“Sorry, no more crabs tonight.” Our server could not have uttered more profane words than these. On a Sunday evening at seven o’clock, my mom and I had walked into a local Cambridge, Maryland crabhouse, ready to get down and dirty with some steamed crabs and Pinot Grigio. I was like a rabid dog, foaming at the mouth, so hungry for the season’s first taste of sweet crabmeat and Old Bay. Even more torturous were the tables of diners around us, up to their elbows in pieces of crab shells and guts, happily cracking away at their dozens and dozens of larges and jumbos. And apparently, more clever than us to have arrived earlier than 7 o’clock, before the restaurant’s crab steamer shut down for the night.
What ensued thereafter was a bit of haggling, perhaps some yelling, and maybe even a dollar slipped across the table toward our wide-eyed server. What resulted from this amicable exchange though, was a pair of medium crabs arriving at our table, covered generously in spicy Old Bay. That’s right, just two crabs, not even a half dozen. And what a sad pair too, as ten minutes prior, they were likely high-clawing each other, rejoicing at having just escaped that day’s kill. But alas, such is the fate of a crustacean during the summer months in Maryland.
The saying “good things come in small packages” doesn’t really apply to picking steamed crabs, I’m afraid, especially when you’re hungry. Although the typical wooden mallet and paring knife are handy tools to aid in extracting the crabmeat, it’s not rocket science to figure out optimum crab-pickin’ strategy: maximize your return-on-investment. Meaning, order the jumbos, hon. For just about the same effort to pick a medium crab, for a large one, there’s way more meat, and it’s more succulent and sweet, with better crab flavor. That night, our return was a mere trifle (these “mediums” were more like extra-smalls), nevertheless, I still thanked my lucky stars that I at least got a taste of some Maryland blue crabs, a food I’ll always associate with summertime at home.
When I was growing up in the DC-Northern Virginia area, my parents and I annually had summer outings on the Bay (the Chesapeake, for those not in the know). We went sailing and fishing and motor-boating, and fresh catches from the Bay were always the highlight of a family meal afterward. Rockfish (i.e. striped bass), blue crab, shrimp, bay scallops, and oysters are menu staples during the summer time here, but my favorite will always be steamed blue crabs, caked in Old Bay seasoning. Old Bay would be the Maryland state spice, if it ever had one. Especially in the summertime, it flows like water. Salty and spicy, it complements the sweet crabmeat and a can of cheap beer just right. Not for the faint of heart or eye, crab picking is a hands-on job, and even at one crab in, the sludgy mixture of Old Bay and crab juices is smeared on hands, forearms, and face. But it sure is fun.
So, while back home in Virginia this time, my single request was for my mom and me to take a road trip to the Maryland Eastern Shore, on the Bay, for a get away weekend to catch some R&R, and of course, steamed crabs. Not gonna lie, the crabs were the main goal.
The first leg of Crabfest 2015 began in Cambridge, where we stayed right on the water, enjoyed massages and walks along the water, breathtaking sunsets, and those two mini crabs. To be fair, it was a Sunday night in a small, sleepy town amidst farmland. From what we saw of the menu and other diners’ plates, the crabs were the star there, along with oysters.
The next day, we drove north on the 50 toward Easton, and right where the road splits off west, so did we, for St. Michael–a lovely, quiet town on the water, the kind with a Main Street (actually called Talbott) lined with antique stores, mom-and-pop restaurants, souvenir shops selling crab and nautical knick-knacks, and an old-timey ice cream shop. Not to mention, a world class Inn (where the movie Wedding Crashers was filmed) and a rum distillery. Right on the waterfront was where we headed, to St. Michaels Crab & Steak House.
We upgraded to a dozen large this time, but what we got appeared to be more in the jumbo territory, some even three times as big as the ones from the previous night. Crab picking is a methodical and tedious process, so many people give up and just opt for the lump crabcakes. I, for one, find it really relaxing as I achieve the highest meditative state: my happy zoned-out, crab-picking bliss.
Although it’s debatable what the “right” way to clean a crab is, which many locals will say their way of course, my tip is to use the tools given, and be patient. When you’re about to embark on the task of cleaning 6-12 crabs with hard shells and tiny thin cartilage inside, you don’t want to be overworking your finger, nails, or teeth. Below is the restaurant’s prescribed method:
Halfway through my victim no. 1, our fried oyster sandwich arrived. Plain with no frills, the 4-5 large battered and fried oysters had a delicate, creamy texture with a strong umami and rich taste. With a few dashes of Crystal hot sauce, the sandwich was a fantastic filler in between bites of sweet crab.
Certainly, there’s more to do and see on the eastern shore than just eat crabs. Much unlike the crowded, gimmicky, tourist-driven waterfront attractions across the Bay in Annapolis and Baltimore, the eastern shore is relatively untouched by the nuisances of tourism. About 10 miles south of Cambridge is Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, composed of marshland and forests, where visitors can hike, cycle, and drive to view wildlife on the 3-mile Wildlife Drive. And further north, shortly before you cross the Bay Bridge is a decent outlet mall, Queenstown Premium Outlets.
Crabfest 2015 turned out to be a much-needed restful weekend to recharge our batteries. The Eastern shore’s maze of marshlands, waterways, and sparsely populated islands has always held a certain mysteriousness for me. I like that I can eat my crabs in peace and quiet with a serene view of the Bay, without being disturbed by busloads of tourists. I also appreciate that on the way back toward the bridge, I can stop at a farmstand for a basket of local cherries and a dozen ears of corn. As for the steamed crabs, I got my fill, for the time being, but they will be in my dreams again soon. And Mom, if you are reading this, Crabfest 2016?
Where to stay:
Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay Golf Resort, Spa and Marina, 100 Heron Boulevard at Route 50, Cambridge, Maryland, 21613
Inn at Perry Cabin, 308 Watkins Lane, St. Michaels, Maryland 21663
For steamed crabs:
Ocean Odyssey Seafood Restaurant, 316 Sunburst Highway, Cambridge, Maryland 21613
St. Michael’s Crab & Steak, 305 Mulberry Street, St. Michaels, Maryland, 21663
The Crab Claw, 304 Burns Street, St. Michaels, Maryland 21663