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Simplicity is special

The time is nigh for all those who respect the culture and heritage of the Land of Pleasant Living to raise their wooden crab mallets in the air and say: "No!" The food designers and lifestyle magazine editors have set their sights on the ruination of something most precious: the traditional Maryland crab feast.

In a recent article in the Sun, the author (usually a supporter of all things traditional and good about Maryland, like Ocean City's Boardwalk and summer swim leagues) extolled the virtues of a designer crab feast.

That's right: a designer crab feast, replete with a table spread with linens instead of newspaper, gaudy floral bouquets, rental plates and cups, stenciled-in place settings, tomatoes for "color," armed chairs with cushions instead of picnic benches, cocktails, wet-naps instead of paper towels, and crab mallets with individual names inscribed on them.

Designer crab feast? It should be a dictionary example for oxymoron.

Of course, we should have seen this coming. Martha Stewart has taken over every holiday and made it so anxiety-producing that normally placid moms resort to violence in the aisles of the craft chains to get the last can of gold spray paint to render perfectly serviceable holly in gold leaf. Halloween is now among the biggest decorating events of the year, with fake tombstones, indoor fog machines and entire glossy magazine editions dedicated to yet another faux holiday. Thanksgiving brings a flood of absurd designer-based decision-making: to brine or deep fry the turkey? Chorizo or free-range tofu stuffing?

The "Fancy Feast" as described on these pages can only exist in the mind of those who do not understand the essence of the traditional Maryland crab feast. Simplicity is its foundation, with only a few elements: steamed crabs, a picnic table (or its close cousin, the card table with armless folding chairs from the basement), newspaper across the table, stained but clean wooden mallets, corn and fresh tomatoes, the latter preferably from someone's backyard garden.

The preparation is minimal: get a bag of crabs, gather the newspapers from the recycling, have your neighbor or cousin bring over a case of beer, boil the corn, slice the tomatoes, let people sit where they may, and you have a crab feast. When it is over, shells, cartilage, lungs, guts, husks and beer caps are rolled up into the newspapers, thrown in the trash and you are done, with pickup ideally on Monday before your trash bin gets too ripe. Dessert? Ice cream, preferably vanilla or mint-chocolate chip to cool the Old Bay-inflamed palate, nothing more.

Why is simplicity so critical? Because the crab feast is an intimate family, social event. The new sister-in-law is shoved precariously close to the younger cousin so that she can show him how to properly pick a crab, and family can observe how she deals with small children. Brother's girlfriend from the Midwest is gently escorted into family life, eased in by a few beers and a decidedly dressed-down affair, so that she is a bit more comfortable than at a cocktail party or holiday brunch, where the fashion and clever conversation are at a premium. On benches or folding chairs, real Marylanders touch one another, arms brush arms, perspiration is exchanged, we laugh a bit too loud and skim by the awkward moments where one has a bit of cartilage stuck in a tooth, or Grandma burps on her once-a-year beer. There is laughter, good will, and recollections of least year's gathering; there is no refinement or hauteur.

If we do the work required to create the refinements, add needless frills, separate people with armed chairs, set visual barriers of hydrangea bouquets, and otherwise create great work for the hosts and the reciprocal debt of gratitude from the guests, we lose the essence and pleasure of the crab feast. You can have your crabs, but you have lost the pleasure of the feast

What to do? The best way to stop this dangerous trend is an immediate call to action: Run — do not walk — to you favorite crab joint and buy a few dozen jimmies, the big ones; call your friends and cousins, ice down that beer, save your newspapers and spread them out over the picnic table; talk, complain about the heat, laugh out loud. Eat your crabs and be thankful that there is still one easy and simple meal that the food designers and lifestyle editors have not yet ruined. Not yet.

Stephen B. Awalt is an attorney in Towson. His email is

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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