PETA finds a way to make Baltimore steam

PETA put up a billboard urging Baltimore to stop eating crabs. It didn't exactly go over well. (Ulysses Muñoz / Baltimore Sun video)
Our view: If PETA’s assault on Baltimore’s most cherished tradition, the crab feast, was solely an effort to infuriate, they did a shell of a job

August in Baltimore normally means three things — It’s going to be hot, it’s going to be humid, and people are going to eat crabs. A half-bushel of steamed jimmies on the back porch with a pitcher of cold beer is a tradition as ingrained in Charm City and its environs as landmarks like Fort McHenry, the Washington Monument and the Phoenix Shot Tower. Why would there even be an August and all the lethargy and discomfort that comes with it if not for the crab season? Why would anyone have invented the perfect food — the Maryland crab cake — if it’s not to have its key component, lump crab meat? These are imponderables.

Yet in the midst of this most delicious of seasons comes an interloper who would question our revered tradition. In case you haven’t heard by now, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals or PETA erected a billboard on East Baltimore Street that condemns the practice of eating Chesapeake Bay crabs. The message is simple: “I’m ME, Not MEAT. See the individual. Go Vegan.” Pictured with that pithy little slogan is a blue crab (uncooked, we’d hasten to add), its claws raised in defiance or perhaps self-preservation.

Justin Aaron holds a Maryland Blue Crab at the Russell Hall Seafood operation in Maryland. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Michael S. Williamson.
Justin Aaron holds a Maryland Blue Crab at the Russell Hall Seafood operation in Maryland. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Michael S. Williamson. (Michael S. Williamson / The Washington Post)

To suggest this raised a stir among Maryland’s many aficionados of Callinectes sapidus, the “beautiful swimmers” of the bay, would be an understatement. But one suspects officials at PETA knew that they would. Say what you will about the business of looking out for animal rights — and more about the importance of that in a moment — PETA is not known for its subtlety. Raising alarm or outrage is the organization’s stock in trade. They believe it helps their cause. We think that’s at least debatable. However, we can’t deny it gains them notoriety. Look at all those tweets, all those Facebook postings, all the ink that will be spilled reacting to this stab at the heart of Baltimore cuisine.

Make no mistake, promoting more humane treatment of animals is a legitimate and commendable pursuit. In food, fashion and entertainment, there have been any number of reforms instituted in recent years to make life better for animals, whether it be to ease the stress of the slaughterhouse or raise chickens in less cramped quarters or promote cage-free eggs. Corporations and their customers have demonstrated repeatedly they are willing to make changes for ethical reasons. Such acts of empathy are (we hope) contagious. Might we start treating each other better, too? And, of course, there are individuals for whom honoring animals and the sanctity of their lives is a matter of faith that deserves to be respected.

But the danger of attacking crab feasts is that PETA has chosen the worst possible circumstance to prove its point — an animal of insect-like appearance, with little sign of higher intelligence or sentience, possessed of a somewhat ornery nature and, let’s be clear, one that happens to be incredibly delicious — isn’t going to inspire the feelings that a mistreated puppy left on the street or a rabbit maimed by beauty product testing did in the past. In politics, this is called “leading with your chin.” Die-hard PETA members will love it. Most Baltimoreans will assume PETA is a few mallets short of a backyard party.

Is it possible crabs feel pain when they are dropped into boiling water? It’s possible, but the evidence is inconclusive. Some chefs are concerned enough about the feelings of its cousin, the lobster, that they commonly kill them with a knife stroke immediately before dropping them in the steamer. That’s an impractical technique for crabs cooked by the dozens, and there’s also a worrisome trade-off involved. Crabs are cooked alive because that’s how you can tell they’ve not gone bad. When a crab dies, it immediately begins releasing toxins into its body that can make you quite sick if eaten. No cook wants to risk food poisoning by cooking a dead crab.

PETA has a right to treat crabs as if they were people, and people have a right to treat crabs as crabs. But one thing PETA’s calculations may miss is this: The seafood bounty of this region is a prime reason why people are willing to spend billions of dollars and change fundamental ways in which we live and work to restore and protect the health of the Chesapeake Bay. Take that away, and you may compromise the future not only of the blue crab but of an entire ecosystem and all the creatures that involves, from worms to watermen. It’s the circle of life — with a touch of Old Bay seasoning.