My parents grew up about a mile-and-a-half and a cultural universe away from one another in Depression-era southeast Baltimore.
Dad was a paperboy in a largely Italian and German section of Highlandtown long ago called "the Hill" and now known as Greektown. Mom, whose mother was a textile worker and the family breadwinner, came from an almost monolithic Polish colony along Boston Street, a neighborhood of broom factories, lumberyards and canneries remembered as "old" Canton.
Because it was Baltimore, the neighborhoods had one fundamental cuisine in common: Chesapeake Bay blue crabs, both plentiful and reasonably priced.
Back in the late 1930s and early 1940s, a cavalry of hollering a-rabbers jingle-jangled their ponies through nearly all of the city's neighborhoods. They sold everything from ice to fresh flowers to watermelons while collecting old rags and newspapers. The Pratt Library sent a horse-drawn wagon of books down the narrow streets of working neighborhoods so folks could borrow a good read and return it the next time the horse clopped by.
And perhaps the most popular hucksters of all sold live crabs out of the bushel. My mother, Gloria Jones Alvarez, formerly of Dillon Street, can still do their call.
"HARD CRAB!" she bellowed in her Linthicum kitchen the other day near the end of Maryland's 2013 crabbing season. "HARD CRAB ALIVE!"
But the hard crabs my mother grew up eating — steamed the traditional way and usually bought a dozen or two at a time on weekends from the local saloons her father knew so well — was not the callinectes sapidus my Spanish-Italian father enjoyed as a kid.
Across the O'Donnell Street bridge and up into Highlandtown, the rowhouse gourmands with a lot of vowels in their names cooked their hard crabs in marinara sauce.
"Seafood was cheaper than meat in Baltimore in those days," said my father, Manuel Alvarez, who grew up close to old City Hospitals (now Hopkins Bayview) and remembers his parents and neighbors planting vegetable gardens on hospital grounds, every bell pepper and cucumber a help in hard times "Crabs and spaghetti was a Friday treat when Catholics didn't eat meat."
Let's pause here to remember the first rule of the Italian cucina: If you can eat it without dropping dead, it can be cooked in tomato sauce and served with pasta.
A vegetarian friend from Little Italy confirms this, noting decades past when neighborhood men would hunt pigeons in the bell tower of St. Leo the Great Church on Exeter Street, clean the scrawny fowl and cook them in sauce.
My Spanish grandfather, Rafael, shot squirrels and rabbit in what was then the wilds of Carroll County, cleaning them at the utility tubs in the basement and hanging squirrel tails from his shaving mirror. The game was put in the simmering sauce pot by my Italian grandmother, the former Frances Prato of Baltimore by-way-of Aliquippa, Pa.
Against a standard of squirrels and pigeons, what could be more natural than using the local delicacy — the glorious blue crab, the succulent shellfish for which Baltimore is known — to flavor an old country staple?
So, while Mom told stories of the old days (when her most exotic experience of blue crab was watching her Dad batter and deep fry them) my father was at the kitchen sink, patiently cleaning a dozen local crabs. On the stove at his elbow, a big pot of marinara sauce (his mother's recipe, with a teaspoon of sugar) had been simmering since morning.
I bought the females — a baker's dozen steamed for Mom and 12 live ones for the sauce — from B&B Crabs, the classic snowball stand/crab shack on Baltimore & Annapolis Boulevard in Ferndale. They cost $36.
(B&B will be open through the end of this month for both crabs and snowballs. Crabs generally run well in local waters — when they are running at all — through early November and later.
(Cravin' Crabs in Annapolis expects to have Chesapeake Bay crabs through Thanksgiving. Vince's Crab House in Middle River sells live crabs year-round with those caught locally available, said an employee, "until it gets too cold to crab.")
Folklore across the Chesapeake holds that the meat of a female crab is sweeter, but many experienced cooks believe they were used for soup and sauce and most any recipe other than steaming because they are cheaper than Jimmys.
To safely remove the top shell of a crab while it's still alive, simply put a bag or a bushel of live crabs in the refrigerator for several hours and they fall into a deep somnolence. You then CBC (clean before cooking) before they wake up, the same process used for making traditional Maryland crab soup.
