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It's mallet-raising time


It didn't matter that the sun never appeared, that the thermometer never reached 70 degrees or what the calendar said. In Maryland, summer starts on Memorial Day weekend, when the crab-slinging begins.

So yesterday, at Gabler's Shore Restaurant, the mallets were raised in mass tribute to the new season and to the harmony of Old Bay and cold beer.

At this Harford County crab house on the Bush River, the summer tradition has been preserved by three generations of one family.

"That's what we love about it," says Brenda Edmondson, who made a three-hour pilgrimage to the land of Chesapeake blue crabs with family and friends from Pottsville, Pa., yesterday morning. "It has atmosphere and the best crabs on the bay. Who wants to bang crabs in some fancy restaurant? They're supposed to be eaten on paper on the picnic table by the water with beer."

Gabler's, which has been on a secluded, dead-end road outside Aberdeen since 1938, is the antithesis of chain seafood restaurants. Everything -- from the crab spice to the coleslaw -- is made from family recipes, says Jean Gabler-Harkins, who inherited the restaurant from her parents, who inherited it from their parents.

Her 19-year-old son is a server, and her 13-year-old daughter Brittany might work there too, someday. Nieces and cousins already do.

The chairs and tables were made by Harkin's father, "Bud" Gabler. The windows were installed by her father and grandfather. The five-bushel crab steamer was her father's design.

"When people come here for the first time, they say, 'This is a throwback in time.' But I grew up with this. This is what I love," she says.

It is also what her customers love. In addition to Baltimore customers, regulars come from Pennsylvania and Delaware, sometimes by the bus-load. She's had some famous customers, including Baltimore Colts legend Johnny Unitas, and she once delivered crabs to famed French chef Julia Child.

The restaurant, which is open from May through mid-October daily except on Sundays, has been reviewed by critics from the New York Daily News, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Boston Globe, the St. Petersburg Times and, of course, local publications.

Not much has changed since she was a little girl growing up next door to the crab house, Gabler-Harkins says, except that they have a Web site now and this year they started accepting credit cards. Parking is on the grass behind a house in front of the restaurant. Restrooms are in an old cinder-block building 100 yards from the restaurant.

"That's one thing I won't change," she says. "Who wants to sit by the restrooms at any restaurant? No one does."

Melvin Price, who lives nearby, said in the 50 years he's been a Gabler's customer, "Not much has changed. Everything is good here, especially the crab cakes."

Price remembers when crab cakes were 20 cents apiece. But his son-in-law, Mark Snyder, points out, "That was in 1950."

The Gabler's technique for buying, sorting and cooking crabs is still the same. It's now practiced by Johnny Oals, who has worked with the Gablers for 30 years but says he stopped counting after 25.

"I started when I was 13," said Oals, now 43. "I came down to see some friend, and Mr. Gabler put me to work -- taught me everything I know."

"It's an art," he says, carefully slicing through the center of a crab to paralyze it. "You don't see many places that do this anymore. If you zap them or dump [them] in cold water, there's no way to know if they're alive when you cook them. This way, I know we never cook a dead crab."

Oals and fellow worker Greg Addison are perfectly synchronized -- slicing and counting in one smooth movement as they transfer the crabs from the cold storage room to a box for relay to the steamer.

"On the hot days, it's crazy in here. You've got to keep track of what's cooking, what they're ordering and what you're counting," Oals said.

Over the Memorial Day weekend, he and Addison will steam 90 bushels.

Most days, Oals gets up at 5 a.m. to drive to Kent Island or St. Michaels, where he buys the crabs right from the boats. By transporting them to the restaurant himself, he ensures they're delivered directly. "I guess I'm a die-hard," Oals said.

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