|Beating the Winter Blues with Franks and Planks|
by Susan Elnicki Wade, March 27, 2013
What a wretched time of year! At our house, we’re sick of hearing weathermen’s false promises about inches of snow and receiving only rain and mud. We’re tired of looking at bare trees with no leaves – and we’re starting to get itchy for crabs. It doesn’t help that we still have months to wait before Maryland crustaceans are back in business.
|For a respite from our seasonal doldrums, we cruised to Annapolis for restaurant week. We’re currently updating our Maryland book, so we wanted to investigate some new places. Despite the cold temps and occasional snow flurries, the town was bustling with hungry people eager to taste the best bites in Annapolis. We were hoping to discover a little crab at this historic port, even in the off-season.|
|Our first stop, The Boatyard in Eastport, was packed, but we found two seats at the bar. Bill ordered a dozen raw oysters, and I requested another dozen fried. I was busy listening to a boater’s animated explanation of the town’s annual ritual of roasting oysters and burning old socks in a bonfire to get geared up for flip-flop season, when Bill nudged my arm.|
|He uttered a sentence I never expected to hear from Bill’s lips, “A man in a hotdog suit just walked into the bar.” I half-expected him to be followed by a priest and a rabbi, living out the off-color jokes my dad used to tell. Instead, four more wieners with mustard trails swirled down their chests sauntered through the door. Before my eyes, five cheerful franks were lined up politely asking the bartender for a cold brew. Hotdogs and beer make sense at a summer Orioles game ‑ but in winter at an oyster bar? What gives?|
|Grabbing my camera, I approached the Frankfurter Five and started taking photos. Were they promoting a new brand of sausage? Helping a local charity? Or maybe trying to lure customers to another restaurant nearby? Nope. They were just a bunch of guys hitting the town on a dreary Saturday. They didn’t deny that they were offered more free beer than usual thanks to their hotdog and bun attire. One can only imagine how much better they’d scored if they’d chosen to wear crab outfits.|
|We followed the merry sausage brigade into the streets for a while, but soon realized that the off-season didn’t afford much opportunity for local crabs. So, we headed north of town in search of something more tropical and perhaps a little tiki. Rumor had it that a new place called Mutiny just opened in Glen Burnie, and pirates had infested the joint.|
|Other than a parrot and a sword on its sign, we didn’t see much evidence for a tiki experience outside the bar, located in a middle-class neighborhood and surrounded by suburban homes. Rum barrels on the deck lifted our spirits. Once inside the dimly lit tavern, we walked the plank and plunged into an island world where scallywags roam and sea wenches with tattooed arms sling drinks to thirsty travelers. The bartender greeted us with a crooked grin. A lusty “aargh” seemed like the appropriate reply.|
Maps of Caribbean trade routes covered the walls, bamboo blinds hung above rattan furniture, lights made of bloated pufferfish floated above the bar, and wooden barrels served as tables. Aargh, indeed. We’d landed in a place that boasted 140 different types of rum and a passport club to test them all.
Again I felt that “check this out” nudge on my arm as Bill nodded toward the end of the bar. I saw a man dressed like a pirate. “Put on your glasses and look again.”
His steely grin assured us that winter would soon be over and a warm breeze would return to the Bay. And before long we’d be back on a sunny trail, discovering new places to cure our crab withdrawal and share a sip of tiki.
|Hey Maryland, We're Back!|
by Susan Elnicki Wade, March 1, 2013
Susan and Bill Wade, authors of Crab Decks & Tiki Bars of the Chesapeake Bay, invite you to come along as they explore the Bay to update and expand the Maryland edition of their popular travel guide.
After the Virginia edition of Crab Decks & Tiki Bars of the Chesapeake Bay launched on the Fourth of July 2012, we took a break to promote the new book and eat cheeseburgers, Chinese take-out, and Philly cheese steaks. Other than slipping back into Bay cuisine with crab pierogies for the holidays, our Chesapeake seafood rehab was going pretty well.
But by mid-January we started to get restless. With the Ravens steamrolling toward the Super Bowl, it seemed like the entire football-loving world was talking about crab cakes. Also cracking our resolve were emails from crab fans alerting us to crab deck closings or new places to investigate.
So we snooped around, researched their claims, and realized that while we were in the Bay’s southern waters, much had changed. Even though our first book was only 18 months old, quite a few fresh eateries had appeared along the Maryland waterfront.
Heck, my younger son has grown six inches taller since our first book came out. Of course it was time to get back out and document every crab joint along the Bay. And to keep things interesting for us and our readers, we wanted to augment our coverage and include places along the Potomac River in Washington and Maryland.
