Crab is king in Maryland

Residents relish delicious bounty of Chesapeake Bay

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Matthew S. Gunby, Associated Press

Customers scarf down crabs on bleachers at J. Millard Tawes Crab and Clam Bake in Crisfield, Md.

By Marlene Parrish
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

ST. MICHAELS, Md. -- Vacations at our house always mean a food destination. Every other year or so, when my husband, Bob Wolke, and I get the urge for Chesapeake blue crab, we plan a road trip for a long, lazy weekend in Talbot County, Md. Our base is usually a B&B in St. Michaels, about a dozen miles southeast of Annapolis. As we follow our whims and appetites, we poke around town and nearby Oxford and Easton, each with its own laid-back personality.

The attraction this year was St. Michaels Crab Days, an annual weekend of music, craft booths, cooking demonstrations and tours of the Maritime Museum, where Chesapeake Bay's shipbuilding heritage is preserved. James Michener did some of the research there for his book "Chesapeake."

Wooden vessels are still made and restored by hand in the museum's working boat shop. There are American Indian dugouts, an oyster tonging canoe, a log-built working bug-eye and skipjacks, the present-day boats of the Maryland watermen. The 1879 Hooper Strait Lighthouse was brought to the museum campus from its original station 41/2 miles offshore. Inside, one can time-travel back to see how the light keepers lived, slept and cooked.

Talbot County is "crab central" for foodies, as well as for fishermen and canners. The official books say that the bay produces more blue crabs than anywhere else on earth, along with a quarter of the U.S. oyster harvest and half of the country's soft-shell clams, or Ipswich clams. In the language of the Algonquin Indians, Chesapeake means "great shellfish waters."

In the past dozen or so years, the blue crab population in the Chesapeake Bay has declined, and there have been concerns that they have been greatly overfished. Many management efforts to help the population recover have been focused on limiting the female crab harvest and increasing the size limitations for male crabs. Even so, this is high season for the catch until the end of October.

If you go, your agenda will include the usual rounds of shops and sights. We can recommend plenty of shore bets on where to eat, drink and hang out when you are ready for soft shells, hard shells, crab cakes, crab chowder, fried oysters, stuffed clams and raw bar fare. There are no fast food franchises. Try these instead.

St. Michaels

St. Michaels was already a shipbuilding center by the War of 1812. It earned its nickname, "The town that fooled the British," when the Brits aimed to blast it with cannonballs. They were foiled when the residents hoisted lanterns up into the trees to fool the enemy into shooting over the town's houses. One house took a ball in the attic.

With its sailboat-filled harbor, antiques and boutique shops and all-American pride, St. Michaels could be the poster child for small-town USA. Old frame and brick Colonial homes on tree-lined streets almost seem to compete for the honor, with white picket fences, porches swagged in red, white and blue bunting, cozy wicker furniture and window boxes sagging under the weight of geraniums and petunias. Mounds of black-eyed Susans, the state flower, crouch in front of almost every house.

Talbot COunty, Md.
Fresh from the steamer -- a basket of Maryland crabs.
Click photo for larger image.
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If you go ...

Chesapeake Bay

There are 34 bed-and-breakfasts and several inns in the area. Go online to check them out. These are typical of the gracious inns that await:

Old Brick Inn, 401 S. Talbot St., St. Michaels; 1-410-745-3323.

Inn at Perry Cabin, 308 Watkins Lane, St. Michaels; 1-410-745-2200.

Where to eat:

Crab Claw, Navy Point, St. Michaels; 1-410-745-2900.

St. Michaels Crab and Steak, 305 Mulberry St., St. Michaels; 1-410-745-3737.

Bistro St. Michaels, 403 S. Talbot St., St. Michaels; 1-410-745-9111.

Robert Morris Inn, 314 N. Morris St. and The Strand, Oxford; 1-410-226-5111.

Masthead Pier St. Restaurant and Marina, Oxford; 1-410-226-5171.

Schooners Landing, 314 Tilghman St., Oxford; 1-410-226-0160.

Inn at Easton, 28 S. Harrison St., Easton; 1-410-822-4910.

Mason's, 22 S. Harrison St., Easton; 1-410-822-3204.

-- Marlene Parrish

   

Our first stop is usually the bar at St. Michaels Crab and Steak. Here's where we learned that the biggest thing to happen to St. Michaels lately is the recent arrival of two weekend residents. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld purchased a former waterfront B&B for $1.5 million. Not to be outdone, his buddy, Veep Dick Cheney, bought a waterfront Cape Cod nearby for $2.6 million.

Both places are just a few miles out of town in the secluded Church Neck area. No, the houses and grounds cannot be seen from the road. Residents are pretty cool about their new neighbors, saying, "They're just people. They come and go." But a few shop owners confided, "When the Cheneys have a weekend party, their guests come into town to shop, and we do really well. Really well."

