The Crab Houses of Maryland’s Eastern Shore

Crab season in Maryland begins in April, the prizes being crabs that survived the previous summer and spent the winter marinating in the Chesapeake.

Crab season in Maryland begins in April, the prizes being crabs that survived the previous summer and spent the winter marinating in the Chesapeake.

JORDAN HRUSKA | NYT | July 12, 2009

“YOU’RE going to want the jumbos, hon,” my waitress said as she stood, pen poised over her pad, next to my unadorned pine picnic table on the crowded outdoor deck of Waterman’s crab house.

I understood the advice. There’s nothing more disheartening than picking up a steamed blue crab that looks undersize and limp, without the ballast of plenty of meat under the shell — and knowing that the minutes about to be spent cracking and picking through it will be less than amply rewarded.

But I was surprised that there were any jumbo-size crabs left at Waterman’s that evening — a warm June Friday with the kind of sunburned, jolly crowd I remembered from many a childhood pilgrimage to the crab houses of the Eastern Shore of Maryland. A swarm of hungry feasters clustered around the tables jammed on the deck, arrivals from land and sea intent on attacking their personal shares of the seasonal bounty.

Guttural charges from powerboats headed in our direction suggested that more of the hungry were en route from the Chesapeake Bay, where the calm, wobbling eddies were flashing with the day’s last rays of sun just beyond where I sat. Several larger groups of diners grabbed bottles of cheap beer from aluminum buckets and fried seafood from red plastic baskets. Nearby, in what looked like a modified gazebo, a rock band began its sound check.

I felt an elbow in my ribs, and my table neighbor offered a quick apology. Like most of the others, he was hunched over the brown paper tablecloth with arms out at both sides, manipulating the tools that replace traditional cutlery at a crab house: a wooden mallet in one hand, a paring knife in the other. His hands, like theirs, were slimy to the wrist with crab innards and spicy sludge, and like many of them, he sported an unabashedly sloppy grin. All pretense is shed at a crab house spread.

When I was growing up in Annapolis, my parents and I frequently piled into the car on weekends in spring and summer, season of the steamed blue crab, and took off over the 4.3-mile Chesapeake Bay Bridge to the Eastern Shore. Or sometime we came by sea, hitching rides with friends who had boats and discovering crab houses in back creeks and coves that could be tricky to find on land.

Power boats helmed by shirtless, potbellied classic rock fans and humble sailing vessels carrying Topsider-and-Polo-outfitted Jimmy Buffett types shared the mooring spaces at these spots, and after we docked, I would run past all their crews to the shallow tubs where the young live crabs were kept before their turns in the steamer. Inhaling the pungent smell, I would tease, rather than taste, in my first encounter with the crabs — rewarded by pinches from their nervous claws.

Our time in the car seemed much less exciting, but now I look back fondly on the family drives past the shore’s Colonial estates, with my mother’s eyes peeled for antiques stores and my father pushing the speed limit on the barren roads. Our tradition wasn’t much different from that of others local to the tidewater regions of Maryland, Virginia and Delaware. The shellfish catches on the Eastern Shore feed the tourist-clogged locales of Baltimore and Annapolis, but relatively few travelers venture to the source: a gracious stretch of land that is one of the greatest undeveloped areas on the mid-Atlantic coast.

The Chesapeake Bay, or simply the Bay, as it’s known to Marylanders, is the nation’s largest estuary, a vast, rich incubator for sea life born from the brackish combination of fresh and saltwater. The saltwater comes in steadily from the Atlantic while the freshwater runs down from a watershed that stretches as far north as central New York.

Maryland’s state-regulated season for crabs runs from the beginning of April until the last of November. Around springtime, watermen have emptied out their bushels of oysters and have already begun building their boxy wire traps, somewhat misleadingly called pots.

