The Digressions of dr sanscravat
Remembrance of Shellfish Past
(e-pistle: 3 September 97)
Having seen all there is to see along routes 80 and 17, we took a small detour on the way back. Most people don't pass through West Virginia and Maryland on the way from Ohio to upstate New York, but we did.
It was a sorta' we-all-went-to-look-for- America-kinda'-thing.
The mountains of WV are wonderful -- but there is no place to eat, it appears, in the whole state. There were one or two Micky-Ds -- but even they were sparse. What WV does seem to have is churches. Most of the state consists of two trailers for every church -- and not much else. Since most of the trailers seemed unoccupied, there is a good possibility that there is one little cement-block church for every person in the state. But enough of that -- let's talk about the food in this country.
We've traveled a lot in the lower 48, but we're only beginning to formulate a set of guidelines for travelers who care about their gastrointestinal well-being. One rule that should be always observed: never eat in a Chinese restaurant that is more than an hour's drive from an ocean. (a corollary I heard today: never eat in any ethnic restaurant that can be seen from an Interstate or is situated next to a veterinarian's office). Fast food, while abominable, generally does not surprise you with new, unexplainable abominations -- but you will not actually be satisfied -- in spite of feeling a vague sense of guilt when you finish. In this case, Mae West was mistaken when she said, "Whenever I have to choose between two evils, I always pick the one I haven't tried yet." That's only a good plan if one's purpose is the collecting scary experiences/local color for use in writing the great American novel -- or memoir.
We always knew that any restaurant whose name contains the words "Mom's" or "Homecookin" should be avoided, but this maxim has now been expanded to include any mention of the word "family." If ever there was a reason for the decline of family values in American life, it is the presence -- in almost every rural town -- of family restaurants. As near as I can tell, the intended sense of the word "family" is somewhere between its appearance before "television" and after "Manson."
Twenty-odd years ago, I went to an authentic Maryland crab-boil in a run-down little place outside of Frederick, Maryland. It was wonderful. I have been telling Karen about it for as long as we've been together -- it's become a kind of running joke (she seems to think that I repeat myself) in our family (she seems to think that I repeat myself). Well, we finally got to stay in Frederick at dinner time. There were some old-timers working in the motel, so I asked about the restaurant (Jug Bridge) -- and discovered that it was still open.
Within minutes, we were headed down the road.
Now, Thomas Wolfe says that you can't go home again -- but Proust tells us that that's about the only place you CAN go. Sometimes, you just gotta' take a chance. When we pulled into the parking lot -- now professionally paved -- it was immediately clear that much had changed.
The place had a sign that lit up.
There were some decks stuck onto it.
It was more than twice the size it used to be.
It had been painted.
These were not good omens. The motel folk had told me that George Herbert Walker Bush, when he was president, used to come out for the crabs at Jug Bridge. I was more than a little worried by all this gentrification. But, having already faced the perils of family restaurants on this trip, we felt that we could probably handle even this -- 'though I was a little reluctant to sully the memories of my previous meal with some kind of adulterated version.
We were seated in a room off to one side -- which had been the entire original restaurant. Linoleum, empty fish tank, bad art, many layers of enamel over whatever it was that they had used to use to make walls. This was strangely reassuring.
The waitress asked if we were having crabs. Oh, yes -- and she removed the silverware, spread out a sheet of brown kraft paper to cover the table top, and plopped down two wooden mallets. At the sound of those little hammers on paper-covered formica I began to salivate like Pavlov's pooch. Beer appeared. A basket of fries and the sweetest corn-fritters you'll ever taste materialized before us. Finally, a large tupperware tub was hoisted to the table. Under the lid, dozens of large Chesapeake Bay Blue Crabs, covered with a paste of Old Bay, salt and cayenne. A paper grocery bag was placed at our feet for the shells. Nothing had changed at all.
God bless Amurricah, indeed.
An hour or so later, grinning and covered with fragments of former crustaceans, we sauntered into the soft southern night, thinking -- for the first time in my life -- that maybe George Bush wasn't all bad, after all.
The next morning, still smelling of Old Bay, we drove up to the battlefield at Gettysburg. But that's another story, for another day --
("In Baltimore, soft crabs are always fried (or broiled) in the altogether, with maybe a small jock-strap of bacon added." H.L. Mencken)
An order -- for two -- of large steamed crabs, served in classic style on kraft paper, the waters of Chesapeake Bay in the background (this isn't Jug Bridge -- it's a place in Grasonville, on the Eastern Shore).