The Crab Claw. Our first meal is always at a picnic table on the deck of this local institution. Best dish: The house specialty, hard-shell crabs, steamed in huge vats and caked with gritty Old Bay seasoning. Your dozen crabs will be dumped unceremoniously onto the paper-covered table. Once you've picked your own crabs for dinner, separating meat from shell, you'll gain respect for the crustaceans, the watermen who trap them and the workers who pick crab for a living in the wholesale houses. The fastest worker I've ever seen picked the crevices of an Atlantic blue crab clean, in a blur of fingers and the point of a paring knife, in 23 seconds flat.

Bistro St. Michaels. You'd think you were in a Parisian bistro on the Left Bank -- of the Chesapeake. I'd order mussels in garlic broth if it weren't for the local crab, tomatoes and corn-on-the-cob, all bought from local farmers. The blackberries, just-picked, are as big as a dog's nose. There's a wonderful buzz in the main dining room, and a quieter, more private room upstairs. Next time, we'll try the raw bar in the back, where they offer Choptank Sweets, a local oyster. Best dish: crab and corn chowder, with huge chunks of back meat in a velvety cream soup.

St. Michaels Crab and Steak. This eatery dates back to the 1830s, when it was an oyster-shucking shed. The deck and oyster bar are tight on the harbor waterfront, where the bloody Marys are manly, the seafood is top-notch and the pleasure boats' diesel fumes are free. The old-fashioned bar is a gathering place for locals, politicians, watermen and, these days, bodyguards and security staff when the big guns (literally) from D.C. are eating in town. For 14 years, owner-host-chef Eric Rosen has been at the range and out front gabbing with guests. Best dish: an appetizer sampler, Chesapeake-on-a-platter -- soft shells, crab balls, crab cakes, baked clams and a couple of oysters Rockefeller. After you order, ask "attack" server, Denise, to show you the high water mark of the flood after Hurricane Isabel in 2003.

Oxford

Oxford was the Colonial capital and is one of the oldest towns in Maryland. The official founding was in 1683. To get there evenings, make the 30-minute drive from St. Michaels. But before dusk, it's more fun to take the daylight-only, 10-minute ferry ride over the Tred Avon river. The nine-car Oxford-Bellevue ferry claims to be the oldest in the nation, in operation for 300 years. That's the best way, I think, to get on the local water without an outboard. Bikers use the ferry as part of a loop through all the local towns.

Robert Morris Inn and Tavern. The mustard-colored clapboard house-turned-inn was built about 1710 by the father of Robert Morris, Jr., the "financier of the American Revolution." It's said that James Michener wrote the outline to "Chesapeake" in the Tap Room. Best dish: crab cakes, but that's on the say-so of Michener, who wrote a letter to the editor of the Star Democrat, a local newspaper, in 1982. He ranked the Inn's crab cakes higher than those of any other restaurant on the Eastern Shore. Me? I'll take the Inn's soft shells any day.

Masthead at Pier Street Marina. The film industry loves this casual locale. Scenes from "Wedding Crashers" were filmed at the Inn at Perry Cabin, and scenes from "Failure to Launch" were filmed at the Masthead, where you can see the table at which Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew McConaughey shared their meal. Go at midday, because George Kellum is still the lunch chef after long years of cooking in local kitchens. Best dish: anything on the menu when served at picnic tables on the huge wrap-around deck, where you can toss your fries to the gulls and ducks. Better they should eat them than you should.

Schooner's Landing. Good menu, typical of the area, but whatever you do, do not order dessert. The secret delight here is the ice cream window outside and adjacent to the parking lot. Scotsman Victor Barlow makes small-batch ice creams at his Scottish Highland Creamery. Flavors change every day, so plan for a couple of return trips.

Easton

Easton is the county seat of Talbot County. Because of its historical significance, the guidebooks call it "the Colonial capital of the Eastern Shore." It is handsomely preserved, restored and just downright charming. Serious shoppers should go there through the week, to visit the art galleries and antique shops and to admire the architectural period homes. On Sundays, most shops are buttoned up, but there's an open-air market for antiques and collectibles from nine to three. Mosey around the market, then go to brunch.

The Inn at Easton. This Federal mansion is right across the street from the antiques market. The inn was built in 1790 and is one of Easton's earliest three-bay brick buildings. If you reserve early enough, you can ask to be seated in one of the private nooks. A bloody Mary is mandatory. Best dish: vanilla French toast with Sticky Pete's organic syrup and house-smoked bacon. The dinner menu featuring classy renditions and local produce invited a second visit -- hand-cut fresh pasta with baby eggplant, dogwood tomatoes and thyme.

Mason's. We blew it. Closed on Sundays. And what a shame. The brick patio with its wee pond is bordered with bunchy flowers and shrubs. Umbrella-shaded tables are well-spaced and private. Tables on the porch are shaded by bunting and are barely ladybug distance from window boxes with tumbling petunias and nasturtiums. Chef Daniel Pochron offers an enticing menu (pasted on the door) of contemporary dishes and lots of local farmers' berries and veggies. Best dish: Wish I knew.

-- Marlene Parrish


Roberto Borea, Associated Press

"Chesapeake" comes from an Algonquin word meaning "great shellfish waters," and the Maryland blue crab lives up to the reputation.


Marlene Parrish can be reached at mparrish@post-gazette.com or 412-481-1620.


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