Crabs turn Manhattan into an isle of joy

NEW YORK — NEW YORK - He stopped for ice about an hour after the bars closed Friday night; a couple of bags from the Royal Farm Store at Ponca and O'Donnell streets just two red lights away from the ramp to I-95 north and Gotham.

The convenience store clerk, who'd seen and heard just about everything on the late shift, had never witnessed this: A middle-aged man asking for tongs in the middle of the night while a posse of Chesapeake Bay blue crabs scuttled along the sidewalk outside.


Nope. No tongs for Peter Walsh, artist, self-taught scholar and long-time Baltimorean with two bushels of live Chesapeake Bay blue crabs in the trunk of a rented Toyota.

A pair of white work gloves would have to do in Walsh's effort to keep the crabs alive - pulling off the New Jersey turnpike every so often to drain the Jimmys of melted ice and keep them cool with fresh cubes - until he could get them to the roof of a Wall Street office building, where he planned to steam and serve them.


"I wanted to exchange a classic Baltimore communal and democratic meal with others in the center of the global capitalist juggernaut," said the 38-year-old Walsh, who now splits his time between New York and Baltimore.

"I wanted to take something out of my own backyard, recognize how exotic it is, transplant it somewhere else and invite people who have never experienced it to eat and talk."

To drive home his point of preserving regional culture against the onslaught of homogenized consumerism, Walsh covered wooden tables with copies of the Wall Street Journal on which his guests could crack their crabs.

Walsh's Wall Street Crab Feast - a long Saturday afternoon of work masquerading as a performance called "Trafficking in the Vernacular" - took place in the stone and glass canyons of lower Manhattan's financial district.

The crab feast's locale, 16 Beaver Street, is home to an arts organization of the same name, a group of young people determined to find a middle ground between starving and selling out a few blocks from the New York Stock Exchange.

The exhibits at Saturday's open house orbited the notion of exchange, in the spirit of goods once traded around Manhattan's Bowling Green; commodities from which some of the oldest streets take their names: Gold, Pine, Stone and Beaver.

"We selected the neighborhood deliberately and built the organization around a corporate model," said Cincinnati native Colin Beatty, 28. "We wanted to be self-sustaining and we wanted accountability."

With colleague Rene Gabri, 27, Beatty secured 2,600 square feet of office space and use of the roof for $3,108 a month, divided it into eight small studios that rent for $500-to-$600 a month and went to work building a community.


The exchange project, curated by art historian Carrie Lambert, was the first major event for the fledgling Beaver group. Amid personal confessions broadcast via video cameras, the gold-leafing of a section of Wall Street and a kiddie pool in which tossed coins symbolized reinvestment in childhood dreams, Walsh steamed and served Maryland crabs, corn on the cob and homemade potato salad to some 40 people from around the world.

Along the way, he explained the process from bay to belly.

"These crabs were caught yesterday morning in the Chesapeake Bay near Gibson Island," said Walsh, holding an especially lively one aloft. "They cost $90 a bushel and I bought them out of the back of a truck parked on the side of the road in Baltimore."

Parked throughout the summer in front of Mercy High School on Northern Parkway, the truck belongs to middleman Eric Nehus. Walsh traded cash for the crabs to Ingrid Ankerson and Megan Sapnar, $12-an-hour "crab girls" who work for Nehus.

The power of the market

"You have power when you sell crabs," said Sapnar, 25. "You can give people a deal."


This weekend, a dozen crabs were going for $12-to-$19 a dozen, depending on size. If the girls like you, an extra heavy crab or two may find its way into your bag. If you are arrogant or nasty, you can get your crabs somewhere else.

Said Ankerson, also 25: "People always say they can get 'em cheaper down the road."

About 200 miles up the road in New York, Walsh culled three dozen corpses from the bushels, emptied a small bottle of apple cider vinegar into the bottom section of a steam pot and squirted brown mustard into it. But because the guests were drinking Rolling Rock and not National Boh, he passed on adding beer.

Though he held up a can of Old Bay seasoning to give an old favorite its due in the finicky approach to spicing crabs, Walsh actually used a combination of J.O. red, black pepper spice and dry mustard Nehus gives to customers.

To this Walsh added a touch of kosher salt, then invited people to begin putting live crabs in the pot. The crabs were combative and the guests were hesitant.

Abel Yee, a New York architect from Japan, went first, admiring the pincer reflexes of a creature that would rather eat than be eaten. People squealed. In a gallery busy with electronic gadgets, the crabs provided electricity. Painters knelt alongside the bushel to admire the color of their armor: violet and white and olive and the piercing blue along the claws.


Fast learners

After 20 minutes atop a propane flame, the shells turned a Halloween orange and Walsh began instructing folks on how to break through to the meat. They caught on quick, learning not to eat the lungs and to suck juice from the fins.

Where Walsh had hoped his project (in which he invested about $700) would spur talk of parochial pleasures lost in a changing world, there were oohs and aahs of gustatorial delight as delicate backfin slipped into mouths.

As the sun set over Manhattan, no one budged for hours. A video artist from Milan was happy to have another image of Baltimore besides beauty parlors. People talked of foods from their homelands - crabs stewed with vegetables in a yellowish broth in Belize was one - and remembered favorite dishes from childhood.

Michael Loveland, a Miami-born sculptor living in Brooklyn, N.Y., remembered hunting for blue crabs with his uncle on the gulf side of the Florida panhandle.

Theirs was a curious method: using flashlights to follow blue crabs through shallow water during tide changes, Loveland and family would chase the crabs into a chicken wire net and then dump them in floating buckets tied to their waists with rope.


"We'd boil them in a colander with a curry broth," said Loveland, remembering his Florida crab feasts while eating them Baltimore-style in the Big Apple.

"In a place like New York, where it's a major feat just to invite someone over for dinner, this is a huge success," he said.

In the end, fun won out over theory. As any good Baltimorean would tell Walsh: To hell with art, let's eat.