On the Road Again
For those of you who think that all we do is laze in the sun picking crabs on glorious waterfront decks, it’s a good time to let you know that plenty of our “research” takes place in the off-season when the temperature hovers around freezing and the harsh Bay winds make my hair look like a squirrel has been digging for nuts in a tumbleweed. Sure we have fun, but sometimes frigid winter weather can turn a day at the Bay into a personal challenge.
So, we thought that if we were gonna freeze for crabs, we should start in one of my favorite places – Dundalk. Yep, there’s something about Baltimore County that feels like my home near Pittsburgh. I have a soft spot in my heart for those souls who have a certain swagger and a determination to survive even when Big Business shortchanges them. Plus we’d heard that some supremely tiki places had opened there.
Expect the Unexpected
I never know what to expect when I drive through Essex and Middle River. Rows of single-story ramblers built for steel mill workers sit next to high-end waterfront homes.
I see fine dining restaurants on the same street as neighborhood bars that run happy hour from 7:00 to 9:00 in the morning to accommodate workers getting off the night shift.
On this trip, I was delighted to slam on my brakes in a residential area when I spotted a grocery cart proudly hanging from a tall oak tree. I never found out why the cart was up there, but it sure felt good to be back in Baltimore County.
At half-time, we paid our check and rushed over to what feels like our home away from home at the Bay – Hard Yacht Café – to watch the end of the game. As always, the owner greeted us like family, handing us purple shots whenever Baltimore scored a touchdown. The Ravens’ victory that night is now part of NFL history, but what sticks in my mind most is the unbridled joy that erupted at Hard Yacht Café with the win. The icing on the cake was when a massive, 300 pound Ravens fan jumped up on the bar and stripped down to his skivvies in celebration of the game. Photos of that priceless moment will remain in my camera.But what a way to christen our return to the Bay! Next stop ... Baltimore. Stay tuned.
Purple Pierogies for the Ravens
by Susan Elnicki Wade, January 29, 2013
Marylanders sure love their crabs. Traditionalists steam them, pick them and roll them into golden brown cakes. They pull out heavy cream to whip up crab soup or crab imperial. The adventurous dress up soft pretzels with crab dip and melted cheddar, or sprinkle jumbo lumps on top of garden-fresh tomatoes and toasted Italian bread to create crab bruschetta. I’ve even taken a bite of crab tucked inside a crispy spring roll. Around the Bay, variations on this tasty crustacean seem unlimited.
When I heard ESPN’s Chris Berman refer to Baltimore’s stadium as The Big Crabcake, a light bulb clicked on above my head. To show true team spirit, our tailgate needed purple pierogies. That’s right … purple.
Like a determined alchemist, I grabbed red and blue bottles of food dye and squeezed drops of them into the sour cream. Eventually I concocted a pierogie dough that glowed with the Raven’s purple hue.
San Francisco better look out now. We’ve got our game face on and enough team colors going to bring the trophy home to Baltimore. For extra good luck, maybe I should ship a batch of purple pierogies to the Ravens in New Orleans?
If you’d like to make purple pierogies for your Super Bowl party, e-mail email@example.com for the recipe.
When You're Tired of Stuffing, Go for Shucking
by Susan Elnicki Wade, November 28, 2012
I’m never shy about reaching for seconds of Thanksgiving turkey poised next to a mashed potato swimming pool filled with golden-brown gravy. And I don’t feel a pinch of guilt taking extra helpings of my mom’s stuffing laced with Jimmy Dean sausage, walnuts, and mushrooms.
But after two days of cholesterol-friendly holiday fare and microwaved leftovers, we decided to break camp and head up to Baltimore for the 13th Annual Micro Brew & Oyster Tasting at Kooper’s Tavern.
The temperature had dropped considerably since we last emerged from our Thanksgiving cave, so we bundled up and braved the 35 m.p.h. wind gusts along the Fell’s Point waterfront. Strolling down the cobblestone streets, we breezed past eateries that we’d frequented months ago in pursuit of steamed crabs and tiki drinks, and set our sites on the fall conquest – fresh oysters.
As we rounded the corner onto Thames Street, we spied a bright red awning that signaled we’d reached Kooper’s. An eager crowd was lining up in front of a gal selling tickets for oysters. Her table offered an impressive array of mignonette sauces. Traditional, cucumber, cilantro-apple, orange-tarragon, and Asian were among the sauces displayed in tall plastic squeeze bottles. Bowls of home-made cocktail sauce were overflowing.
The ticket gal handed us a sheet of paper and explained the lay of the land. The oyster price tag was $1, $2 or $3 each, depending on the type. We were welcome to eat outside and enjoy the crisp Bay breeze, or seek shelter inside the century-old tavern. We opted for indoor warmth.
| I switched to a crisp Chardonnay as we migrated north. Connecticut Blue Points instantly caught my eye. They were the 18th Century darlings of the East Coast until Chesapeake oysters stole America’s heart. I couldn’t resist slurping this piece of seafood history that was nearly extinct by the 1900s.
