A passage from "Loss," a story by Sarah Tantillo submitted for John Barth's graduate writing seminar:
"Afterward we walked back to Andy's house to kill and clean the crabs. 'The executions,' as he called them, were Andy's favorite part. Using the tongs, he turned each crab over and steadied it . . . once a crab was on its back and relatively steady, he aimed the hatchet over its belly, then chopped it in half."
"Have you ever hearda sucha thing?" writes novelist and crab aficionado Barth, in forwarding the story to this column. And he asks:
"Are there yet other such quaint parochial sacrileges out there beyond our estuarine system, but within the range of Callinectes sapidus?"
Ms. Tantillo's story is fiction, but the hatcheting of crabs, she said by phone this week, "is exactly the way they always did it where I grew up [Long Beach Island, a half-hour north of Atlantic City]."
To me, and I suspect to most Marylanders, it sounds barbaric and cruel; but on reflection, hatcheting may be a kinder cut than our own methods of crab feast preparation.
Consider the technique favored by many Smith and Tangier islanders. With a great cracking sound, they rip from the living, thrashing crab its whole back shell before tossing the creature in the pot to steam.
Islanders say this allows the spices to better permeate the meat. But if I were a crab, I think I would choose being guillotined over being torn in half. Gentle readers may take solace in our more prevalent Chesapeake custom of simply dumping the crabs, untouched, into a pot and turning up the heat.
But listen to this true story, as related by Tom Wisner, the Chesapeake singer, poet and storyteller; Wisner was out strolling one spring day along the bay shore when:
I met the darndest creature
In the waters hereabout.
His bones were outside in,
His skin was inside out.
When he'd commence to movin'
He'd slip off to the side.
He would dance sideways
To get where he was goin'.
He would dance sideways.
Now, Wisner looks all around; seeing no other people, he bends down and says to the crab: How ya doin? The crab looks all around; seeing no other crabs, it wiggles its eye stalks and replies: Not so hot.
Turns out, Wisner says, the old boy had a close call. Only a kitchen accident allowed him to escape the pot in a beach home and skitter sideways out the door and back into the cooling Chesapeake.
As the crab told Tom:
I wonder if some people
Ever wonder what it's like
To be put into a kettle
And have the lid snapped tight.
You wander in the darkness,
You can't find your way around.
You are destined to become
The tastiest treat in town;
When you're STEAMED ALIVE,
Your condition's final.
When, you're steamed alive!
And, as the shadow of a great blue heron passed across the shallows, that crab darted off sideways, singing as he went:
Listen all you jimmies,
You sallies and you sooks.
I got some information
That ain't in any books.
If they bring a net you'd
Better dance with all you got.
If you don't do some dancin'
They will put you in a pot.
You'd better dance sideways
To get where you are goin'.
You'd better dance sideways.
So if you've ever wondered why crabs, when you corner them, act so crabby, well . . .
And if anyone has a more humane method of cooking the beasts (or other bay information you'd like to pass along), write me at: 6633 Oak Ridge Drive, Hebron 21830.
The scene is elemental: moon and sandy shore, and the lap of water against land's edge; and the slow scrabble of shell against shell as numbers of large and spider-like creatures crawl from the depths to bury their eggs in the beach.
Thus it has been around the full, June moon for some 400 million years with Limulus polyphemus, the horseshoe crab. There probably is no more elegant and durable fit evolved between a creature and its environment than that achieved by the horseshoe crab, whose ancient order is more akin to spiders and scorpions than true crabs.
When these animals first appeared in the fossil record, Earth's land mass had not yet broken into the continents; trees were just then evolving, and the dinosaurs were 150 million years in the future.
The peak of horseshoe spawning along bay beaches should arrive about high tide on the night of Monday, June 12, the full moon. Maryland wildlife officials would like to have as many observers as possible out to watch.
The officials are concerned about fast-rising pressure on the crabs. Last year they fetched such a nice price as bait for eel, conch and catfish traps that Maryland watermen harvested about 1.5 million pounds, up from a million pounds in 1993.
The crabs' eggs are an important food for finfish, migrating shore birds and juvenile sea turtles.
Scientists are developing a conservation plan and need to learn more about the crabs' whereabouts and population size. The creatures are most observable during their spawning period, which actually goes on for weeks around the June 12 peak.
Reports from last year indicate the crabs may be using bay and coastal beaches from the Chester River to Norfolk, Va., and along the ocean coasts up to the northern end of Assateague Island.
Reports of them have also come in from the Rhode River, Calvert Cliffs and James Island in the mouth of the Little Choptank River. For more information, and to report horseshoe crabs, call Tom O'Connell at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, 410-974-2241.
Belt Woods battle
Citizens fighting the Episcopal Church's planned housing development in and around a unique, old-growth hardwood forest have been heartened by a recent court decision.
The woods lie in Prince George's County, and the county Circuit Court effectively reduced by about 10 percent the number of homes that can be built.
A local land conservancy has offered to buy the property for $4.7 million, but the church is asking $9.4 million. Environmentalists think the court decision will bring the sides closer to a deal.
The Belt Woods, whose huge oaks and tulip poplars have been growing for 200 to 400 years, first attracted public attention about 20 years ago. The church and the Mercantile bank of Baltimore convinced a judge to overturn Seton Belt's instructions in his 1959 will. While leaving Belt's lands to the church, the will said the woods should never be cut.
Eventually, the state bought and preserved part of the forest, while the rest was logged of its finest specimens, for use as veneer. Later, the church announced a large housing development there; but environmentalists argued that the plan would not leave enough natural buffer around the state preserve.