You know what I love about Baltimore? When I’m there, very often I want to burst out singing, “I love you, Baltimore!” just like Tracy Turnblad from “Hairspray.”
Usually, I resist the urge.
These past two days in Charm City were no exception. I never felt so welcome moving to a city as I did when I moved to Baltimore. Now, years later, when I go back, I still feel at home. And there’s always a couch and a cold beer waiting for me.
I go back every year for a Crab Feast at my sergeant’s church. The past two years the crabs weren’t as good as they should be. This year, I’m proud to say, they’re back up to par!
Now if you live in Baltimore, you might wonder why New Yorkers would travel six hours to eat Maryland steamed crabs. There’s nothing like it here! (Nor do we have Bull and Oyster Roasts, for that matter.)
In truth, we can and do steam blue crabs here (from Louisiana). And it is about the crabs. But a church Crab Feast is so much more than just steamed crabs. And just $37 gets you all this.
First the wait to get in. The entry process always moves slowly, even though everybody already has their ticket. It’s like waiting for a roller coaster. But only if, when waiting for a roller coaster, you could smell Old Bay and got to laugh at the role of aluminum foil hidden in the bag of the people in front you to facilitate easy (and prohibited) take out.
When you get close to the basement doors, you can hear the tok-tok-tok of the raffle wheel. That’s usually when I realize where I am!
Given our large group, we had part of two tables. But there’s an old lady (with an amazing hairdo) in one of our seats. She doesn’t seem to like us so we get the priest to sort this out. She won't move, not even for man of God. First she said, “because my walker is here.” The priest offered to move her walker. “No,” she said, “I’m not moving!” How can you argue? And I’ll be damned if she didn’t move. Not for four hours. Not till she got up to go and sneak a few leftover tidbits in her purse
We went to Plan B and squeezed 12 of us around a table for 10 without any further problem.
And by the time my eyes get used to the florescent lights, everything has come together: the friends, the tok-tok-tok, the Old Bay, the music from the band. I navigate what I call the “decoy table” (I ain’t eating no celery sticks and macaroni salad at a crab fest! But I do like one sloppy-joe like BBQ beef sandwich and a cup of crab soup). When I get back, the buckets of beer are filled. And then, what we’ve all been waiting for: a 13-year-old boy dumps the first batch of steamed crabs on our craft-paper covered table.
This year, I even won 3 bottles of booze for a $5 raffle investment. It’s not just the booze I like, it’s also fun to take bottles and be able to say, “Thank you, father!”
Four hours after we came. I couldn’t eat another crab (and I did try). Thank you, ladies, for all your hard work. And see you next year! We went back to my sergeant's house for a bit and then my wife and New York friends went home. I stayed behind. We went to a bar or two. A few hours later, after nearly 10 straight hours of eating and drinking, I was ready for bed.
I was careful not to drink too much because I didn't want to be hungover for my radio interviews. I succeeded. The next day, Monday, I did two radio interviews in succession. One with Dan Rodricks. The other with Ron Smith. It was my third time on the Ron Smith show, but the first time in studio, which is always nicer. They went well.
After the second interview, I took the light rail from Television Hill down to Lexington Market. I got there at 4:45, 15 minutes before Faidleys closes. As last call goes out, I order two backfin crabcakes for there, 10 uncooked ones to go, and a Natty Bo. While standing and eating (there are no seats), I see a softshelled crab come out all golden and delicious. I say to no one in particular, “I forgot all about that!” The man asks if I want one. Yes! And with that, a few minutes after closing, the very last item goes in the deep fryer.
An female employee explains in wonder, “two backfin cakes and a softshell?! The last time I saw somebody eat like that, they were smoking the wacky weed!” I assured her there was no weed, just a homesick man from New York. Luckily, this woman was long gone and didn't see me by the time I hit the oyster stand on the way out for a little “desert" (in the form of 4 oysters, 3 clams, and another beer--together that last order cost less than $10, half of what it would cost in NYC).
The were 4 of us slurping our oysters and one shucker.
Somehow, the barbershop-like conversation of black men (and me) turned from smoked pigs feet to road rage:
“…But she got out of her car to knock on my window to tell me I was an asshole!”
“Was she white or black?”
“She was a white woman! Can you believe that?!” [this was not a small man]
“Maybe you should have told her you cut her off just to meet a woman like her,” I said.
“Yeah, Tell her you’ve been waiting for a woman like her all your life!”
“Man, I ain’t waiting for that shit! With her lazy eye, I couldn’t even tell who she was looking at.”
“That’s so when you get out the car, she can say ‘I wasn't talking to you! I was just talking [pointing in opposite directions] to him and him!'"
Eventually the man next to me and I got back to talking about food and the proper heat and moisture needed to smoke meat and fish. He took a liking to me when I agreed with him and could tell him why cows are best grass fed ("...because they're not made to eat corn!").
I expressed skepticism that a standard pork chop could ever be good. "They're too lean to be good," I said.
“I know. That’s why you gotta put bacon-grease on a pork chop! All the good soul food places do that. They just won’t admit it.” Brilliant! He also recommended rubbing pork loin in red wine before smoking.
One pleasant terrorist fist jab, a run for the the light rail, and 30 minutes later, I was happily half-sleeping on a train back to NYC.
Baltimore, you mean well.
And yes, I love you, Baltimore!