Nothing says summertime in Maryland like a steaming pile of crabs piled hot and high on a newspapered picnic table, ringed by cold National Bohemians and a throng of hungry people impatient to pick. It’s a slow process, meant for whiling away the long, humid July afternoons with friends and family. Hands around the table are busy prising the white lumps of flesh from their thin crab compartments and mouths are full with the delicate taste of fresh crab meat alternating with the peppery bite of Old Bay. Wash it all down with sips of beer or lemonade, sigh, and start all over again. It might take a few hours to tackle the pile, and even by the end, you might not be full. It doesn’t matter, though- satiation is not really the point, it’s all about the process, the savoring, and the conviviality of a summer gathering. Crabs are a symbol of the best Maryland tradition that represents so much about what’s great and unique about life here; a slower pace, seasonally working the water, and a close connection between the brackish tide and the dinner table. All these things are embodied in those gorgeously red and viciously clawed apples of the Chesapeake Bay’s bottom.
The translated Latin name for the Chesapeake Blue crab, callinectes sapidus, hints at some of the other, more subtle characteristics symbolized by our native sideways swimmer: “Beautiful Swimmer That Tastes Good.” There, right in the name, is the first, obvious thing we all immediately recognize- that crabs are food. Good, tasty food. The food most commonly asked for by visitors to Maryland, summertime or no. But the ‘beautiful swimmer’ can seem like a bit of a misnomer until you poke around under the Old Bay. There’s a lot more to crabs, the process that got them to your picnic table, and the customs surrounding how we enjoy them, than most of us ever consider or imagine. Crabs are a symbol of pleasant living, sure, but they are also a modern-day survivor of much older Chesapeake traditions, history, and the Bay environment of the past.
First off, take a closer look at a live blue crab sometime if you want to observe an animal whose form directly reflects the Chesapeake environment. Sure, the red cooked carapace is pretty (and rings a Pavlovian hunger pang in most of us), but that rich, vibrant blue of the claws, the Bay-toned camouflage of the top shell, and the glistening white of the underbelly are some sort of tidewater firework. Color- coded to be invisible from the top, and pearly white where they touch the Chesapeake’s sandy bottom, the blue-green kaleidoscope of their tinted shell perfectly lends to the crab’s Bay habitat. The construction of a blue crab’s form is another example of their beautifully-evolved functionality. Powerful front claws defend, menace, and form a sort of directional tiller, while the powerful backfins propel the crabs tirelessly from the mouth of the Chesapeake, where they start their lives as zooplankton, to the shallow grassy river bottoms that serve as their sparking spots and marriage beds.
‘Beautifully evolved’ also describes the relationship watermen have developed over centuries of working with crabs, observing their life cycles, their eating and mating habits, watching them scoot off in the water when they see a shadow, or how they’re drawn in by the smell of a mature male or female of their ilk. Watermen have refined their technique by noting even the smallest physical changes that indicate a window for maximum profit. Looking for ‘the sign’ is a classic technique, wherein a waterman looks for an impossibly thin red line on a crab’s backfin that shows up when a crab is about to near the end of its molting cycle. This “sign” also indicates that hard crab, worth maybe $1 to $2 retail, is about to transform into a soft crab, doubling their value to $3 to $5 dollars. It’s a bright red little hairline of pure profit to a waterman who knows where to look, and it reflects generations of working summer after summer surrounded by growing bushels of grabbing, waving, scrabbling crabs.
The techniques surrounding the crab harvest can be things of beauty, but so are too some of the traditions developed around how we enjoy eating them. In particular, adding flavoring to a pot of crabs while steaming is an old custom- older even than the widespread trend of crabs as ‘the’ go-to Maryland seafood, which started in the early 20th century as the availability and prevalence of the oyster market declined. Beer and cider, for example, are a frequent addition to the water for steaming, a foodways holdover from the 18th and 19th centuries. No batch of Chesapeake blue crabs are complete without the classic Old Bay spice mix generously frosted over the whole lot while in the pot, so that it comes off the red shell in thick sheets as the biggest crabs are unearthed from the mound on the table. Named after the “Old Bay” steamboat line, Old Bay was trademarked in the 1940’s by Gustav Brunn, a German immigrant from Baltimore. At the time, crabs were so plentiful and ubiquitous that bars frequently offered them to patrons for free, and salty, spicy seasonings like Old Bay were served on crabs as a means of encouraging the customers to buy more beers.
The tradition of using spices to add ‘heat’ to your crabs goes back even further than the 1940’s, however, and one particular flavoring, fish peppers, can even be traced to a specific Bay location and culture. Fish peppers bear a striped fruit that pack quite a wallop of heat. Developed by Chesapeake African Americans in the Washington D.C. area in the 19th century, fish peppers were used primarily as a spice for seafood- and when crabs went into the cookpot in homes along the Potomac during the 1800’s, a fistful of these vengeful little peppers got tossed in as well. Over time, this piquant and delicious custom transcended cultural lines and was adopted throughout the Chesapeake. Old Bay and other fiery crab seasonings reflect the blistering influence of the fish pepper, and today is one of the reasons we prefer our crabs to not just be served hot, but to taste hot, as well.
Crabs are not just a food in the Chesapeake Bay, but the conveyance of a venerable series of traditions that underscore the fundamental place that seafood and the Bay itself have in our identity, our culture, and our stomachs. So, the next time you turn over your basket of piping hot crabs on a picnic table, dislodge the biggest and fattest, and aim that claw meat dusted with Old Bay towards your eager mouth, think for a moment about the icon that is the Chesapeake Blue crab. Perfectly constructed to swim from the ocean to a river near you, plucked from its eelgrass habitat by a watermen who knows just how it’s done, cooked up in a brine that our colonial predecessors might have enjoyed, and sprinkled with an intense peppery seasoning influenced by the foodways of slaves, the ‘beautiful swimmer’ truly reflects the legacy of the Chesapeake and its people.
This article by CBMM director of education Kate Livie ran in the Chesapeake Log in June, 2012.