What do you do when you’re sitting by a person—a person you met about 10 minutes ago—and you realize that not only does the person have corn and pepper kernels lodged in his teeth, but also a strange orange substance smeared across his face, from chin to cheek? I’m not sure what you do in polite society. But if you’re in the heart of Baltimore at a church crab feast, you stay silent; because chances are 99 to 1 that you’re even dirtier than he is.
We’ve been living in Baltimore (Ball-mer, if you’re a local) for a little more than a year now. In that year, we’ve experienced a lot of Baltimore activities: a trip to the aquarium, exploring the Big Ships in Inner Harbor, games at Camden Yards, walking around town looking for buildings (and corners) depicted in The Wire, trying to avoid Johns Hopkins lacrosse players, and so on and so forth. Yet feasting on Baltimore crabs—covered in Old Bay, of course—in a church social hall was an activity we’d not yet experienced. This past Saturday night, a good friend stepped in to rectify the situation and invited us, along with many of his family and friends, to his church’s crab feast.
It was a wonderful, and wonderfully strange, experience. It started early, when we were called in on emergency corn-husking detail. The corn, you see—probably 200-odd ears of it—arrived not more than 10 minutes before the feast began, so it was a hectic, entertaining experience as we gathered, 8 or 9 of us all crowded around a counter, husking corn as fast as humanly possible.
With the husking complete, we joined the rest of our party: enough to fill two long tables pushed together, plus a smaller table for the young kids. The tables (about 15 in all) were covered in brown paper, and featured the instruments of crab-eating: wooden hammers, big sticks of butter on plastic plates, Dixie cups filled with extra Old Bay, and two giant rolls of paper towels (which were, in the end, laughably inadequate). To complete the picture, there were approximately 5 or 6 huge boxes (the size box that a mini refrigerator comes in) filled with crabs, hundreds and hundreds of crabs. Off to the side were the side dishes: two tin roasting pans of barbeque chicken, some potato salad, the corn, and a tray of brownies. On the other side of the social hall sat coolers full of cold beer.
After the introductory remarks by the church minister, our energetic host took a huge roasting pan, filled to the brim with steamed crabs (about 30 crabs?), and unceremoniously dumped them right onto our table. The crabs spilled every which way, and it was every woman for herself.
For someone like myself (and Tanner), for whom crab dissection isn’t an inborn ability, this was a little intimidating. But this was a crab feast. There was no excuse but to pony up. I gingerly took a crab—the things were absolutely covered in the orange Old Bay, which immediately covered my hands (and soon, my face). The crab just stared up at me. Tanner, although he’d at least eaten crabs several years ago, was no help; he was looking back at me, probably thinking the same thing. I knew there was a “key” in the crab that you somehow had to pry out to get to the meat. I’d heard there were some dangerous bits, like the lungs, that I absolutely should not eat. But I knew nothing else. Somewhat in desperation, I looked across the table at my tablemate, who very kindly took pity on me.
His instructions, roughly, were as follows:
First, you snap the legs off. Then, you snap the legs in two because sometimes (it happened three times at our table) there is meat in the legs.
Next, rip off the pincers–the larger claws in the front. Gently pry the pincers apart at the joints. If you can’t successfully mash them apart, smash them gently with the hammer until you see some meat (unlike the smaller legs, there is meat in these things). Be careful. If you smash the crab too hard, you’ll end up with shell bits in your crab like I did.
Then, go for the body, which is the good part. Start with the thing that I thought was a key but, in Baltimore, is called an apron. It is on the underside of the crab. Dig it out of the body.
Then pry the top part of the shell off the crab. Scrape away the lungs (know as the “devil” in Baltimore because they make you sick the next day if you eat them). Get rid of any remaining intestines or gross-looking material (if you’re a beginner; seasoned Baltimoreans eat much of the guts and refer to it as “mustard”). Then just dig around in there and eat the rest of it.
This process may sound complicated, but it is unimaginably more difficult than it sounds. It took me a good fifteen or twenty minutes to get through the first crab. In total, the reward for my labors was probably two large bites of crab. For my troubles, my hands and face, to say nothing of my clothes, had become utterly filthy. And this was a single crab. The second crab didn’t take the full fifteen minutes–I was getting better–but after consuming it I was still extraordinarily hungry. I decided I’d eat some chicken and potato salad.
Tanner persevered with the crabs for a good two hours and ate five. He, too, had to supplement the crabs with other foods. Halfway through the meal, another pan of crabs was thrust upon our table, eventually causing other feasters to sidle up to our table, asking if they could borrow some of our crabs. (They were met with cold stares and a grudging, “Sure, take ’em.”) As the crab-eating petered out, we conversed pleasantly with our tablemates. Late in the meal, someone made a startling discovery: the brownies were gone before we’d eaten any. This was nothing short of a calamity, and our table burst out in exclamations, muttering about the dreaded “chocolate twitch,” cookies that had been there last year but which no one had purchased this year, and so on and so forth. Our host–perpetually fulfilling our every wish–went back into the kitchen and swiped at least ten of the delicious brownies right from underneath the nose of the main organizer. These we heartily enjoyed.
I can’t say the crabs themselves were worth the trouble. (Tanner, for the record, vehemently disagrees.) The barbeque chicken, far easier to eat and far more delicious, will always be a bigger draw for me. But the Baltimore church social experience, the people, that fishy Old Bay smell, the unceremonious, down-to-earth nature of getting filthy dirty and horrifically smelly with good people while enjoying entertaining and delightful conversation, might just make it my very favorite Baltimore tradition, so far. It wasn’t until late in the day Sunday (after showers and multiple handwashings) that Tanner and I stopped smelling crab whenever our hands got anywhere near our noses. But the crab fest memories, of course, will linger much longer.