And just as hibernating mammals emerge from winter, so do last summer’s surviving crabs — their meat having been soaked in what might be the culinary world’s longest marinade. These are the crustaceans, plump with meat and measuring from six to six and a half inches across, that are announced on giant chalkboard menus at crab houses and seafood wholesalers all over Maryland as “jumbos.”

Smaller “mediums” and “larges” even out the catch all season, but it’s commonly stated in Maryland that the best time to fetch jumbos is late summer and early fall, when the crabs that have been lucky enough to survive the season begin to bulk up for hibernation. My mother swears that these crabs are the sweetest.

“Brrrraaaaccck,” a large sheet of brown paper complained as it was torn from a roll on the Waterman’s wall before being wafted over and weighed down by a mallet, a knife and plastic cups of melted butter and Old Bay Seasoning, the dressings that represent the diametric sweet and salty palate that governs a typical crab house spread. When the crabs arrived, they were truly jumbo.

I began to pick the crabs, a process of pulling the meat from the shell chambers and claws. First, I twisted the claws and fins at the joints to pull out the hidden meat. If it didn’t worry its way out with an anxious snap, I was forced to break in with my knife, as I would need to later with the crab’s body. I let the rust-colored piquant chunks of Old Bay salt slide off the cracked shells and onto a sweet mined piece of meat and ate it straight from the knife’s blade.

Midway through my first crab, an order of hush puppies had been set down next to me. These large, deep-fried dollops of cornmeal, although flat-tasting on their own, took on a buttery sweetness after the mouth-puckering Old Bay. I popped one or two in my mouth as I grabbed an old paint bucket from fellow diners at the other end of the table, to dispose of my vacated crab. Only a soggy stain on the brown paper remained, but by my sixth crab, I was mighty full.

I BEGAN an extended and greasy reunion with the Eastern Shore this season at Waterman’s, in the tiny marina town of Rock Hall, because it was one of our family’s favorite crab houses, a lively spot with good catches. From there, my plan was to travel south down the shore’s wrinkly coast to where it meets the ocean.

Bayside winds sometimes disturb the flat shore lands, animating marsh grasses and crops and adding a portentous shiver to the already desolate stretches. But the next morning presented a quiet day, and as I traveled south, the terrain was as deflated as the Maryland beaten biscuits I had picked up for breakfast at Wye Mills Country Store in the tiny village of Wye Mills.

Condensed by a painstaking trapping of the dough’s air (traditionally it was supposedly done by thwacking with an ax), these unleavened biscuits are miniature oblong cannonballs of flour, lard, sugar, salt and water. Despite their compact size, two would tide me over until lunch. John Barth, a native of the Eastern Shore, demonstrated in “The Floating Opera” that beaten biscuits could have their unsavory uses: his protagonist sank them in the Choptank River to disturb mating crabs, which would then skitter away in the shallow tide.

I would be in Mr. Barth’s hometown of Cambridge later that night, but now I was on my way to the town of Oxford, where I’d be in time for lunch. I drove around the shore’s small peninsulas, often called necks, and through the stratified landscape where green farm fields give way, near the water’s edge, to yellow-hued marsh grasses and darker outcrops of loblolly pines. I dead-ended at the Tred Avon River, one of myriad streams running into the bay.

The Tred Avon could thoroughly confuse even an experienced sailor heading inland, because of creeks feeding into it that are as ample as the river itself. The bay’s labyrinthine tributaries, inlets and coves have the reputation for getting seafarers lost, and this confusion extends to the shore’s roads. Although the charming one-lane stretches lend themselves to relaxed drives and bicycle rides, they defy all directional logic as they dodge the waterways. At low-lying wetlands, black pavement ominously disappears into marsh on either side.

To cross the Tred Avon from Bellevue, I boarded the Oxford-Bellevue Ferry, an operation that began modestly in 1683 and now employs a boat large enough to carry bicycles and up to nine cars to the opposite peninsula. Once safely ashore in the bitty town of Oxford, I zeroed in on Schooners, a restaurant snug between a busy marina and Town Creek, looking to taste soft-shell crab.

