A Shore Thing
Less than a day's drive from Pittsburgh, we found blue horizons, fresh crabs, and rum to write home about
“Permission to come aboard?” I say, my hand outstretched to Captain Iris Clarke.
Art Director Camden Leeds is being shamed off of his cell phone so that we can get a safety demonstration on the Selina II, a classic New England Crosby Cat boat.
Captain Iris is in love, a newlywed, and says things like “hubby,” but she’s tough and tan and knows just about everything about the Chesapeake Bay, sailing, and this boat. She’s a third-generation sailor on Selina — built in 1926, it’s the largest of the surviving vintage catboats. The boat is gorgeous, shiny, and updated, having less than a day's drive from Pittsburgh, we found blue horizons, fresh crabs, and rum to write home aboutgone through two major renovations in her 93 years. “She’s taken care of my family, so we take Less than Less than a day's drive from Pittsburgh, we found blue horizons, fresh crabs, and rum to write home abouta day's drive from Pittsburgh, we found blue horizons, fresh crabs, and rum to write home aboutgood care of her.”
Iris is a handsome woman with a wide smile and searing blue eyes under a broadly brimmed hat. Even when she’s ducking to avoid the 35-foot boom, she looks like a movie star. And even on the most scenic waters, she’s the real entertainment.
Publisher Christina French and I pass back and forth a cheeseboard, scraping salty crackers through a smattering of olive tapenade and sipping cold Champagne through a squinting sunset. All the while, the Selina leans to one side and cuts through the evening winds.
It’s 5:35 a.m., and the beach house is quiet. I pad around the white tile floors, making coffee and gathering my painting stuff. The wall-to-wall windows look out on the blue-gray horizon of the Chesapeake Bay. A lone crab boat motors out of the harbor, and the tree line across the water in this morning light looks almost black.
I peel open my Moleskine and mix cloudy colors on my palette. With slow, deliberate strokes of my brush, I smooth on ivory and oyster clouds. Take a coffee sip. Wash licks of white onto the docks, dotting out into the distance, stilting out of the water. Coffee sip. The dawn paints in emerald grass across the cove before I do. By the time I graze my sketchbook, adding the green, it’s jade.
“That book was written in this town,” Photographer Jeff Swensen says in a whisper. He’s pointing to James A. Michener’s Chesapeake, on the table in front of us. We’re the only ones awake. I offer him the last of the coffee, and date the page in my sketchbook.
“Hold him up higher,” Jeff urges Rennie Gay, the gruff, gloved owner of Gay’s Seafood in Easton, Maryland. He’s pulling live blue crabs out of a basket that he just harvested off of a boat, and dropping them into a tall box for our dinner. Gay lifts a squirming crustacean in front of his sky blue shirt and the camera.
“Okay, now smile,” Jeff says, looking through the lens.
“I don’t smile,” Gay grumbles, his accent indistinguishable.
“I was talking to the crab,” Jeff smirks.
The shack is on dark green waters, and boats pull up out back all afternoon. Hunky men in t-shirts and Oakleys get paid in cash for each bushel they’ve brought in. Some pull up in rickety trucks, their boats parked down the bay. There’s jesting and ribbing that I don’t understand — the accents are as thick as Gay’s, and I don’t know the jargon — but I get that they’re teasing each other, and they’re friends.
Leroy counts money at the front counter while Gay dumps the box of live crabs into a garbage-can-sized steamer with heaps of Old Bay. Without looking up from the bills, Leroy mumbles he’s usually the one who does the steaming. Fans drone loudly behind him, but I hear him, and unlike the crab — I smile.
If it hadn’t been for Cassandra Vanhooser, we all would have pounded the crab with mallets, trying to bludgeon our food. She empties the box of bright red crabs, seasoned when they were steamed, on our brown paper-covered table.
“First, you pull off all of the legs,” she says in her southern twang. (Our host originates from Nashville.) Crack. Twist. Pull. We watch each other and happily tackle the easy part — our fingers already messy with Old Bay.
“Flip ‘im over. See the Washington monument?” she says, pointing to the crab abdomen with the patriotic-looking appendage. “Pull down on that, and open the apron.
“Now, stick yer thumb in there, and crack ‘im open.” I apply pressure and pull the shell apart — my tongue sticking out of the corner of my mouth, trying my hardest. We remove the “dead man’s fingers,” and, watching Cassandra scrape out everything that looks like an organ, we snatch and pick with our tiny knives: grubby surgeons.
Then, we reap the “mustard,” the crab’s yellow-substance hepatopancreas. It’s all over my fingers, which Cassandra says is normal, but gross. Contributing Editor Keith Recker disagrees. “My great-grandmother made a delicious soup with the mustard.”
We break the chambers apart and start plucking out the meat. I make a little pile of the sweet white pieces. Some of my comrades eat as they go, cashing in on instant rewards of the tough, pointy work.
The mallets finally come into play when it’s time to crack open the claws. We lay our knives, sharp side down, on the bright red claws and chisel in by hammering down. Once we’re in, we break the legs open, exposing long locks of crabmeat. There are hot pools of butter on the table, for dipping and sucking this part, but our host says that’s not the way they do it in Maryland. This is apple cider vinegar country.
dock picnic is born from afternoon cravings — and a good buzz. We need briny olives, grainy jam, buttery pâté, chewy bread, tart apples, and heady cheese. There’s a gauzy blanket and tufted pillows (on which to accidentally nap). I emerge from the house with a tray full of rum drinks and beam with even less humility than the gaudy fruit garnishes (a whole slab of attention-getting pineapple is my favorite). The photography gods smile down on us when a sailboat pulls into port, its picturesque skipper modeling a bright yellow raincoat, whipping in the wind. We had heard that Land’s End is also in town this week, shooting their catalogue. Maybe our slickered sailor is from their crew.
We grill anything we can handle with tongs: peppers, corn, pineapple, swordfish, halibut, tuna. Anyone not manning the flames is on beer delivery duty. (Beach house rule: The chef’s drink never goes dry.) Keith tosses a pasta salad in Old Bay — because, we’re here — and stuffs peppers, topping the pretty suppers with our proffering of crab. Camden whips a wheat-colored linen tablecloth in the salty wind, while I carry stacks of heavy ceramic plates down to the beach. Fiery pineapple makes for a tasty big-bowled salsa, whose journey to the table changes hands so many times that we need more chips by the time it reaches its final destination. Our chairs sink into the sand while the sun sets, and our glasses dribble over with cold wine. We laugh, our lips buttery from the corn, over I-don’t-remember-now and make resolutions to come back next year.