Good Old Bay

During a recent walk down the snack aisle of my neighborhood grocery store, a certain bag of unhealthy Herr’s potato chips caught my eye. A little distraught because of the healthy diet I have recently worked so hard to adopt, my guard went down and I could just about smell the goodness of the contents of the bag seeping through its’ plastic protection. The spicy tingle that hit my nose flowed into my memory, and immediately I was taken back to summer nights in Delaware when I was half the height that I am now. Still, back then, I had the same big appetite of the girl standing in the chip aisle trying to pretend she could leave those chips laying innocently on the shelf.

The hot sun burning down on my skin, I was too excited to stand still because it was a Saturday, and we were about to venture an hour and a half to a place that resembled a still painting. The Chesapeake Bay in Maryland is a wildlife hub. Fish jumping, marsh areas, and beautiful birds are plentiful. The houses looking out onto the Bay are beautiful, almost like castles that are only occupied for family vacations or summer retreats. The brown water of the bay was still.  And then, carelessly, the wake of our dark green boat would part the gentle Chesapeake Bay in two, and we would be well on our way into the day’s big adventures.

On a perfect day, the Chesapeake Bay would be gleaming, begging us to jump off the boat and into the brown mysterious water. Despite the many hidden unknowns of what was underneath of our treading feet, I was well aware that our dinner was one species crawling mindlessly beneath us. The creatures below, the cold splashes of the Bay, and the murky scent that lingered in the slight breeze were a reminder of what we were really there for– the crads.

After blowing off the steam from the car ride, my family set out further into the Chesapeake Bay to look for unoccupied territory to claim for the day. Dodging other hopeful cradders’ traps, and being splashed by the sharp turns of the boat, we finally found a place to get down to business and set up the traps.

Since I was not one to involve myself in the task of setting up the tangle-prone traps, I had the job of designing the bright, sun colored floats attached to each crab trap. I adored the way my handwriting looked on anything and everything, so given the ability to permanently mark the floats was nothing short of a big deal to me. Initially, I drew a couple of crabs and wrote our last name on them, with the confidence and professionalism of a seven-year-old artist. However, my big moment switched to an everlasting tragedy when I mixed up my ‘d’s and ‘b’s. Thanks to the painfully sharp memories of my family, to this day crabs are still crads, no negotiation.

Despite my family’s annoying humor, I did not care what they said because at the end of the day, crabs or crads, they would have the same fresh Maryland flavor that I crave so often. On the way home from the big venture, we had a bushel of jumbo crabs and bursting taste-buds, not only for the precious white meat, but also for the secret sauce that my Mom always mixed together before we dove into the crads.

Pulling into the driveway, I wanted nothing more than to snap my fingers and have the crads cooked and ready for consumption. In no time, my mom showered and made appetizers, as if she knew all of our burnt faces would show up in the kitchen trying to find something to nibble on before the crads were ready. Despite my ravenous stomach, I stomped by the appetizers for just a minute to make sure my mom knew the importance of the crad sauce. It was not only a tradition, but it was essential to the taste of the dinner.

I am still not quite sure what is in the sauce that makes it so delicious, besides the essential Old Bay, as I was a picky eater and did not want to sauce ruined by any form of mayonnaise, horse-radish, or some other eggy, unappealing toxin. Nonetheless, the perfect combination of sweet and spicy was there. The thin sauce was so light yet had so much flavor. It could be the fact that I drown my crab in the sauce that made the flavor so bold, but it was the perfect combination of what I can only assume was some type of vinegar and spices that made it so tasty. The first taste of the sauce was spicy, and then like a magic trick there would be a sweet aftertaste, which made it impossible to not want more. Despite my ignorance as to what was in the sauce at the time, it was the smell of that bag of chips in the grocery store that brought me back to my backyard where my dad was boiling the water in a huge pot, ready to cook up the crads.

After the water was overflowing like a cauldron, my dad lifted the bushel cover, and excitement loomed inside my head like I’d never seen a crad before. Right away, I’d test my luck and grab onto the tongs to see which ones were alive and reasonably feisty.

While the hands-on activity of setting the crab traps out was not my forte, and I was not ready to dive into all of the secret ingredients of my mom’s recipes, I found pride in helping during the cooking process. I’m not sure why this of all activities was so intriguing, but I dove into the bushel with the tongs and helped my dad place them in the boiling water, one by one.

After I helped my dad place the crads in the pot, and the timer was ticking down to the moment I’d been waiting for all day, I returned to the kitchen to my mom setting up the patio table with the classic brown paper and operation utensils needed to find the juicy, white pieces of meat underneath the burning shell.

Finally, the good part came where the crads were all settled in front of us on the table and, without worrying about the pinchers this time, I was free to go at it. The sand-like feel of the mountains of Old Bay was all too inviting, and that to-die-for sauce had a glare on it from the reflection of the summer sunset. As I dissected the crad, I was too eager to even notice the yellow snot that was spewing out when first cracking open the shell. Pushing it aside, and maybe flicking some at my brother, I kept going until finally there it was. The gleaming white meat stood out like a light at the end of a dark, dirty tunnel. I grabbed it, my hands immediately dirtying it with the brown layer of spice, dipped it into the sauce, and felt blessed to taste such fresh seafood.

I could just about taste the bold Old Bay while holding the bag of Herr’s Old Bay potato chips years later in the grocery store. Laughing to myself, I have to remember that the word crad means nothing to the rest of the world, but to me, it means long days on the Chesapeake Bay, Old Bay seasoning, secret sauces, annoying family jokes, and summer nights when my family was all still under the same roof. Despite the diet I swore I would adhere to, I placed the Old Bay chips in the cart, hoping to soon dive in and have the same brown spiced coating on my hands to feel like seven-year-old me again. Walking out of the store with the bag of chips, I thought that maybe it was time I called my mom to find out what exactly is in the sauce to make is so undeniably delicious.

1 thought on “Good Old Bay

  1. As an Annapolis girl (South River, north side), I loved reading your memoir about Chesapeake Bay crabbing, cooking, and eating. We caught crabs (crads!) at the dock, alongside the pilings, tempting them with smelly chicken necks tied to long strings. We’d scoop them up with nets and somehow get them into a bucket without ending up with a crab dangling from our fingers trying to save itself. In the kitchen, getting those boisterous crabs into the steam pot was tricky sometimes, but that’s where you excelled, you say. My father was from the northeast and preferred lobster, so sometimes if we felt generous, we would make a pile of crab meat to spare him the trouble of picking it out from hard-to-reach spots. He would have loved to have some of your mother’s sauce to dip his forkful into. Me, too.

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