Bill requested a couple of Massachusetts Wellfleets, but then ran into a snag when he learned that our room’s oyster station had no Rhode Island Wilds. He ran to the outside shuckers and scored a few, along with a plump pair of Potters Moons from Maine. Dodging the rowdy sports crowd, he brought his plates of treasures to the table unscathed. The smooth buttery taste made his efforts worthwhile.
|With almost two dozen mid-Atlantic and New England oysters under our belts, it was time to end our oyster crusade in foreign soil. Our siege on Canada began with a sampling of Malpeques, Salt Aires, and Tatamagouche oysters. These were pretty tasty beasts, but when our server brought us a plate of oversized Canadian Cups, we knew who really wore the crown on Prince Edward Island.|
| Having reached our fill, we asked for the check. The waiter nodded in approval as she cleared away our massive pile of shells. As we walked back to the car, happily discussing our favorites of the day, I noticed that my stomach was sloshing around more than normal. Thirty-something oysters can do that. So I started looking for a little starch to settle my belly. Bill picked up a final four walking oysters for the road.|
Only two blocks up Broadway, my wish was granted. Inside a deli, I spotted an orange neon sign that glowed the word “Pierogie.” Nothing makes this Ukrainian gal’s heart putter like a little dough stuffed with cheese and potato. In fact, my parents required us kids to eat at least one before we were allowed to open our Christmas presents.
With a six-pack of warm pierogies and a pound of smoked kielbasa under my arm, I knew I wouldn’t make it to the car without popping at least one in my mouth along the way. And as the temperature continued to plummet, I realized it was beginning to feel a lot like Christmas.
|Windblown Memories from a Backyard Tiki Bar|
by Susan Elnicki Wade, October 3, 2012
|As I watch my 10-foot palm tree fly down the alley behind our house, I let out a heavy sigh. D.C. is getting socked by another severe storm, blowing up from the South with 55 mile per hour winds that already knocked the palm over twice before sending it airborne into my neighbor’s yard. I guess the bungee cord looped around its planter wasn’t enough to keep it earth-bound.|
|I dash out into the driving rain to rescue my palm that’s now wedged between an old magnolia and a new wooden fence. The tropical plant looks out of place in our Chevy Chase neighborhood among the towering oak trees and meticulously trimmed azalea bushes. Relieved that no damage occurred upon landing, I drag the nomadic palm back home and shove it into our garage until the winds die down.|
|After the skies clear, I head out to assess the storm damage. Not too bad — some downed branches and things blown about. Our new tiki bar survived intact, and its Polynesian masks offer reassuring grins. My husband Bill and I built the tiki bar this summer to celebrate the launch of our book about crab decks and tiki bars on Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay. We recycled wood from our boys’ old club house and added bamboo, a double-wide hammock, plush foliage, and a tin roof. It’s a rickety sort of place, but it’s our new family escape from the daily doldrums.|
|After returning the palm tree to its spot along the bamboo bar, I do a quick inventory to make sure none of our tiki décor is missing. The items we nailed to the weathered wood beams are special to us — our collection of treasures from around the Bay over the past eight months. Each piece holds a memory of adventures with our boys to discover new crab shacks and explore the Old Dominion’s shores.|
I reach up to straighten a tiki mask and recall our family spring break in Virginia Beach when we bought this toothy Hawaiian carving. The early-season water was too cold for swimming, so we took the boys to Nauticus and other attractions near Norfolk’s crab houses.
The harbor, bustling with every type of vessel from paddle boat ferries to massive war ships, provided a stunning backdrop while we ate golden crab cakes and steamed shrimp for lunch.
Right before driving back to our Virginia Beach hotel, we learned of a terrible accident. A Navy airplane crashed into an apartment complex, so local authorities shut down the main roads in the area. While waiting for the highways to reopen, we stopped in an Irish pub to get an ice cream treat for the boys and a libation or two for us. To kill more time, we strolled around Norfolk and noticed the tiki mask tucked away in a corner of a nautical shop. We couldn't resist his colorful face and beckoning smile, so we brought him home amidst the dirty laundry and seashells.
While resuming my post-storm cleanup, I empty rain water from an old oyster can. It’s among Bill's most prized possessions, because we rescued it from a muddy bank along the York River. In early May, we spent hours driving to a remote location, only to discover that the crab deck we were investigating was closed and slated for the wrecking ball, despite its lovely waterfront location. Just as we were about to pull away, a rusty oyster can rim caught our eye, so we trudged through the river muck and silt to liberate it. With a little Windex and elbow grease, it would be almost as good as new.
