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The Anti-Crab It wouldn't seem like a Maryland summer holiday without the smell of our favorite crustacean steaming in Old Bay. But, even here, not everyone finds the scent intoxicating. In fact, some people can't stand the buggers.

People who don't like crabs? Babette Brady is struggling with the concept. Let's get this right -- you're looking for people who don't like crabs?

"You better go to a different state," says Brady, reacting as if you said you're looking for people with three nostrils.

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You can't blame her. Her family owns Crabtowne USA Inc. in Glen Burnie, where giant inflatable crabs hang from the ceiling, where customers look for the sign of the big, red smiling crab on Crain Highway, where the message board out front lately announces: "ALL YOU CAN EAT CRABS $20.00 PERSON 6-10 p.m."

All you can eat, indeed. Come summer, sometimes it seems that's all anybody's eating around here. Crabs, crabs and beer, crabs and corn on the cob and crabs and more crabs. The company is throwing a crab feast. The gang is going out for crabs. The neighbors are getting some crabs for their Fourth of July picnic. The air over Baltimore hangs heavy with humidity, smog and steam rising from a million pots redolent of Old Bay and crabs.

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Heaven help the poor soul who doesn't observe the state religion. What a lonely place Maryland can seem in summer if you're on the outside peering in, looking at all those people, laughing, gabbing, sitting down to eat something you figure looks like a big spider.

Comedian David Brenner used to say the bravest person in the world was the first person to eat a chicken egg. Maybe Brenner never saw a crab.

Specifically, the Atlantic blue crab, a member of the phylum Arthropoda and a cousin of the insects and spiders, which also have jointed legs, segmented bodies and wear their skeletons on the outside.

Take a good look at a crab. The projecting eyes, the short antennae, that nasty little mouth with way too many moving parts, the 10 legs sticking out all over the place.

If it were smaller and running across your kitchen counter, you'd grab the Raid.

The Atlantic blue crab is known to scientists as Callinectes sapidus Rathbun. Author William W. Warner has noted that "callinectes" is Greek for "beautiful swimmer" and so titled his famous book about crabs and the Chesapeake Bay "Beautiful Swimmers." Perhaps the Greeks never saw a crab, either.

As Warner noted: "Whether or not Callinectes may justly be considered beautiful depends on whom you ask."

Don't ask Tom Coen of Baltimore, a member of the silent minority of people who live in Maryland and do not observe the state religion. He moved here from upstate New York as a boy. Years later, he still recalls his first boyhood encounter with the "beautiful swimmer." It was somewhere in the Inner Harbor. The crabs were in a tank.

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"I remember thinking, 'Ewww, they look like bugs,' " says Coen, 21.

To this day, he says, "I don't really like crab at all. The thing that really gets me is watching people tear them apart."

Coen prefers to suffer his aversion quietly. If he's at an event where crabs are being eaten, he just keeps his mouth shut, maybe takes another ear of corn.

Discretion is more difficult for him to maintain in his job as a waiter, however, where he is occasionally called upon for his opinion of the day's crab offering.

"It's a little hard to sell one," says Coen, who now works at the Pavilion at the Walters Art Gallery in downtown Baltimore.

"People ask you, 'Are your soft-shells good?' I say, 'They look big,' or 'they're fresh.' I could never say 'they're good' with a straight face. I would say, 'If you're blind, perhaps ' "

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Because then you wouldn't see the spindly soft-shell crab legs protruding from the sides of the sandwich. You wouldn't see how the soft-shell sandwich got its graceful, alliterative nickname, "bug-on-a-bun."

You also wouldn't see the aftermath of a crab feast, a scene with all the homey charm of a Civil War field hospital. Brown paper stained with yellow goop and Old Bay, strewn with shell fragments, viscera -- here a crab face, there a leg, a gill.

'I looked up Yuck'

Babette Brady's 11-year-old nephew, Donnie Coulbourn, says it's not the look of crabs that bothers him, but the smell. His family's been in the crab business for 25 years, but he won't touch them.

At crab feasts, says Donnie, who lives in Curtis Bay, "usually I just order a sandwich."

As a girl growing up in Savage, Robin Harrington enjoyed eating crabs. She remembers how she used to prepare to eat a crab by "ripping the legs off and the lungs out."

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Mmmmmm. One's mouth waters just thinking about it.

But some years after Harrington turned 10, after the family moved from Savage to Glen Burnie, something happened. Something she cannot explain.

"I think one day I just looked up and said, 'Yuck,' " says Harrington, who is 41 and lives in Linthicum. Suddenly, she could not do it. She could not conduct the ritual: ripping off the legs one by one, prying open the segmented body to reveal the innards.

She says she has met a few people who share her opinion, but "most people don't understand. Most people think I'm strange."

Usually she keeps her feelings to herself. She's manager at the Andover Pool in Linthicum, where they're planning a crab feast this summer. She figures she'll just sit around and wait for someone to do the nasty work of ripping, cracking, scraping, gouging for her. Then she'll eat the meat, which she still enjoys.

"I just don't like to pick them," says Harrington. "You give me a whole pile of crab meat, I'll eat all of it."

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This would make easier the sort of denial required while eating any animal. Nobody eats a Burger King Whopper while envisioning what goes on inside a slaughterhouse.

As Cheri Cernak, whose family owns Obrycki's crab house in Baltimore, puts it: "You can't think too much about it or you won't be able to eat anything."

True enough. But eating a steamed crab seems to require another level of denial, or at least years of getting accustomed to the rite. There it is on your plate, the entire animal, staring you in the face.

Or perhaps not.

Crabtowne co-owner Barbara Coulbourn says the shop used to have a regular customer who relished steamed crabs, "but she )) never would eat it if the eyes were facing her. You had to serve her with the eyes facing away."

Which brings us to step four in the eight-step crab-eating diagram handed out at Obrycki's: "Cut out face with sharp knife or gouge out, using thumb and index finger."

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Mmmmmmmmmm. Too bad nobody's figured out another word for "crab face."

About that yellow goop

Generations ago somebody decided that the lungs or gills were best referred to as "devil's fingers," or simply "the devil." And the precise identity of that mysterious yellow goop inside known usually as "the mustard" or "crab butter" is still the object of some speculation, even among veteran crab-eaters.

"I don't eat it," says Brady, when asked what it is. "I just put it aside."

The "mustard" is fat, says Barbara Coulbourn, "that's what I was always told. I don't know."

Charles Huntemann, sitting at a window booth at Crabtowne before a pile of a dozen steamed crabs crusted with Old Bay, says he eats the goop, whatever it is.

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"I believe it's supposed to be fat," says Huntemann, 41, a retired carpenter from Glen Burnie. "I hope I'm right."

Well, sort of. It is fatty, but the "mustard" is actually the hepatopancreas, a combination liver and pancreas, the place where whatever toxins the crab has absorbed from its environment are likely to be retained.

"They eat everything in the water," says Huntemann. He quickly adds that he tries not to think too much about all this. He doesn't question; he just eats crabs, crabs, mustard and all. It's the state religion, after all. Certain things must be accepted on faith.

Pub Date: 7/04/96


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