Make your next crab dinner a fancy feast

Make your next crab dinner a fancy feast
A tablescape for an upscale crab feast, designed by Andrew Zill of Feats Inc. No picnic benches at this crab feast. Zill added pillows to the padded chairs in fabric that coordinates with his summery table linens. (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun)

Newspaper. A roll of paper towels. Wooden mallets and plastic pitchers for cold drinks. The elements of a traditional Maryland crab feast could not be simpler to gather.

Or more uninspired.

Crab feasts are family affairs in Maryland. The adults linger at the table, talking and picking, while the kids play in the yard. Dusk arrives and empty crab shells and corn husks are rolled up in the soiled newspaper and dropped neatly in the garbage.

"You are meant to get your hands dirty," said Andrew Zill, design director for Feats Inc., an event-planning company in Baltimore. "But that doesn't mean there can't be some refinement. That you can't bring the indoors out."

Zill recently helped plan a crab feast for more than 1,000 visitors at Fort McHenry during the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Some of those mayors had never before seen a blue crab dusted with Old Bay.

So he was more than up to the challenge of dressing up a backyard crab feast to make it look … well, fancy.

So, on the deck of the Reisterstown home of Sarah Winkler, president of Feats, and her husband, Mark, Zill ditched the newspaper and paper towels and added flowers, candles and linens.

He created a bar for serving iced tea, or its alcoholic relation, the "Ice Pick." And instead of picnic benches, guests sit on padded chairs outfitted with a variety of pillows.

"I grew up eating crabs," said Zill, whose father, Jack, had his own boat, crab line and crab pots. "When he didn't feel like going out, he went down to the watermen who were our neighbors and came back with a bushel. Nobody actually paid for crabs. It was unheard of."

For the Winklers' crab feast, Zill used white paper over linen and drew the silhouettes of plates and silverware, although few people use either when picking crabs.

"Put some markers out and let the kids color," he said.

Kids grow into picking crabs in Maryland, said Sarah Winkler.

"Part of the tradition is teaching your kids your family's technique — and every family has their own. It will be years before you have to add them to the crab count."

Zill rented colorful summer linens and matching plastic plates from Party Rental of Laurel. And if you are worried about breakage outdoors, he said, rent acrylic glassware, too.

"The beauty of it is, you don't have to wash anything. They do that for you when you return it. It is almost as easy as wrapping everything in the newspaper."

Somewhat surprisingly, Zill thought pewter mallets would be "over the top," so he went with wooden mallets for his tablescape. "You can write everyone's name on them, and they can take them home."

He choose flowers to match the season and the linens, with sunflowers, yellow roses, hydrangea and goldenrod. And he dotted the table with Maryland tomatoes. "I'd be cutting them up and eating them before long," he said.

Smoked and roasted corn was displayed in a square glass vase, the ends rooted in a couple of inches of kosher salt. Zill said that if it was his crab feast, he would serve about eight side dishes, including grilled oysters and a grilled red potato salad with warm bacon vinaigrette.

"You have to give people dinner," he said.

For dessert, he would serve homemade ice cream sandwiches and root beer floats.

If you have rookies at your crab feast, Zill said, time must be taken for instruction.

For the mayors' event at Fort McHenry, the Crab Crackers were hired — about 20 people, dressed for the part, who entertained the guests with their lessons on picking crabs.

Zill said he would serve a traditional Maryland crab dip and perhaps a signature drink during the cocktail hour of his crab feast.

"You have to have plenty to drink," he said, "but it doesn't all have to be alcohol. Lemonade does a great job of countering the salt."

A cocktail hour before a crab feast?

"I know. I push the envelope," Zill said. "But I like little refinements."

One last refinement: Instead of a roll of paper towels, order boxes of Wet-Naps, or moist towelettes.

"They are a godsend," said Zill. "And you can order boxes of them online — with your initials."