We kicked around Yorktown’s historic sites and then settled into a cozy local pub for dinner. The waiter overheard us talking about our new Chesapeake treasure and insisted that we taste a sampling of local oysters to celebrate our find. Sure, why not?
I prefer mine gently fried, so they all taste pretty much the same to me. Bill, who would slurp raw oysters all day long if he could, readily agreed.
|Before long, the waiter presented a platter of freshly shucked bivalves from the York River, the Rappahannock, and Chincoteague. He told us to taste them in that specific order, traveling from buttery to briny, and observe the distinctly different flavors. It was a delicious culinary epiphany that sparked our quest to try oysters from every Virginia river that pours into the Bay. Along the way we stopped at aqua farms to witness the new wave in growing oysters and gained hope about the future of the Chesapeake’s favorite bivalve.|
I turn my attention back to the tiki bar to untangled leaves and branches from our double-wide hammock, which we picked up after a weekend on the James River.
For two days in blistering heat, we pub-crawled down the waterway to crab decks nestled among tobacco plantations dating back to the 17th Century and estates owned by our nation’s founding fathers.
|Home base for our research was Lyon’s Den, the summer house of friends in Richmond who are descendents of the 10th U.S. President, John Tyler. Our visit was a glorious fusion of old and new Virginia. We slept in antique beds under forbidding ancestral portraits painted centuries ago after we devoured crab cakes at a new restaurant in Richmond’s latest hot spot, Rocketts Landing. Our boys examined ancient Indian pottery shards and arrow heads that washed up on the shore after spending hours bouncing across the water on rubber rafts pulled behind the boat. At the end of the day, a hammock along the James is where everyone wanted to be.|
As I continue to straighten up the tiki bar, I notice soggy cigarette butts floating in a clam shell ashtray and dump them into the trash. This creamy-pink shell caught my eye when I was kicking a dock in Reedville out of sheer frustration. The morning of our 20th wedding anniversary, we left our warm beds in D.C. at 5:30 a.m. and drove for 3 hours to catch the ferry to Tangier Island. When informed that the ferry “didn’t feel like going out that day,” I unleashed my fury on the nearest inanimate object.
Always the problem-solver, my husband took me to the nearest crab house, where the owner warmed us up with cups of hot tea and stories about life on the Bay. We peeked into crab shedding tanks and watched watermen haul in and separate their catch.
Complaining about rising before the sun would fall on deaf ears here, because that’s the usual time these hard-working folks start their day. After checking in to the glamorous Tides Inn that evening, memories of our ill-fated island jaunt quickly faded away.
In a final sweep of returning our tiki bar to its pristine state, I pick up a wooden parrot that’s buried in mud up to its beak. While wiping grass clumps off its wings, I remember finding this sassy bird in a beach store during our Potomac River adventures. We followed the river from Old Town Alexandria’s urban waterfront all the way to the tip of Virginia’s Northern Neck.
Colonial Beach was a highlight of this trip, because we happened upon a rustic crab shack filled with locals who loved to tell stories about the region to receptive newcomers.
|From the shores of this seemingly sleepy beach town, American history has played out. We heard tales of pirate ships that docked nearby bringing all sorts of exotic Caribbean wares – from sugar to slaves – to the early colonists. English ships scurried past on their way to torch the capitol in Washington. Virginia and Maryland watermen engaged in fierce gun wars over the Bay’s precious oyster beds, and Chesapeake rum runners transported liquid gold inside crab bushels during Prohibition.|
|As I brush the last leaves off the deck, I notice that Bill has finished his post-storm chores and is delivering a crisp chardonnay as reward for my efforts. We climb into the hammock together to steal a few minutes of relaxation before dashing off to take one boy to soccer and the other to band practice. Back to reality.|
|Our Virginia crab deck quest is complete, and we’ve covered every waterfront property on the entire Chesapeake Bay from the Susquehanna to the Tidewater region. Our second book, Crab Decks & Tiki Bars of the Chesapeake Bay, Virginia Edition, has hit the bookstore shelves, and readers are beginning to email us their stories about following our footsteps around the Bay.|
|For now, we cherish the collage of memories and mementos on our private tiki bar. But all too soon, I know the travel bug will bite us again and we’ll start planning our next project about the Bay. Maybe oyster bars? Stay tuned ...|
It all started when we took our boys to Virginia Beach for spring break, which was a thinly disguised trip to crab decks in the Norfolk area. Our kids are “FED UP!” with crab decks, so we vacationed with friends who also have two boys and generously entertained our rat pack while we worked.
