I awake to the sound of gulls calling. I lay still for a moment, as we often do when awakening in an unfamiliar place, orienting myself in time and space. My wife’s gentle breathing from across the room and the sound of waves slapping the rocks lend my mind a trajectory and I realize that I am at Laura’s parents’ house on the eastern shore of Maryland, located on one of the tributaries to the Chesapeake Bay. I was born and raised in the mountains of Appalachia, in the coal fields of Virginia, so this world is foreign to me. I slip out of bed and pad as noiselessly as possible to the window. Moonlight glints off the water, and Jupiter is low on the horizon, indicating that dawn is near. I’m glad I’m awake, but, honestly, I am nervous.
We’re going crabbing today, with the vehicle of choice being one workboat named Dorothy, lovingly restored to her original form by Laura’s Dad. One of only two left in existence, this diesel-powered wooden testament to the hardworking people on the Bay is utilized on almost a daily basis for fishing, crabbing, transportation and recreation. I have never been crabbing, and I fervently hope that I do nothing to embarrass the tradition of this family and their beloved Dorothy. She rises and falls slightly in the early morning breeze and the tide laps softly at her stern. The first glints of sunlight break the horizon and I smile, despite my nervousness. It’s going to be a good day.
Six hundred feet of line have already been threaded with chicken necks for bait as we load Dorothy with water, sunscreen, nets and our dog, Axl, who has decided that this is definitely the most exciting thing in the history of doggy things. He leaps fearlessly from the dock to the boat, sliding on the bottom a bit before righting himself. I’m a bit less fearless, but I manage not to fall in the dock-to-boat translation. Laura’s Dad fires the massive diesel and we cast off the lines in the early morning mist, off on the search for the absolutely delicious Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab.
Considered to be too small and too difficult to harvest on the west coast of the United States, this crab is king on the eastern seaboard of Maryland and Virginia. People are passionate about their taste and they are prized for the tender, succulent body meat found within their carapaces. A bit intimidating to the uninitiated, a seasoned crab picker can reduce a blue crab to nothing but meat in a matter of minutes. The first time I watched Laura pick a crab, I was a little speechless and in complete adoration. It was like watching an expert pianist perform Bach’s sixth symphony. Not for the first sime, I thought, “I’m going to marry that girl!
Laura casts off the last line and leaps as fearlessly as Axl into the bow as it passes the end of the dock. Laura’s Dad accelerates away and we are soon in the middle of the creek, as the locals refer to the tributaries of the Bay and in prime crabbing territory. We wave at fellow crabbers, some already with their holds full, as we let out our line loaded with chicken necks into the green waters of the Bay.
After it is stretched, we begin our runs. The line is routed over a roller than lifts it out of the water, with the chicken necks spaced about every five feet. A net is utilized to grab the crabs just as they realized that their meal is being interrupted by a rude grab by a net. Laura is shockingly good at this – for her, it’s personal. She has nothing but bad intentions for these guys. I can tell that visions of steamed crabs are dancing in her head as she catches two in the same net, juggles them as they try to get away, and then slams them into the wooden bushel basket just in time to grab another. My job is to keep them from getting out of the basket, but they seem to intent on fighting one another to escape. I’m glad I’m not a crab.
We have a successful morning. In an hour or so we have a bushel basket full, and we declare it a victory. A few hours later, we are steaming them outside of the garage with corn on the cob, cornbread hush puppies and all the fixings. My God. Is it because we caught them ourselves? How can anything be this good? Laura slows down at around fifteen crabs and I am fighting to keep up. It’s not like you can save the leftovers – oh, wait, you can! After we are stuffed, we pick the remaining crabs for crab cakes. Laura normally despises crab cakes in favor of the actual crab, but when you are returning to Appalachia, you need to be adaptable. She makes the best crab cakes in the world, and I will share her recipe with you now. Catch your own, if you can – it is an unforgettable experience, as are most things on the Bay.
What you need:
½ cup of finely minced red onions
1/3 cup of finely minced red bell pepper
1 tablespoon of minced tarragon
1/3 cup of mayonnaise
1 pound of crab
¾ cup of panko
Salt and pepper to taste, plus a pinch of cayenne
What to do:
Mix all the ingredients well, form into palm size cakes and place in the refrigerator for a half hour or so to firm up. The panko will absorb the wet ingredients and they will stick better. Fry over medium high heat in olive oil until golden brown, 3-4 minutes per side. Asparagus and fresh baby carrots make a wonderful side. Enjoy!