Last weekend I got to visit my family in Rhode Island in celebration of my mother’s birthday (which is actually today, happy birthday mom). The highlight was crabbing.
Blue crabs would be my preferred last meal, and my mother’s too. She’s part crab both literally-- born and raised in Baltimore, her cells pulsing with 62 years of countless crustacean meals fragrant with Old Bay---and in her essence too. She was born in the time of the crab, Cancer, and she’s a homebody, nest maker, family-centric, care taking, mother to the nth degree and, she doesn’t take any shit. She’s basically a crab fractal. So, crabs to me don’t just mean delicious, they mean home and an ocean of nurturance.
My dad used to take us frequently when we were young and lived near the Delaware bay, so much that his friends at work joked we would get crabbing scholarships to college. Sadly, for much of my young adulthood the rising ocean temperatures and algae blooms from agricultural runoff have suffocated parts of the bay where crabs live. They struggle because they don’t have enough oxygen to survive. In my lifetime I’ve watched abundance turn to scarcity. Crabs don’t actually need a tremendous amount of oxygen, so once they can’t breathe, those sections are effectively “dead zones.” With their scarcity, market prices have skyrocketed and this tradition of eating whole steamed crabs has been mostly a thing of the past for my family.
Yet, since moving to Rhode Island we’ve gotten to revive an old family tradition. Turns out people in Rhode Island aren’t as hyped up about crabs as they are lobster, oysters, and clams, so the populations there are doing well and the water is a bit cooler. Last year and this year, we got to eat whole crabs together, on newspaper, with the requisite dipping accouterments---butter and vinegar.
Now, while my parents both share a love of crabs, the side sauces are where they diverge. My dad is a devotee of butter, exclusively (a “south jersey thing”). My mother is in the ardent vinegar camp (and Old Bay she’d add, please don’t forget that). Their children (including me), enjoy both, using a double dip method. Out of reverence though, my father defers to my mother’s authority on crabs when showing our partners or reminding us (since it has been so long) how to break open a claw with a decisive bop of the palm and elegant twist of the knife, always prefacing the lesson with “let me show you the Maryland way to do it.”
These little moments help me, a drifting sea creature, feel a sense of place and identity with the people I come from. I am not from Maryland and while I’m technically from New Jersey, I’ve spent little time there. And yet I have crabbed a bunch as a child and eaten my fill of crab cakes and Maryland crab soup at funerals, anniversaries, and family parties. Knowing how to find my way through a pile of whole crabs more or less (my dad still gives me feedback), helps me feel belonging with the Mid-Atlantic folk who in part, define me culturally.
And yet, even though Old Bay spiced steamed blue crabs are my favorite shellfish (and food, period), I’ll admit there are other ways to prepare and eat crabs. In fact, when my mother gifted me a pound of crabmeat this spring, and I was contemplating making crab cakes again, my sweetie helped unlock me from this deep groove and try----ta da----crab fried rice! I have to say, it was a remarkable revelation. So old bay, butter, and vinegar needn’t even be involved to savor this delicacy.
My dad shared a video with me this weekend about spaghetti sauce that really drove home the power of taste diversity, and took me off guard in its truth telling shrouded in food industry speak. Firstly, I recommend watching it. If you can’t bear to listen for twenty minutes, here’s what I gathered. In essence, Malcolm Gladwell describes the work of a colleague of my father’s, Howard Moskowitz. His main points: Love what you love. Don’t let the obsession with authenticity or idyllic conceptions of food, bog you down from your desires. Rigidity blocks happiness. It’s why a local restaurant has mussels four ways, because they are all great, and out there, each way has an enthusiastic audience. When I fret about my food being too niche or feel like I have to add more salt or sweet to garner mass appeal, I will remember Howard and his drive to democratize flavor.
My sisters and I are a testament to the spontaneous evolution that happens within food traditions. Our adoption of the butter + vinegar method embraces what each of our parents have taught us in fusion of local foodways. And while I will continue to maintain that Old Bay steamed crabs with a marriage of side sauces will elicit my own deepest happiness, the notion that there’s more than one way and more than one people, is what makes me most happy.
Carly lives and eats from a hilltop in Cummington, Massachsuetts and part time in Schenectady, NY.