For the record, we did spend quality time with our kids. When a Navy airplane crash closed roads between Norfolk and our Virginia Beach hotel, we took the boys to an Irish pub for “ice cream” while waiting for Route 264 to reopen. Wait a minute … that makes us sound like even worse parents.
|To kill time, we walked along Norfolk’s scenic waterfront and took a paddle-wheel ferry to Portsmouth to get the flip-side view. That’s when I first spotted the schooner tied up near the Renaissance Hotel. She was tall, sleek, and elegant with graceful vintage lines that seemed out of place amid Norfolk’s skyscrapers, battle ships, and tugboats pushing barges of coal down the river.|
I was star-struck. Who was this beautiful ship that looked like she was ripped from the pages of a history book?
The captain introduced us to Pride of Baltimore II, a reproduction of an 1812-era topsail schooner privateer. He explained that she was in town to get pampered with a full spa treatment of cleaning, general maintenance, and hull painting. She needed to be spruced up for summer cruises.
A couple weeks later, I was checking out the awesome cannon from the Chesapeake Oyster Wars at Annapolis Maritime Museum and heard a thundering boom. We residents of Washington, DC, don’t react well to loud bangs, but the locals here were pretty laisse faire about the noise. They recognized the sound of cannon shot, so they peeled me off the ceiling and took me to the harbor to see who was in town.
There she was again! Pride of Baltimore II looked marvelous after her nip-and-tuck down in Norfolk. She seemed to fit in better with the 18th Century Golden Girls of Annapolis architecture as she dwarfed the modern sailboats in the water around her.
This time I asked questions. Her measurements are impressive: She is 157 feet long and weighs in at 185.5 long tons. This lady is a get-about, having sailed 200,000 miles and sashayed into 200 ports in 40 countries since commissioned in 1988. With that kind of travel agenda, I wondered if I’d ever see her again.
The following week I was in Baltimore, talking to a retailer about our crab decks book. When I walked toward the Inner Harbor for lunch, I saw the tip of a wooden mast among the skyscrapers and realized I’d found her a third time! She had just pulled in from a morning sail, and her crew was inviting guests on board.
Stepping onto her deck was like time-traveling back to an era of unparalleled woodwork and craftsmanship. She was even more stunning up close and personal than from a distance. I was filled with awe for the original ship designers and admiration for the people who are keeping Chesapeake maritime heritage alive.
The crew told me that Pride of Baltimore II would be cavorting around the Eastern Seaboard this summer and strutting her stuff in places like New York, Boston, Savannah, Newport, and Nantucket. And she’ll be the belle of the ball at War of 1812 celebrations all around the Chesapeake Bay.
Now I think I’m smitten with my stalker.
If you’re sailing on the Atlantic Coast this season, check www.pride2.org for her schedule. You don’t want to miss the opportunity to meet this elegant old gal.
Tales of an Epic Journey to Chesapeake Bay Crab Decks & Tiki Bars
|by Susan Elnicki Wade, Apr. 11, 2012|
While we wait for the waitress to bring us a dozen steamed crabs, we raise our glasses in a victory toast. Our celebration goes unnoticed, because it’s a sunny day and we’re sitting at a Chesapeake Bay crab deck that’s bustling with people who are busy with their own hot crabs and cold beer. An armada of boats is pulling into the marina below, and children are fishing from the dock.
Amid the happy chaos, we smile and shout, “We did it!” For seven months, my husband Bill and I traveled to more than 160 crab houses and tiki bars on the Chesapeake Bay, and this crab deck is the last stop on our epic journey.
We have been gluttonous along the way, consuming about 11 gallons of crab soup, 300 oysters, 85 crab cakes, 40 pounds of mussels, 25 rockfish, 200 steamed shrimp and Lord knows how many beer, wine and rum drinks. But it has been worth every calorie.
Tasting the local wares was required research for our book, Crab Decks & Tiki Bars of the Chesapeake Bay. Officially, the book is a travel guide to the waterfront eateries that serve some of the tastiest seafood on the planet, but in our hearts it is a family album, packed with memories of the places where we had our first romantic dates, taught our boys about jellyfish and blue herons, and caught rockfish in the shadows of the Bay Bridge.
Our celebration continues when the plastic tray holding a pile of plump red crabs lands on our table. I watch with admiration as Bill eases the tender meat from the shells. His hands move as swiftly as a Phillips processing plant worker’s, because he’s a true Maryland native who’s picked crabs since he was just a pup.
He generously hands me a few meaty backfin clumps, knowing that picking crabs doesn’t come easy for me. My youth was spent in western Pennsylvania, stalking brook trout in cool Allegheny mountain streams. But ever since my first bite of Maryland rockfish, I’ve embarked on a quest to taste all the Bay’s seafood delicacies and unlock the secrets of cooking them.
