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Nutria banquet? Thanks, I have to wash my hair


THE MARYLAND Conservation Council has its heart -- make that its stomach -- in the right place. Yesterday, in a valiant effort to call attention to the plight of the blue crab, the council abandoned its annual crab feast for a "Save-the-Crab Feast." Instead of crabs, everybody ate nutria.

That's right, nutria, that buck-toothed, web-footed, marsh-eating rodent that's breeding like rabbits and destroying the wetlands of the Chesapeake Bay.

"We can still eat crabs. We don't have to give them up entirely," says Anneke Davis, the council's Save-the-Crab-Feast coordinator. "But we have to do something, or crabs are going to go the way of the rockfish."

So no crabs yesterday at Mayo Beach Park, where the environmental faithful gathered to picnic and listen to speaker Bill Matuszeski, director of the EPA's Chesapeake Bay Program. Just barbecued chicken, hot dogs, salads and -- the piece de resistance -- a big pot of nutria stew, prepared by W. T. "Nick" Carter III, a biologist with the state Department of Natural Resources, and Tom Horton, The Sun's Chesapeake Bay columnist.

A culinary rave

Back in February, Mr. Horton waxed eloquently about the glories of nutria as prepared by Mr. Carter in a stew of beaver tail, deer sausage, carrots and potatoes. "Definitely better than sea duck," he wrote. "Definitely better than muskrat. Fine texture, light in color, not greasy at all. Bland, rabbitlike; could pass for pork."

"I've never eaten nutria," Ms. Davis confessed last week. "But I intend to. You know, lots of people eat muskrat. And rodents are vegetarians. I'm told that nutria is quite tender. Somebody said it tastes a lot like veal."

Unfortunately, the crabless feast occurred long after the deadline for this column had passed, so I didn't get a chance to see if nutria's as tasty as Mr. Horton and Ms. Davis would have us believe. For the sake of the bay, for the sake of the noble crab, I wish I could say I believed the environmentalists were on to something here, that nutria were about to become the next oat bran or arugula, that trendy green everybody's eating these days.

But I'm sorry. I just don't see thousands of families gathering in the backyard on Labor Day around a bushel of steamed nutria.

Which, when you think about it, isn't entirely logical. Crabs eat dead things, while nutria -- well, they are vegetarians. Nutria -- it even sounds nutritious.

And while nutria look a lot like big rats, and rats are undoubtedly the most despicable mammal on earth, is the idea of eating them in a stew really any more gross than sucking on crab legs, cracking open the crab body and scooping out the mustard and the Dead Man until you reach a few lumps of backfin?

Take a good look at the picnic table halfway through your next crab feast. It's pretty repulsive. My sister-in-law, who's not a Marylander, has to retreat to the living room every time we buy a bushel. She gets sick at the very sight of that mess. I'm sure she'd much rather sit down to a piping hot bowl of nutria stew, with a hunk of crusty bread on the side.

But we're not talking about out-of-towners here. We're talking about Marylanders, who happily sit and pick for hours while the shells and innards pile up around them. Mess? What mess?

More than just eating

If crabs were just a food around here, nutria stew might have a fighting culinary chance. Crabs, however, are more than that. The crab feast is a social experience. You sit and you pick and you chat and drink some beer. Then you take a rest. Then you sit and pick and chat some more. The thing with crabs is, there's so little real sustenance in them, you can keep going all day and never get full.

This nutria stew, on the other hand, sounds pretty filling to me. One bowl, maybe two, and you're through. End of party.

In past years, the Conservation Council's crab feast has drawn around 160 people. Ms. Davis was hoping at least 200 would show up at yesterday's event. "People are very interested in nutria," she said last week -- though she noted "some people said 'Ugh!' " when she told them what the main course would be.

Maybe people would eat a nutria now and then to save a crab. But that's probably the only way they'll eat it.

Nutria shantys? Nutria imperial? Maryland nutria soup?

I don't think so.

Not without a healthy dose of Old Bay, anyway.

Elise Armacost is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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