(The best crab soup I've ever had is made by my Greektown neighbor and Eastern Shore native Kelly Belk, who puts a deep tang into her broth with cabbage.)
Open the crab from the bottom by pulling up the "locking spine" (referred to as the "apron," shaped like a dagger on a male and wider and beveled on the female.) As you do, lift up on the back of the top shell, which usually comes loose with your thumb, much the same as cleaning a steamed crab. If the shell won't give, a butter knife will do the trick.
My Dad uses a fingernail brush to scrape out all of the insides of the crab below the gurgling spigot, setting them aside, one by one.
Ralph Sapia, a Baltimore attorney who grew up eating all things Italian in Ocean City, dumps all of the innards — except for the spongy lungs ("the devil") — directly into his sauce. He is also the only person out of many interviewed for this story who cooks the crabs before dropping them into the sauce.
"I go to any local crab place, bigger isn't always better, and ask them to steam the crabs for just three minutes," said Sapia, who requests his crabs steamed without spice.
"My crabs and pasta is not about heat, it's about big flavor. I clean them right over the sauce so all the droppings get in and let it simmer for 15-to-20 hours."
Once my father had cleaned a dozen crabs — careful to keep intact the claws, legs and fins — he broke them in half and dropped the halves into the sauce.
A few minutes before, Mom had put the water to boil for the pasta. For some reason, thinner pasta is preferred for crabs and spaghetti and its sibling dish, tuna and spaghetti.
"My Mom made the best crab and spaghetti in the world," said Donna Parzynski Kirby, who grew up above Adam's Cafe, a long-gone crab house at the corner of Foster Avenue and South Newkirk Street in Greektown.
Her mother, Lucy Adornato Parzynski, is my father's first cousin. Along with a gaggle of other first cousins, they grew up together along the alley that separates the 600 block of South Macon from the 600 block of South Newkirk. Each of their mother's made crabs and spaghetti.
"The sauce was also thinner than regular tomato sauce," said Kirby. "She threw in the crab raw without the guts but left in the mustard."
It only takes about 15 minutes, perhaps a little less, for raw crab to cook in hot tomato sauce. The crab halves are removed from the sauce and set in a separate bowl. There is a separate bowl for the extra sauce — called "gravy" by many Italian families — and the customary large, shallow and pastel-painted bowl for the pasta.
Lathered with sauce, the pasta is usually eaten first with parmesan cheese, and to my father's liking, a little crushed red pepper. My grandfather would wash it down with homemade wine, but my Pop enjoys a juice glass of chilled red wine that comes in a box.
And then, the fun part: cracking crabs (we use butter knives, not mallets) in which your favorite red sauce has permeated every baffle and crevice; sucking from the claws the singular taste of juicy crab and rich tomato, a spray of red and orange droplets spattering your chin, your shirt and, for some, the napkin tucked in the front of their collar.
If you eat it on Sunday, don't wear your Sunday best.
Manny's Baltimore crabs and spaghetti
For the red pasta sauce
3 large cans of crushed tomatoes
1 can tomato sauce
1 small onion
3 cloves garlic
2 bay leaves
Dash of oregano
Salt and pepper to taste
3 teaspoons sugar
Red pepper flakes to taste
1/4 cup olive oil
Put onion, garlic in blender, then add them to the olive oil in saucepan and cook over a small flame.
Add the crushed tomatoes, onion mixture and tomato sauce.
Add bay leaves, oregano, red pepper flakes, salt and pepper and sugar. Cook over low heat for two hours.
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The morning of the meal, buy a dozen live female blue crabs from a local seafood store (not a restaurant) or from a crab truck by the side of the road. Place crabs in refrigerator for at least three hours to "put them to sleep."
About a half-hour before the sauce is done cooking, take dormant crabs from refrigerator to clean in sink. One at a time, remove the top shell by opening "apron" on bottom of crab and pulling shell off the crab completely.
Once shell is removed, use small food prep brush (the kind that looks like a fingernail brush) and thoroughly clean out all innards — lungs, etc. — from inside crab. Break crab in half along the middle and set aside in bowl.
After all crabs have been cleaned and halved, drop them one by one into still-simmering sauce. Crabs cook in the simmering sauce for the last 10 to 12 minutes of sauce cooking time.