We order another round and lift our glasses this time to all the crabs that sacrificed their lives for our research. Ironically, our travels have paralleled the same migratory path that crabs swim each year in the Bay. Bill nibbles on a hush puppy while we reminisce about where it all began. Our starting point was southern Maryland, where Bill’s father had a home near the Patuxent River. Cruising around the hidden necks of St. Mary’s and Charles counties uncovered a cornucopia of rural treasures.
We discovered a gem tucked away at a marina up the Port Tobacco River, where the cream of crab soup set the bar high for all the others we tasted. A trinity of restaurants on Popes Creek showed us how the rolling farmlands could accommodate a lively tiki bar, a traditional crab house and an American-cuisine restaurant in one remote location. Between meals, we would sneak in history lessons by taking our boys to places along the Potomac River such as St. Clements Island, where the first Catholics landed in the New World, and the spot where John Wilkes Booth tried to escape into Virginia after shooting President Lincoln.
Raucous laughter from the marina interrupts our trip down memory lane. A sunburned boater tells a tale about the super-sized rockfish that got away, while his buddies cackle in disbelief. After the mayhem dies down, Bill returns to our story. He reminds me how we had to adopt a new research strategy when we headed north toward Annapolis and Baltimore. Instead of scouring the countryside, where locating crab decks often felt like finding a needle in a haystack, we faced the daunting task of investigating scores of restaurants in congested urban areas. The best approach, we decided, was to begin on the outskirts and then head into town. Rivers such as the Middle, Back and Severn often felt like Main Street in suburban communities, with all roads leading to the water and crab decks acting as community centers, where neighbors convened to catch up on local news.
Tiki and crab décor often collided, creating watering holes for families during the day and singles after dark. Outside Annapolis we noticed that sailors dressed in uniform were as commonplace at crab decks as watermen in raincoats and boots. In Dundalk and Glen Burnie, smokestacks puffed fumes into sunsets over the water, and boaters wearing Ravens jerseys picked crabs alongside businessmen in suits.
I take a slow sip of my Chardonnay and remember the frigid trips to inner-city crab decks. Knowing that most of Baltimore’s waterfront eateries are open year-round, we saved those visits for the offseason. We braved freezing rain and snowstorms, but waitresses always warmed us up with steaming bowls of creamy oyster stew and spicy vegetable crab soup.
We had already spent a lot of time in Baltimore, but researching the book gave us a new objective: to see if this town really is the epicenter of crab and tiki. And we weren’t disappointed. We feasted on sautéed soft shells topped with beurre blanc at tables draped in white linens, and we sampled hard shells coated with Old Bay on tables covered with brown paper. We dined in a restaurant shaped like a ship and watched watermen haul fresh catch from rusty boats. And a tiki barge plopped in the middle of the Inner Harbor gave us an ideal view of the city skyline at night. Yes, the urban crab scene was better than we had expected.
Feeling frustrated that I can’t get the last morsel of meat from a claw and secretly wishing I had ordered a crab cake instead, I take a break from picking and ask Bill to tell me his favorite part of our journey. Without a doubt, he answers, it was the Northern Headwaters. His parents kept their boat at Kent Narrows, so he had never seen where the Susquehanna pours into the Bay, and he relished the discovery of unfamiliar territory.
On a warm spring morning, we left our home in Washington and arrived at Havre de Grace in time for a picture-perfect lunch at the water’s edge. After several stops at marinas and crab decks in Cecil County, we were lucky to pass under the graceful arch of the Chesapeake City Bridge at sunset. We marveled at the spectacular view as a parade of boats cruised along the C&D Canal. Amid the town’s Victorian homes, antique shops and galleries, we found a waterfront deck with a plastic shark bursting through the bar’s thatched roof and tiki masks carved into palm trees.
Bill takes a swig of Budweiser and wipes flecks of crab shrapnel off his shirt. While signaling for our check, he turns the question back at me. What had been my favorite? Hmm … I think for a minute and then answer that I had a soft spot for the Eastern Shore’s subtle charm. While watching our boys swim at Betterton Beach, I had imagined 19th-century steamboats delivering visitors to amusement parks in the glory days. I loved the historic homes lined up along the water in Chestertown, but the islands and marshes around Crisfield had stolen my heart.
During one of our exhaustive research stages, I had eaten oysters while staring at Baltimore’s city skyline on Thursday, and then by Saturday I was on the Eastern Shore driving along the narrow causeways of Hoopers Island, gazing at the rugged primal marshland. That’s when I understood the many faces and moods of the Chesapeake Bay. Each neck and tributary has its own personality, and I had come to cherish them all.
