Maryland Food, fresh caught food, recipes, farm to table food in Maryland
- Published on Wednesday, 18 July 2012 07:32
- Written by Kimbra Cutlip
Blue crabs fit for a king...and a palace to serve them in
Along the shores of the Chesapeake, many locals have elevated the ritual of catching and eating blue crabs to a near spiritual level. But few have gone so far as Jeff Smith, who built a veritable temple to the state crustacean.
"Crabs are my religion," Jeff Smith proclaims with the slightest glint of crazy in his eyes. So much so that, when he and his wife, Kathy, began remodeling their Galesville home last winter, Jeff took the opportunity to build a dedicated space for expressing his devotion.
The Crab Palace, as he calls it, is a second-story, screened-in porch with decorative pendants and rope lights for ambiance, track lighting and fans, and a beautiful view of the West River. There is a dumb waiter to haul crabs up from his outdoor steamer, and a roller full of brown paper to cover the tables. A stainless steel hand-washing sink with hot and cold water keeps the whole affair clean and refined.
"It's ideal to have a place to wash your hands and clean up as you are continually eating," he says. "It's almost essential."
Jeff's passion has been cultivated by more than 50 years of crabbing in the West River. At eight years old, Jeff began dip netting along the shores for the soft-shelled peelers his mother loved. A few years later, he worked a 2,200-foot trotline to fill bushels of crabs for her parties. They were sophisticated social events at which ladies wore white bib aprons and eschewed the traditional corn on the cob for the much neater macaroni salad.
It was a different time back then—a time when boys like Jeff spent their days on the river and drove their skiffs to school. With his bike in the boat, he motored a short distance from his home in Harwood to Galesville, tied up, and pedaled a mile through town to Carrie Weedon Elementary school.
During high school, Jeff continued to make trips to Galesville where he worked at Smith Brothers, the tug and barge company started by his uncles in 1918. The draw of the water lured him back after college, and he took his place in the family business beside his father, Kenneth. Jeff is now the president of Smith Brothers, which builds tugboats and barges, and tows large equipment up and down the Bay. He lives in a house right next to the business.
With two crab pots on his pier, Jeff crabs every day during the season. The process begins in the spring with what he calls the "elwy busting party." He buys two large blocks of frozen elwy and breaks them apart with a crow bar and a sledgehammer.
"It's quite a scene," he says. "The elwys are flying, I'm getting bloody, scales everywhere. It sort of looks like a madman."
Once they're broken into bait-sized chunks, Jeff puts them in a dedicated freezer for easy access, and the crabbing begins.
His steamer can handle about six-dozen crabs at a time. His is a simple recipe; water, crabs, a generous amount of J.O. seasoning that Jeff buys by the bucket, and sometimes, corn on the cob. Twenty minutes of steaming, and it's time to sit down with a bit of the spice for dipping and start the business of picking.
And it is all business when Jeff picks crabs. He trades in his Heineken beer for an iced tea and concentrates on the task at hand. That's important, because often he's not only picking for himself, but for others at the table who either aren't efficient pickers or don't want to get their hands dirty. He wants everyone to have a constant supply of crabmeat to enjoy.
"I'm focused," he says. "I'm just constantly picking. I'm like a picking machine."
Using his special knife—short blade, heavy handle, with its own case—and a precise method of picking, Jeff claims he can extract all meat and no shell.
When his supply is bountiful, he hands the meat over to Kathy for crab cakes. According to Jeff, "her crab cakes are to die for."
Kathy, a transplant from Ocean City, was indoctrinated by the family into Jeff's world of crabs. She credits his mother, Emma Jean, with mentoring her and teaching her the stellar crab cake recipe. "I knew marrying him was just going to be a part of who he was," she says.
Now, when their three grown daughters return to visit, the crab dinner remains a family staple. It's Kathy's favorite way to enjoy blue crabs. Without the hostess duties, she can relax and savor this deeply rooted family tradition.
As for Jeff, there is no favorite way to enjoy crabs, no best crab meal.
"They're all good," he says, "every one."