Late spring is when blue crabs endure their first molt of the season, temporarily donning soft shells for two to four hours during the final stage before they harden, offering a small window to enjoy them in a much different state. Watermen call them “peelers” when they begin this process, and it happens multiple times throughout the summer as the crabs grow larger. If they’re not naturally protected from predators in the eelgrass of the bay’s shallow, expansive sandbars, the crab-packing houses foster them in baths until they are soft, meaty and ready for distribution.

While the nation’s more discerning restaurants might sauté soft-shells in light butter and garlic, the preferred preparation on this shore is a bit more blunt: deep-fried and stacked on a roll or white toast with mayo and tomato. The sight can be unappetizing: at Schooners, bent fins and claws from the two “softs” stuck out on either side of the potato roll.

But it all crunched the same, and only the taste changed as I bit into the body, which introduced a tangy flavor thanks to the yellowish innards that crab eaters fondly call “mustard.” I followed it up with a half-pound of steamed shrimp (not native — they usually come from Florida), spiced with Old Bay and a stocky 10-ounce can of domestic beer.

My waitress, relating that a nearby ersatz Colonial revival mansion belonged to owners of a large crab house in Ocean City, Md., told me she’d heard that the bottom of its swimming pool was decorated with little crab silhouettes. I could only imagine taking a dip to cleanse my sticky hands and chin.

By late afternoon, I had taken a detour out onto Hoopers Island, in fact three islands and their surrounding spits of land that together form a barren archipelago connected by bridges — stunning to drive across just before dusk. The epic horizon was interrupted only by the tall, columnar osprey nesting platforms installed by the nearby Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. In the span of half an hour, I spied an osprey, a couple of proud blue herons stalking the grasses and even a bald eagle.

When I rolled into Cambridge, around dinner hour, the town’s venerable and self-proclaimed world’s oldest crab-packing house, J. M. Clayton Company, had closed for the day. Seafood-packing operations that are much less grand than Clayton’s dot much of the shore’s coast and are often recognizable if you know what to look for: squat cinderblock buildings, the more colorful ones painted with amateurish murals of maritime scenes or giant crabs with cartoon eyes.

These effects dress up their otherwise functional and efficient layout: the packing house and two long loading docks on either side, one open to the water for the catch to come in and the other for trucks to haul it off as far as the seafood markets of New York and Montreal.

Cambridge seemed empty without the buzz of its seafood industry, but I wasn’t prepared for the isolation I felt when I traveled the next morning to Smith Island, the Bay’s only inhabited “offshore” island (as compared to others close to the mainland), as somewhat proudly declared by tourism literature.

To get there, I had to hop aboard the Jason II, a retrofitted sports-fishing boat that doubles as a ferry to make only two daily trips to the village of Tylerton on Smith Island. Actually a collection of small islands in the middle of the bay, Smith Island is named for the storied English colonist Captain John Smith, who charted the Chesapeake in 1608.

Some of the current residents’ family names date back to the 1700s on the island. Captain Larry Laird, a jovial man whose name is traced to nearby Tangier Island in Virginia, captained the small boat, which was stocked full of provisions for the town’s only market.

About one-eighth of Tylerton’s population of roughly 85 boarded, greeted one another and busily discussed their morning’s doings on the mainland. I tried to eavesdrop but could barely penetrate the plump, rounded local accent that mixes a Southern drawl with an Elizabethan English brogue left over from the early days of its settlement.

Tylerton’s streets are well-worn gravel roads with traffic limited to golf carts, bicycles or pedestrians. At the center of their grid sits Drum Point Market, a porch-fronted house with groceries and a kitchen. The soft-shell crab sandwich there was unique because the tart innards were removed, along with the more spindly fins, before the crabs were tossed in the fryer, thus permitting concentrated flavors of meat and more room on the roll to heap on a third crab.