We take one last look at the Bay as the sun drops low in the sky, feeling pleased with our accomplishment yet a little sad about the journey’s end. Writing and publishing our book wouldn’t be nearly as much fun as researching it had been, but we look forward to sharing our adventures with other Bay fans and introducing a new crowd to the Chesapeake. Then I start thinking: Perhaps we should do a book about oysters?
|A Toast to the ChesaTiki Bay|
|by Susan Elnicki Wade, Mar. 5, 2012|
As we walk onto the crab deck, I can’t suppress a smile when I see a pair of red and yellow plastic palm trees. With the rolling Chesapeake farmlands as a backdrop, they look like two happy misfits determined to inject a little tropical spirit into the landscape.
We’ve seen this phenomenon plenty of times before: the whimsical influx of Polynesian décor amidst steamed crabs and nautical gear. Scowling tiki masks get nailed on walls beside portraits of 19th Century ship captains. Pictures of hula gals in grass skirts dance next to signs for Natty Boh beer.
A local crab deck owner once told us about his annual trek to Florida to buy palm trees. He ties the 12-foot tropical beauties in the back of his Ford pick-up and plans a white-knuckled route home trying to avoid low bridges. The entire trip back, he prays they don’t come loose and topple onto the highway. The harsh Chesapeake winters kill his trees, so he has to return south every spring to transport more swaying palms.
So I start to wonder what’s behind this tiki-craze? When did folks start going to such lengths to blend Polynesia into traditional décor? Well, it all began back in 1934.
Smack dab in the middle of the Great Depression, a traveler named Don Beach, opened a Polynesian restaurant in Hollywood, CA. Flaming tiki torches, bamboo furniture, and carved masks from his island journeys caught people’s attention, and they raved about his fruity rum drinks. It was such a hit that 12 more locations were spawned.
Tiki’s boom-time hit when Hollywood got on board. Movies like Jaguar God and South Pacific gave the masses a glimpse of island life, and girls went wild over Elvis during his Blue Hawaii period. By the time Gilligan’s Island appeared on TV, tiki-mania had shifted into high gear.
Before long, other restaurateurs like Trader Vic caught tiki fever and spread the island groove across the country. This set the stage for American soldiers returning home from the Pacific in World War II with souvenirs and vivid stories of exotic lands. Housewives held luaus instead of backyard barbeques and dressed their men in tropical-print shirts instead of white button-downs.
By the late 1960s, however, Polynesian Pop started to decline. American youth turned their focus to the jungles of Vietnam, protesting the war and rejecting the frivolity of their parents’ generation. Soon, disco balls replaced tiki masks in lounges, and American Tiki went into hibernation.
But not for long. By the 1980s, the new generation went retro and dug through attics and yard sales to find vintage hula dolls, tiki mugs, and Hawaiian shirts. Tiki was back in vogue, from Oregon to New York, and the rage trickled down into the Chesapeake.
To accommodate the revived quest for tropical fun, Bay restaurants strung colorful lights around wooden decks, turned up the volume of Buffett and Marley tunes, and taught bartenders how to make Mai-Tais, Zombies, and other tiki classics. Palm trees started popping up along the water from Virginia Beach to Baltimore and beyond, and tiki found its place among the oyster boats and crab shacks.
“It all boils down to an escape from reality,” explained a waitress at a tiki hot-spot on the Bay. “When people walk under our 30-foot tall elephant tusks and gaze at the water through a grove of palm trees, they feel like they’ve been whisked away from their daily dull-drums into a world of tropical pleasure.”
I raise my Orange Crush in agreement and make a toast of thanks to the benevolent Gods of Tiki.
|Chesapeake Walls of Fame—From Surfing Crabs to Prosthetic Limbs|
|by Susan Elnicki Wade, Feb. 22, 2012|
When I started visiting crab decks, I’d scan dining rooms to get a feel for the general atmosphere. Then I’d get wrapped up in the menu, the seafood piled on my plate and maybe the TV screen if a decent ballgame was on. Crowd watching was often a hoot, because you never know what quirky characters might get washed in with the tide.
But, with over 160 crab deck trips under my belt, I’ve refined my gaze and now set my sites on items that really show a place’s personality — stuff that’s hung on the walls.
I’m not talking about window treatments or paint color choices. I mean the personal artifacts that people nail up for the world to see. It’s the best litmus test for who’s not taking life too seriously and where you’re likely to have fun.
Lots of eateries mount regulation nautical items, such as fish nets, crab pots, light houses, ships, anchors, blue herons and vintage photos of watermen. They’re charming and underscore wonderful Bay traditions.
