“Maryland is for Crabs” became our state’s official tourism slogan back in 1989 when a mythical group of Maryland state tourism board members sat around eating a bushel of steamed crabs and downing no less than an entire keg full of Baltimore-brewed National Bohemian (Natty Boh). The legend goes that the organization’s executive director had charged the group to come up with a new state slogan “by Monday or else.” The board, hopped up on Old Bay and a rousing beer burp contest, noted that Virginia’s slogan “Virginia is For Lovers” had worked out pretty well for them. There was silence for a moment and then one board member blurted out, “MARYLAND IS FOR BEER!” The group rolled their collective eyes: duh, you can’t have a state slogan about booze.
And then the fateful moment came as a small, quiet woman who’d had too much beer for her tiny frame gave a tiny burp, said excuse me, and then barely whispered the words: “Maryland is for crabs.”
The group erupted in hysterical laughter, jumped up, banged mallets on the picnic table pretending they were gavels and screamed things like “So it is written!”, “I second that emotion!” and “It should be Maryland is for crabs AND BEER!”
Okay, that whole story is bullshit. But I couldn’t find a better one, and Wikipedia actually removed our state slogan because it couldn’t find documentation that it had ever even happened in reality (possibly it’s been wiped off the Internet by embarrassed and less drunk state officials concerned about the sexually transmitted disease jokes the state tolerated for years).
As a woman who has lived in Maryland since attending college here over 20 years ago and is currently spending the summer living in a waterfront cottage on a remote Eastern Shore island, I felt it was high time I learned to catch and cook and eat my own steamed crabs. No more sauntering over to the local Crab Deck and watching a waitress spread out brown paper on my table. I attempted catching them off the dock in front of my cottage with poor results.
In the meantime, I got to know (let’s just call him) Randall, the waterman who is in charge of seemingly the entire crab trafficking operation for all of Maryland. He works in a shanty-like warehouse where there are large narrow sinks filled with future soft shell crabs. When I ride my bike over there, he lets me free the bushels of female crabs back into the bay, and I say, “Be free, girls! Have lots of babies!” but this is mainly because I’m writing a novel at the cottage and never have anyone to talk to, so I talk to crustaceans like I’m the fucking Little Mermaid.
This weekend, after negotiating a $10/dozen (for #1s!) price with Randall, I rode over to pick up the first batch of crabs I planned to cook and eat on my own. Twelve crabs: six for dinner, and six cold for lunch the next day. Randall told me that he’s the father of 12 children, many of them scattered all over the world. He reminisced about the large number of U.S. Army officials who’ve had to inform him that blood tests have come back positive. Now in his 50s, Randall says he plans on having a few more children before he’s 62. He raises one eyebrow in my direction. Flattered, but I’m not inclined to become the mother of any waterman babies because a.) I already have four kids and b.) I don’t have a uterus anymore. I’m afraid that if I tell Randall I’m permanently pregnancy-challenged, I won’t get the huge jumbo crabs he was putting into a bag. Also, I noticed that if I kept talking in an eyelash-batting manner, he lost count of the crabs and was giving me way more than a dozen. For $10.
He ominously warns me that “These guys will break your finger,” and sends me on my way with instructions to put the vinegar and spice in the bottom of the pot versus on top of the crabs. Over at the Tilghman Island Country Store, the consensus of the ladies had been first of all, to use J&O Spice because Old Bay is for pussy tourists (they did not use the word “pussy” but their facial expressions were clearly using the word). They told me how much water and vinegar to use (“about yay much”) and that you could spice the crabs when they went into the pot, but to do it quickly before they climbed out. I also received the wisdom of placing the bag of crabs into the refrigerator before steaming the crabs, because it puts them in a mini-coma, a state during which it is clearly more humane to throw them to their deaths in a pot of boiling water.
Throw them straight from the bag in the fridge right into the steam pot, they said. They won’t scratch their claws against the side of the pot trying to get out as much.
Well, I don’t cry over the pigs when I eat bacon, so I was going to do this no matter how bad I felt for the little fuckers. Hunger helps. Also, how delicious crabmeat is. Especially at $10 for 15 jumbo crabs.
It went quite smoothly. Yes, a few of the more spirited crabs tried to climb out. I used the metal lid to wrangle them back into the pot. I waited until I assumed they were dead before throwing in the J&O Spice and some vinegar, having already placed some of both in the bottom of the pot. I made a delicious slurry out of J&O (I will never buy Old Bay again) and vinegar for dipping.
Is there death involved in steaming crabs? Yes, but here in Maryland it is delicious, delicious death.
—Mary McCarthy also blogs at pajamasandcoffee.com