of course. And spreading three dozen crabs encrusted with Old Bay seasoning on a table laden with sides and covered in that morning's Sunday Washington Post produces a pile of refuse worthy of a small rural community. But it's sloppy and communal in the best sense of the words.

Blue crabs are strange, crawly predatory creatures and stranger dining fare. But they are hugely popular in Virginia, Maryland and Washington. The appeal spans race and gender; the local crab house is a haven for pickup trucks and BMWs, as popular with the Kenny Chesney crowd as it is with black and Hispanic families and, well, my family.

Hardshell crabs require an enormous amount of effort to generate a small amount of actual food - think artichokes but much, much better. And just about everyone who has eaten the critters three times in their adult lives becomes a self-proclaimed expert on the art and science of picking crabs.

Most of the meat is tucked away in little chambers beneath the outer shell and access requires scaling back the shell (easy enough) and peeling away the less-than-appetizing gills and "mustard," and, well, you get the general idea.

This year's bash was a little different. No one in my family really wants to talk about the horror in the Gulf of Mexico. Individually and collectively we are teeming with outrage and frustrated that this catastrophe does not appear to have generated nearly enough interest, anger and concern in the appropriate circles. The President is worried; the Coast Guard guy issues updates; the BP execs hide behind advertising while fronting employees in branded golf shirts to do their talking for them. The press keeps a respectful distance.

There is only that obscene video of the exploded well, fouling our own nest at the most fundamental level. And, by the way, who decided this was "a spill," like something a clumsy waiter would do?

The gusher, now reaching into its third month, is in fact a savage indictment of our inability - our unwillingness - to take care of our home.

So while we tried not to think the Gulf, we thought about Chesapeake Bay, where, according to some estimates, more than 400 million blue crabs abide. Still.

I thought about a quote from H.L. Mencken, an authority on matters of Maryland seafood and many other things. He called Chesapeake Bay "the great big outdoor protein factory." And we wondered what would become of that "protein factory," and all the others.