by Tolly Wright
“Are you moving home?” This is the question I hear on a daily basis, now that I am graduating from college. I scoff at these curious acquaintances; I’ve been living New York for five years, I have friends and a job here, the Big Apple is my home. Still, I have to admit, Baltimore does sound a bit tempting.
My friends who have moved back to Charm City have found careers (not just “jobs”), have beautiful apartments (under $2000 a month), and enjoy $3 beers on the regular. Their obsession with the Ravens and the Orioles are not seen as a novelty. They are not fazed when they run into John Waters in local establishments. Yet, one major fear stops me from truly considering moving home and it’s not the notoriously high crime rate. I don’t know how to eat blue crabs.
I take a great deal of pride in being from Baltimore. My mother and father are Baltimoreans, as were their parents, and their parent’s parents. In fact, since leaving Europe, none of my ancestors, on either side, have been born anywhere but in the state of Maryland and within a close distance of the Chesapeake Bay. On my mother’s side this tradition dates back to the eighteenth century. She was born in the same Baltimore zip code she still lives in today. My father gets disgruntled anytime he is asked to travel outside the Baltimore beltway. The black and yellow-checkered city flag might as well have been stamped on my head at birth.
All this is to say, I should know the secrets to cracking crabs.
For all of the bad things Baltimore is known for—drugs, corruption, gang violence, STDS and more—blue crabs have continued to be our bright unifying beacon. We not only have access to one of the freshest supplies of the crustacean, but we also know how to cook them. No party is complete without an appetizer of crab dip or crabby melts and no restaurant goes without at least a crab cake on their menu. Any summer celebration involves a feast of steamed crabs served with our city’s favorite watered down cheap beer, National Bohemian, or as we know it Natty Boh.
I suppose I do know how to pick apart a steamed crab. I know that first I must pull off each of the legs and claws at the knuckle (the joint where the leg meets the body), pull the meat off with my teeth, and finger any remainders in the shell. Second, I take a hammer to the claws to crack open the shell, peel it off and get the most delicious juicy meat. Third, to get to the body’s contents I must shove a knife into the chink of the Crab’s armor—the thin point on top of the “apron” (the crab’s white underbelly). Once the shell is off, I remove the gills (lungs), the mustard (hepatopancreas) that many Baltimore natives will tell you is delicious (they’re lying), break the body in two, and eat all the good stuff. I can follow these steps to a science, but I’m as slow doing it as a yokel from the Midwest who’s never even seen the bay and certainly can’t define the words “brackish” or “estuary.”
I’d love to be able to blame my family for my deficiency, but it is not their fault I avoided this important practical lesson. As a child I refused to eat crabs cooked anyway. When my family went to crab shacks my mother would give me a dinner of buttered noodles or chicken nuggets before we left the house. My sisters and family friends attempted to teach me how to crack crabs, but when I touched the brown clumps of Old Bay spice that coated the food, I demand that I wash my hands. I’d claim the seasoning—a product of the Maryland spice company McCormick—had gotten into my hangnails and that it burned my delicate skin. Sometimes this was true, but usually I was lying through my teeth.
When I got to high school and finally started eating crabs it was almost always dishes with lump meat—crab cakes, crab imperial, crab casserole, crab Normandy. I occasionally ordered crab claws at restaurants, and became an expert at opening those, but anybody can do that—it takes no art. It wasn’t until after my senior year and with a slew of crab feast graduation parties to attend that I realized how insufficient my knowledge of crap cracking really was.
I was too embarrassed to ask my friends for help. I tried to learn how to open them by observing others, but Chris, my high school boyfriend—who was not even from Baltimore, but instead had moved to there from Canada—was so quick that I couldn’t keep up. Instead I opened the crab by using the memories of my family do it a hundred times before. It was a frustrating and slow task and when Chris wasn’t looking I pinched clumps off of the mounds of meat he collected. He eventually turned around, saw my carcasses, and grew exasperated by the amount of meat I was leaving in the crevices of the shell. While he dug out the remainders, I grabbed the claws from the crabs in front of him and ate my fill.
Now, with no kind-hearted boyfriend to take advantage of, I am weary of attending a Baltimore crab feast. Surely if I moved back to Mobtown, I would eventually be invited to a crab shack. What if I can’t do it? Would my menial skills mean I get less food than the all the others? Worse yet, would the other 20-somethings, many of whom could be transplants, mistake me for a non-Baltimorean?
Instead of facing that shame, I’m better off staying in New York where steamed crabs are too rare and too expensive on a young artist’s budget, and most of my friends can’t even tell the difference between girl and boy blue crabs. Here I can safely brag that I can open a crab faster than them. If I can’t, how will they know?
Tolly Wright is passionate about pop culture, Elizabethan culture, and the strange culture of her motherland, the city of Baltimore. Her writing can be found in Time Out New York, The Villager, and other publications. Sometimes she remembers to tweet @tollyw.