I’ve been told by more than one Marylander that for the best blue crabs, you should skip Baltimore and head straight to Kent Island on the state’s Eastern Shore. And that’s what we did.
Our charter boat proudly bore the moniker “Natural Light,” and if you called out the names Frank or Bob, there was a 50/50 shot that a gentleman over 40 would answer. Frank Sr was the Captain of our small charter of eight - guiding us into the Chesapeake Bay - and his first mate was his son, Frank Jr. (The two Bobs? My boyfriend’s uncle and his buddy.)
This excursion was a last ditch attempt to clamp down - like the claws of the blue crabs we were about to catch - on one incredible summer. We departed from the Kent Island marina well before sunrise, most of us over-caffeinated and underdressed in tee-shirts and shorts on a mid-September Day, whose breeze callously reminded us that a new season was fast approaching, filled with fewer crab feasts and far more Baltimore Ravens football jerseys (though I’d gamble just as much Natty Boh beer).
Although I had spent four years at the University of Maryland, just outside of Washington, DC, and had many born-and-bred friends from the state, the closest I had come to a crab during that period was in cake or dip form - as I naively pined for the NY bagels and pizza of my home. But now, thanks to my Baltimore beau, Jason, I was making up for lost time.
Kent Island has an interesting history - the largest island in the Chesapeake Bay, it was the third oldest permanent English settlement in what became the United States, just after the more well-known Jamestown and Plymouth. But more personally, it’s a place where Jason spent many summers as a child at his grandparents' house in Stevensville. Now a triathlete, he learned to swim and bike on the island, eating utilitarian lunches of grilled cheese and tomato soup that his grandfather prepared in the microwave, as they both waited for his grandmother to come home from work. There’s something very special about experiencing the nostalgia of someone you love, peering through a peephole to a past you weren’t a part of - reminding you that such a time did, in fact, exist.
Fishing for the past
To kick off our excursion, Frank and Frank took us for a loop around the Chesapeake Bay, first crabbing and then fishing for striped bass. They laid out a long trotline, dotted with dangling pieces of meat, and gave each of us a turn scooping up the crabs with a big circular net. We then measured each one and threw back the smaller crabs - most likely females, called “Sooks” or “Sallys” - so that they could return to the sea to eventually mate and help maintain the ecosystem.
Although it was only 11am, we had been up for hours - the sun now at its peak - and we snacked on an orange assortment of Cheetos and Fanta, as the men puffed on cigars. Frank Jr served us up a first taste of steamed shrimp and mussels, and shared stories about his boating escapades with various guests and how times were changing.
All was going according to plan until one guy in our crew lost hold of the net, snagged on the bait line. We watched the 30-year-old pole sink in the water, as if in slow motion, and were told they hadn’t lost one in decades. Reflexes kicked in and Frank Jr quickly turned the boat around to fish it out. He lunged for the net with such intent, as if he wasn’t just reaching for a lost pole but also a lost time - when people could smoke cigarettes without judgement and tell jokes without offending anyone; when, for a meager fee, you could have your crabs picked for you back at the marina. Yes, times were indeed changing.
Blue crabs: Eat more at the Kentmorr
Done for the day, we pulled into the marina, right next to the Kentmorr, one of the most beloved seafood restaurants on the island. Owned for the past 23 years by Tammy and Dave, a married couple who met working at another crab house, the restaurant maintains its salt-of-earth charm, but as with any small business, strives to stay relevant. “You have to try their Tiki Bar,” one of the Bobs tells me - a new feature that I’m sure appeals to the summer crowd coming up in droves from Washington, DC., something I sense the locals have mixed feelings about.
Tammy gave me some insider tips on catching, cooking and chowing down on this Maryland classic:
Preparation & serving: “Keep it simple,” Tammy tells me. Steam your crabs with some Old Bay seasoning and serve it up with a cold beer like Coors or Bud light. “It’s the best combination.”
Tip for newbies: “Steer clear of the dead man’s fingers.” Despite the sinister nickname, these elongated gray gills are not poisonous (as some urban legends purport), but are not very appetizing - “they’re sour, tough and hard to digest,” I’m told.
Gender politics: You can tell the male and female crabs apart by their underbellies. The males, called “Jimmys,” have a long, narrow inverted “T” shaped apron and are much meatier than the females, which display an inverted “V” or “U” shape, depending on maturity, and have red-tipped claws. To preserve the population, it’s common practice to throw back the females, especially if they are bearing eggs (but a quick google search shows that it’s a contentious topic sparking much debate).
Best time to feast: while you can eat crabs year-round, they lie dormant in winter, so the season tends to kick off when the water warms up in June and ends in late September. “That’s when Oyster season begins,” Tammy tells me, “we serve up a lot of fried oysters in the fall.” Of course, whatever the season, the Kentmorr’s got you covered. “We’ve got a delicious butternut squash crab curry soup for the colder weather,” she says.
All in a morning’s work
Frank and Frank steamed up our crabs before we departed back to the house where Jason’s grandparents used to live - now owned by his aunt and uncle. There, we feasted on our morning’s work and all the new memories we had created. Our last bite of summer couldn’t have tasted better.