Quiet kingdom of the crab
TYLERTON, Md. - By 6:30 a.m. the tables at Gordon's Confectionery in Crisfield, Md., are packed with regulars breakfasting on egg sandwiches and what the woman next to me promises is "the best coffee in the world." The day before I had driven through the Eastern Shores of Virginia and Maryland to the town where ferries depart for Smith and Tangier, two of the last inhabited islands in Chesapeake Bay. At the city dock where boats take on island-bound generators and provisions as well as passengers, strangers chat like friends. A local buys me a Coke. Then Captain Larry Laird slips the lines, the wind freshens, and we passage 10 miles of pale green water to another world.
Smith Island in the Maryland Chesapeake contains the villages of Ewell and Rhodes Point on one island and Tylerton on another, while Tangier Island sits on its lonesome on the bay's Virginia side. Steeped in marsh grass and reeds, the islands disappear a few feet each year into the water. Thrifty homes here are clustered within the compass of the Methodist church. Livelihoods revolve around oystering, fishing, and especially, harvesting the Chesapeake Bay blue crab.
In Tylerton, population 60, seven of us fill the village's only bed-and-breakfast, a white ship-lapped aerie beautifully named Inn of Silent Music. Here the days begin and end on Linda and Rob
A bike ride up Wharf Road leads to the Smith Island Crabmeat Co-Op where women supplement their families' soft shell incomes by picking and packing the meat of "hard" blue crabs. They work around a brightly lighted table, each with a bushel her husband harvested at 4 a.m. Christine Smith shows me how:
"Pry off the top shell, then remove the little fins, except the back fin, which has good meat. Beneath the back is all lump meat, and the chambers of the belly. Then the claws."
She offers me a curled knife. I've barely done three crabs when Dora Corbin fills the first 16-ounce container in 45 minutes. "It should take 35," she says, "but it's the first night of the season and I'm rusty."
If you're lucky, you might hear the women's voices raised in beautiful a cappella renditions of their favorite hymns while they work. This evening, they share recipes for crab imperial, a baked loaf of crab and cream sauce; stewed jimmies, the big male crabs simmered with onions, dumplings, potatoes, and white gravy; and crab cakes made with lump meat, egg, mayo, scallions, and Ritz crackers. My question about adding diced celery or peppers raises a few eyebrows:
"I guess if your crabmeat tastes bad you could do it," says Tina Corbin, "but I wouldn't. That would ruin the taste."
About 12 miles from the charmed mainland town of Onancock, Tangier Island may belong to Virginia, but blue crabs and Joshua Thomas, the acknowledged father of Methodism among the Chesapeake islands, tie it closely to Smith across the state line. Approached from the water, Tangier conveys the sense of being larger and more coherent than its neighbors, if only because it has a few more restaurants and inns.
But there are the same wooden crab shacks, many serving double duty as watermen's hangouts furnished with sofas and TVs; the stilt-legged docks stacked with wire mesh crab pots; and the wonderfully particular work boats known as bar cats. Here, too, the locals' straightforward greetings are spoken with the lilt of their 17th-century English and Welsh forebears, and at Fisherman's Corner, my most rewarding restaurant foray, the crab cakes also are made without diced celery and peppers.
Mayor James Eskridge, whom everyone calls Ookire, gives a waterman's tour in his crab skiff out to the shallows. He scrapes among the eel grass and hauls up a mass of life forms, sorting for "peelers," the crabs soon to molt their shells. (You can hear the islanders' distinctive speech in a National Geographic video of Eskridge working off his skiff, ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2005/06/chesapeake-bay/video-interactive.)
Until now it hadn't occurred to me that the soft shells served in restaurants are simply blue crabs like those in our summer Massachusetts waters, harvested during the molting phase of their life cycles. Eskridge shows me how to identify a male (jimmy) and female (sook), and holds up a "doubler," a male crab cradling a fertile female to protect her from predators as she sheds her hard shell.
Humans have learned to take advantage of the crabs' behavior by baiting traps with a single male crab, attracting scores of females as they follow their mating imperative. The practice is one reason for the severe limits placed on the crabbers in recent years, reducing some livelihoods and shuttering others, a subject Eskridge openly entertains on the tour. (Unplugged discussions can be heard at the faded blue Double Six Sandwich shoppe on Main Ridge where crabbers gather for 4 a.m. coffee.) While accepting of the need for limits, Eskridge talks about the greater impact of human pollution on marine life in the bay.
Ken Castelli, whose father, Marc, paints the Chesapeake's working waterfront, helps out at the Tangier History Museum & Interpretive Cultural Center while enjoying an artist's residency. The museum and an around-island interpretive trail are the gifts of Susan and Neil Kaye, doctors who fell in love with Tangier and commute from their Delaware home. Castelli shows me to the kayaks behind the museum that can be borrowed free of charge and launched from the dock. To paddle among the few ridges of civilization poking above the waterline is to appreciate the island's fragile life. For an entire afternoon, I swim and walk the southerly beaches enveloped in Edward Hopper-like stillness, not seeing another soul.
By the end of the weekend, I've almost memorized the island and no longer notice the buzzing black, brown, and green flies whose home this is. (DEET and walking upwind wherever possible keep me bite-free.) As the ferry leaves the pier beside the Waterfront Restaurant - catering to the irresistible urge for one's first and final soft shell crab on Tangier - I feel a quiet ache, knowing that in 40 minutes I will return from the rhythms of the tides and seasons to my mainland clock of minutes and hours.
In Crisfield, some high school students from Washington, D.C., trundle wearily off one of the ferries after a three-day maritime immersion on Port Isobel. Led by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, they learned about wetlands and water chemistry while eating, sleeping, and cooking in a communal house.
Asked about the experience, one of them confides, "I miss my neighborhood. I'll be glad to see my friends."
"I miss meat!" says another in a too-loud voice.
Me, I'd be happy for one of Alan Tyler's crab cake sandwiches right now.
Patricia Borns can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.