Wooden mallets strike claws, sending fissures through crabby chitin, exposing the sweet, seasoned flesh beneath. Soft hands meet sharp shells, poking, probing, splitting, snapping; a modest labor for a morsel of meat. Twelve spices form a homogeneous cocktail with light lager and briny boil, resulting in a liquid unique to the summers of the Chesapeake watershed. The crustacean covered newspapers lining the tables tell a new story now, a story that to the outsider sounds like barbaric ritual, but to the native sounds like hallowed tradition.
Despite my international birth, I’m a Marylander. All of my education – from Jones Lane to Johns Hopkins – unfolded in the Old Line state, and I’ve called the marshy lands north of the Potomac home for nearly 25 years. There are those in other parts of the country who don’t understand Maryland’s insistence on maintaining a unique identity; those who find such cultural fervor from a small state cute, or quaint, or some combination there of. But the people of Ocean City, Baltimore, Annapolis, and Salisbury don’t just mindlessly crab and boil or Raven and Oriole, they hold high their state standard, proud that 9th smallest state boasts one of the biggest personalities.
A veteran of the picking art shows a tourist where and how to lift the plate to get at the blue gold in the body, like the master teaching the neophyte who reached the peak all the simple secrets of life. A little girl takes her time, building a mini-mountain of crab to eat all at once, while her older brother yanks white chunks out of cartilage lined crevices with the only tool he needs: his teeth. Corn on the cob sits cooked but idle, waiting for the pile of dusted red delight to give up the spotlight.
Maryland suffers from poorly built sandwich syndrome; its thin landmass pressed between the top bun of Pittsburgh, Gettysburg, Lancaster, and Philadelphia, and the bottom bun of DC, Shenandoah, Richmond, and Norfolk. New York City is only a 4 hour drive from our naval-steeped capital, and a brief jaunt south would have you in North Carolina before the sun fully lowered itself into a western bed. There’s a lot of artisanal bread for Maryland’s meat to contend with, and it knows it needs to taste damn good to get any attention when someone takes a bite of the East Coast.
The notes that haunt the humid air are distant but familiar – bluegrass, country, possibly Jimmy Buffet. The giant stock pot – already full of potatoes and garlic and onions – sits on open flame, slowly rising to boil as a bushel awaits fate. On the shore, seagulls have taken note of the feast, and caw their dinner bells to nearby friends, hoping to snag some scraps after the lungs, mustard, and empty shells have been tossed. As the sun begins to set, the hiss of bottle cap sighs fade into the backdrop of ten thousand cicadas.
You might expect a beer brewed with Maryland’s favorite crab seasoning to be nothing more than a well-marketed gimmick. But Flying Dog, after moving to Frederick after a few years in Denver, is one of the oldest functional breweries in the state. Like Heavy Seas and their nautical flair, Flying Dog understands what it means to be in this state, but also what it means to live in Maryland. What it means to wear purple during football season. What it’s like to contend with a parade of transient traffic as I-95 shuttles people to states external. What it’s like to pay a tax on rain.
Deposits of seasoning get stuck under your fingernails. Little cuts from shards and spikes sting when hands meet soap. The entire process means a lot of work and a lot of clean up, but the rewards, tangible and tantalizing, make the effort seem minor. Those who partake in the rituals of the bay go to bed satisfied, dreaming of food and friends and family and future.
The beer isn’t perfect; the smell hits you like a fishy breeze off of a populated wharf, and the Old Bay spikes a flag into your tongue, marking its savory territory despite the summer ale’s crisp attempt to quickly wash it down. But Maryland isn’t perfect either. It’s a hodgepodge of DC politicians and career fisherman, a swampy land swarmed with mosquitoes and mariners. Its weather can be extreme and unpredictable and relatively slow speed limits lead to some of the worst traffic in the country. But it’s a state that knows who it is, where it stands, and what it likes, by virtue of geographic necessity.
Flying dog tried to brew and bottle Maryland itself. Did it work? That ship’s still at sea. Either way, it’s a flattering homage, and I’m willing to bet a lot of Old Bay junkies just found the perfect partner for a summer romance.