The women who operate Drum Point — Patty Laird, a longtime resident, and Louise Clayton, who originally came from off-island — rely on the crabs’ freshness to prove itself, and their crab cake is a prime example of this minimalist ethic. The full recipe may be safeguarded, but Mrs. Laird, who was working the fryers that day, told me that the basic difference is that they add meat from the claws to the heftier meat from the crab’s backfin and body.

Sweeter in taste and fibrous in texture, the claw meat balances out the richness of the heavier meats. I detected no Old Bay, and the crab cake was only lightly flecked with black pepper.

If this main course wasn’t a tall enough order in itself, I could top it off with a towering piece of their Smith Island Cake — moist fudge icing connecting nine spongy layers, each one-eighth inch thick.

At the nearby co-op, Mrs. Clayton sometimes picks the crabs that her husband, Capt. Billy Clayton, catches — extracting the meat for packing. This seems to be the underlying division of sexes on Smith Island. A lot of the Smith Island ladies are dedicated pickers, setting up at Tylerton’s co-op, a State Health Department-approved hall where they work at long tables, all the while gossiping and receiving crabs from the watermen who operate on a small dock nearby.

Captain Clayton, 64, has lived on Smith Island all his life except for a stint in the military. The Clayton name has been a constant on the island since around the time of its settlement, and his ancestors were watermen just like him, although rather than trafficking in shellfish, they plied the early spice trade routes up from the West Indies.

“I don’t remember exactly when I went out the first time, but I remember trying to pull my dad’s outboard motor and couldn’t get the thing started because I was too small,” Captain Clayton said.

He still wakes at around 4 a.m. and jumps into his 38-foot wood-bottom Chesapeake Bay dead riser boat, rare in these days of Fiberglas, to check the crab pots he’s left in the shallows. His own sons followed suit in their youth, but the slow pace of the island and its limited resources seems to move most of the young population to the mainland. As a result, he said, the Smith Island shellfishing industry has shrunk considerably.

On my ride back to the mainland I kept my eyes focused on the islands as they got smaller on the horizon. Maybe I should have been nervous, since Captain Laird was helming the Jason II at times with his feet up and hands behind his head, but instead I found his contentment reassuring. The bay gets fatter here as it pours out into the ocean, and with little land on the horizon, the skies seemed huge, its mottled piles of varying clouds as dense and expansive as a jumbo blue.

THE HOUSE OF CRABS

WHERE TO EAT

Waterman’s Crab House, 21055 Sharp Street, Rock Hall, Md.; (410) 639-2261; www.watermanscrabhouse.com.

Schooners, 314 Tilghman Street, Oxford, Md.; (410) 226-0160.

Drum Point Market, 21162 Center Street, Tylerton, Md.; (410) 425-2108.

Wye Mills Country Store, 1414 Old Wye Mills Road, Wye Mills, Md.; (410) 827-8188. WHAT TO SEE

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, 2145 Key Wallace Drive, Cambridge, Md.; (410) 228-2677; www.fws.gov/blackwater.

WHERE TO STAY

Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay, 100 Heron Boulevard, Cambridge, Md.; (410) 901-1234; www.chesapeakebay.hyatt.com. This 400-room hotel, spa and golf resort capitalizes on its views of the Choptank River, just outside sleepy Cambridge. An online search found a double room in mid-July starting at about $240.

Inn of Silent Music, 2955 Tylerton Road, Tylerton, Md.; (410) 425-3541; www.innofsilentmusic.com, a charming and relaxing three-bedroom waterfront bed-and-breakfast on Smith Island. Rooms start at $110; bicycles, canoes and kayaks are available.

Brampton Bed & Breakfast Inn, 25227 Chestertown Road, Chestertown, Md.; (410) 778-1860; www.bramptoninn.com. A gracious porch wraps around this huge 19th-century plantation house in the rolling fields outside of Chestertown. Accommodations in seven rooms and five cottages start at $169.

JORDAN HRUSKA is a writer and former Marylander living in Brooklyn.

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Crisfield, Maryland

"The Crab Capital of the World"

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