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The best Fridays ever
July 21, 2008 - Eric Paddock
When I was growing up outside of Baltimore, Friday dinners during the months of June, July and August more often than not consisted of steamed blue crabs.
It wasn’t a special treat to me then; it was just Friday night dinner.
My father would come home from work with a bushel of No. 1 jimmies (big males), gurgling bubbles from their mouths and expressing their frustration in more serious ways. We’d split that bushel with the guy who lived next door. My father would pay about six bucks for the crabs. Today, a bushel of No. 1 jimmies, if they can be had at all, will set you back about $200.
In 1970, when the price hit $8 a bushel, my father declared that western civilization was in a shambles, and the Friday crab feeds had come to an end. Eight dollars was robbery, and he would not be victimized.
This week, as I read an Associated Press story about the demise of the crabbing industry in the Chesapeake Bay, I recalled those Friday evenings in our backyard with more than a little nostalgia and a longing to bust open a No. 1 jimmy just one more time.
I look back on that time and chastise myself for not appreciating the full culinary scope of what I was eating. There seemed to be no end to them. We’d extract and eat that succulent meat until we could eat no more, and then pick the rest to make and freeze crab cakes.
The ritual began in the kitchen, where my father would drink his first beer of the weekend as he poured a couple more into the bottom of a huge kettle with a chicken-wire screen in the bottom. A little water, and I think a bay leaf, was added to the beer, though I’m not sure why.
The half-bushel of crabs would be slashing and scrambling over one another in the basket on the floor, their captivity assured by its wooden lid. This provided entertainment for our dog, who never seemed to tire of sniffing the the basket.
When the pot came to a good, roiling boil — it took about as much time as the old man’s third beer — my father would approach the basket with long tongs, opening the lid just enough to reach in and snag one or two of the disillusioned crustaceans. He’d transfer the crabs to the pot and slam the lid down on it so the crabs couldn’t escape their fate. After four or five were in the kettle, he’d lift the lid to douse them liberally with Old Bay. Another layer, then Old Bay, another and Old Bay, until the pot was full.
Occasionally, a crab would escape the process, fall to the floor and attack the dog in typical crab style: skittering sideways on the linoleum, claws open and pointing skyward. The resulting chaos was usually short-lived, because I, the dutiful son and crab-steaming-assistant, would be ready with a wire crab net to snare the escapee. My mother always avoided this scene by busying herself with backyard preparation.
I sometimes wonder if I shouldn’t have felt more sympathy for the creatures we were about to consume. I can’t imagine a more grotesque ending than having powder consisting principally of salt and red pepper thrown into your eyes just before you die in super-heated steam.
My father would wait until all audible signs of life ceased in the pot, and then add the time it took to drink another National Bohemian before lifting the lid for visual confirmation.
If the crabs on top of the heap had turned bright red from their deep green, they were done.
The pot was carried to the backyard, where newspapers covered the picnic table, wooden mallets were distributed and a cooler was stocked with sodas for the assistant and Natty Bos for the cook.
Steamed crabs are eaten hand-to-mouth, and while there is a specific and very precise way to dismantle them correctly, some cut fingers are an almost inevitable consequence. Suffer Old Bay in an open cut, and you get the idea that the crab has extracted at least a little revenge.
We would eat like Neanderthals, piling the shells and detritus in the middle of the table. Cleanup consisted of gathering the newspapers up around the pile and shoving the whole thing into a garbage can.
Those were great times, and I am happy that I can at least savor them in my memory.
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