We’ve been in Solomons, Maryland, now for almost two months. There is an expansive area of coastline here and the boating community is diverse and abundant. We are still absorbing the culture and learning about the things that make this area so unique and actually quite fascinating. It hasn’t taken us long to understand what the people in Maryland are crazy about. You can hardly go a day, while living in this area, without hearing about, seeing, smelling or tasting some of the plentiful supply of crab available.
One of the surprises of being on a trip such as the Great Loop are the many opportunities to become acquainted with the local cuisine of the area you’re currently traveling through. I don’t think many people planning a trip such as this realize the treat that is in store for them once they get underway, we certainly didn’t. We’ve literally seen Loopers who became accustomed to, and thrived on, the food trail as each new area before them beckoned with offers of treats unique to the area. When living in one part of the country most of your life, you only have the local fare to experience, and it’s easy to forget or overlook the fact that there are other choices not available locally without great cost or diminished quality. Jim and I have lived most of our lives in Michigan so we’re familiar with fresh whitefish and salmon, perch, and the tasty fresh and dried cherries of the Great Lakes area. But doing the Loop has enabled us to experience cuisines unfamiliar to us. We’re continuously learning some fascinating information and history about how the locals regard the production and cooking of their area-specific foods.
Going down the river system in the fall brings you into big fishing territory. They sure do love their catfish there. They’re also big on fried chicken, everything pork, and you’ll get the best, down-home cooking of your life in the little local restaurants. As you get further south you’re looking at a favorite of ours, shrimp and grits, which provides a little bit of a diversion after the fried catfish you have previously consumed. This is also the area where hush puppies and grits start to show up. Once you hit Mobile and the Panhandle area your mouth starts watering for the fresh shrimp, and just before you get to Apalachicola your taste buds perk up for those fresh or fried oysters that seem to just melt in your mouth.
The first stop for us when we cross the Gulf of Mexico is Tarpon Springs, Florida, and we always stay at least a week so that we can overindulge on the Greek food. This last trip through Tarpon Springs we discovered the local bakery’s almond cookies and believe me they are out of this world. Going south on the west coast of Florida you have many opportunities to secure fresh, just-caught, shrimp, from local fishermen just returning from a day at sea, unlike any that you might buy in the store.
Further south in Key West we started to see that spiny lobster was the thing. We even bought all the gear to catch them ourselves but after Jim got stung by that jellyfish we became hesitant to hop into the water, lobster or not. Aside from the lobster available in Key West there’s such a wide variety of food available to satisfy your palate. We especially enjoyed the local, neighborhood Cuban restaurants. They do a thing with roasted pork that is tangy and seems to melt in your mouth. This is usually served with a huge helping of yellow rice and black beans. You really get your money’s worth for a huge plate of food at both the Cuban restaurants we frequented in Key West.
In the Abacos people are absolutely obsessed with conch. There’s a conch salad that’s readily available for consumption no matter where you go, anywhere in the islands. We’ve tried it, and a few fried versions as well, and just don’t get the appeal, but we sure enjoyed meeting the fish guy every Friday at the town dock in Hope Town on Elbow Cay to pick out fresh, just caught, grouper or lobster tails and other assorted fish in season.
Heading up the Intracoastal Waterway towards Georgia and the Carolinas you’re getting into barbeque country. We stayed with friends Louis and Diane, from Bella Luna, at their beach house in Morehead City, North Carolina, and we think their goal was to introduce us “northerner’s” to some of their favorite southern cuisine. One night we had barbequed pulled pork with a spicy “rub” along with chicken, same night, marinated in a vinegar sauce. For breakfast we were treated to grits with red-eye gravy, the gravy is made from the juices left from the drippings of that country ham they are so fond of in that area. Strong, leftover coffee is then added to the juices in the pan to make a remarkable topping for those grits we have become so fond of.
Once you leave the Carolinas you’re headed towards the Chesapeake Bay where we now find ourselves immersed in everything having to do with crabs. There just is no getting away from this popular foodstuff. Everywhere we look there’s the iconic crab graphically displayed. Our first full day here in Solomons we walked downtown on the island and were lured into a shop by a sign on the street that displayed fresh blue crabs for sale. The owner took us into the back room and opened up a big barrel and showed us some beautiful looking, still alive, blue crabs. We got the spiel on how we could buy them, cooked or uncooked, male or female. We were amazed by the sight of these lovely creatures who crawled all over each other in that barrel but we still were not quite sure how we would manage to eat one. Shortly after, we learned all about crab picking.
We were out to dinner with our friends Charlie and Linda from Freedom’s Turn, when they stopped in Solomons. Being from Michigan, like we are, they were also inexperienced in the world of crabs. We ordered a basket of crabs from a local restaurant as an appetizer and thought this was the way to go, so that we could test the waters so to speak. Unlike what we thought, going into this, the body of the crab is not one big cavity. There are numerous tiny chambers containing little morsels of meat. After a lot of work, a big mess and very little crabmeat being produced and consumed, we were all perplexed. I’m sure locals thought we were nuts not to figure out how to eat these critters, but this is an expertise acquired through experience. We left the restaurant and vowed to learn more about the lure of this local catch.
We were surprised a few days later when we were watching a segment on Sunday Morningwith Charles Osgood. They had a feature on a crab plant that showed the professional crab pickers at work. This is a hard job and now we understand why crab is somewhat expensive. A machine cannot do the kind of job a human picker can do; it tends to make flakes of the meat instead of lumps. So for the production of the choicest morsels the trade has to rely on professional “pickers” for the job. This television program was an eye-opener.
On our first Great Loop we anchored in Reedville, Virginia. This is a small town with not much more than a few shops, one restaurant, a museum, ice cream parlor and a soft shell crab processing plant. The first thing we walked by was the crab plant, as we’d tied our dinghy up to the dock right next to theirs. We peeked our heads in the door of the plant and discovered a group of women packing boxes full of soft-shell crabs. We are pretty sure that people in this area would think it amazing that we’d never even heard of soft-shell crabs before, let alone eating such a thing.
When the manager saw our amazement and eyes big with skepticism he decided to take mercy on us and give us a tour of the processing plant. Not only do they pack the crabs here but they also have vats where they actually let the crabs molt. This is a process where, during the molting season, they capture the hard-shell blue crabs just before they loose their shell. The crab must periodically shed its smaller shell through this molting process in order for it to grow larger. They put them in these vats and wait for them to shed their old shells and while they are in this completely soft state they are ready to be processed, packed, sold and eventually lightly battered, sautéed, and consumed.
Everyone in this part of the Chesapeake seems very into “crabbing.” It seems that if a local has access to water then they also own a few crab pots for personal capture and consumption. We like this idea of do-it-yourself crabbing.
The professionals are called “watermen.” Their catch includes not only crabs (summer) but oysters (winter) as well. Many are independent fishermen who own their own boats and equipment and sell their catch to seafood houses. The fishing boats they use are unique in design and have beautiful lines that look smart out on the water as they go about their job.
We have continued our experimentation with crab dishes and for the moment decided that crab cakes are the way to go. And if you’re going to eat crab cakes, this is the area to do it. Most crab cakes found in restaurants here are usually all lump crabmeat with very little filler ingredients. These large cakes, which are usually lightly sautéed, make a good choice when eating out in Solomons, especially if you’re not into a lot of messy picking.
We’ve enjoyed learning about crabs and being immersed in the culture that cherishes this bountiful catch. It differs greatly from what we know in our bones, being lifelong residents of the Great Lakes, but we feel that our lives have become richer for the opportunity to venture outside our “box,” opening ourselves up to something previously unknown to us, and in turn has added another dimension to our journey through life.