But I sit up a little straighter in my bar stool when I notice visual play with crabs. Millions of realistic cooked and uncooked plastic crabs cover walls around the Bay. Yet I yearn to see depictions of steamed crabs doing the unexpected — playing the saxophone, wearing a pirate hat and eye patch, straddling a Harley, waving a frosty beer mug, or hanging 10 on a surf board. The possibilities for animated crabs seem endless.
One place paints NFL team logos on real crab shells and hangs them in the playoff bracket positions. That tells me they mean business when it comes to seafood and football. On another restaurant’s wall, a polite crab sits at a white-linen table patiently waiting for his dinner companion to share a rack of ribs. I almost expect to see an oyster Rockefeller wearing a top hat and monocle pull up a chair beside him.
Birds are also a source of personal statements at crab decks. While I appreciate the craft of duck decoy carving, I’m always a bit wary of the come-hither look in their eyes that lures innocent mallards to their demise.
Some folks use their restaurant walls to express a disregard for seagulls. After watching the mid-air ninja moves to grab French fries off my plate, I understand why people portray seagulls with a tad of disrespect by posing them with a captain’s hat on their head or a corn-cob pipe clenched in their beak.
Perhaps the sassiest bird I’ve seen at the Bay was a tropical parrot that rejected dinner for a refreshing beverage by saying “Screw the cracker … Polly wants a cocktail.”
By far, my favorite room accent was a 2-foot long plastic baby doll’s leg I saw dangling from a rafter. The owner admitted that it washed ashore after a storm, and patrons grew fond of the artificial limb. For holidays and special events, they slip on a fresh clean sock to commemorate the occasion and add a splash of color to the festive décor.
That doll’s leg might be hard to beat, but I’d like to hear about your favorite item you’ve seen hung up at a Chesapeake crab house. Feel free to send photos and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
|The Oddest Driftwood|
|by Susan Elnicki Wade, Jan. 28, 2012|
I've always wanted a ghost. Not a big terrifying apparition like in the movie Poltergeist. More like a congenial companion spirit who would float about giving the house a year-round Halloween feel and raising our neck hairs from time to time to show that science can’t explain everything.
On my night stand I’ve amassed a nice collection of books about Chesapeake ghosts, which I often consult before trips to crab decks. Sometimes, I convince my husband to deviate from our planned route so I can catch a haunting. Unfortunately, I’ve come up empty-handed every time.
It’s bright and sunny for today’s visit to the Dockside Restaurant in Chesapeake Beach, VA, so my expectations for a paranormal treat are low.
The location is splendid – a lovely strip of land that separates Monroe Bay from the Potomac River. After admiring the well-kept marina, we step inside the restaurant. It was built in 1932 as an oyster-shucking plant, but they bumped out the back to add a tiki bar, wooden deck, and beach area with tropical-colored chairs and palm trees.
I leave Bill at the bar and stroll around snapping photos of rooms decorated with an eclectic array of vintage nautical items. An odd thumping sound from around the corner catches my attention. I don’t see anyone else around, so I head back to the lounge.
When I mention the noise in the back, the bartender says, “That’s probably our ghost. He bumps around, knocking things off shelves or rearranging stuff to let us know he’s here.”
I ask if I can take him home with me, but the bartender declines, “I’m sorry, but no. He needs to stay here with the others.” What? Others? Not fair! She’s got multiple spirits, and I have none. Tell me more.
The bartender leans forward, raises her eyebrows and spins a delightfully morbid tale. “Back in 1985, a major storm blew threw Colonial Beach causing serious flooding. After the skies cleared, beach combers noticed several pair of skeleton feet sticking out of the sand right outside where you’re now sitting. Authorities were called in to assess the situation and found all kinds of human bones from different bodies scattered around the beach. Forensic results dated the bones back to the 1800s.”
She refills our glasses and continues, “The mystery remains unsolved, and we never learned the names of those unfortunate souls. But the locals have a theory – those men were shanghaied.” I gasp and take a sip of my Chardonnay.
“You see, this region is famous for some of the richest oyster beds in the mid-Atlantic. During the oyster boom of the 19th Century, captains had a hard time recruiting crewmen to work on the skipjacks in the cold winter months when oysters are harvested. So, local watermen would troll the bars in Baltimore, Alexandria, and other ports, looking for immigrants or other hearty men to bring aboard. If these recruits didn’t come along willingly, unscrupulous captains would often ply them with alcohol until they passed out and then drag them onto the ships. That’s what we call “shanghaied.”
“As if that wasn’t bad enough, some captains couldn’t afford to pay the crew when the season was over. So, they’d whack their workers in the head or toss them overboard, leaving them to die a watery death. We believe the skeletal remains that washed up on our beach belong to a crew of ill-fated oystermen — and our house ghost is one of them.”
In a room with a 19th Century restless spirit I am overjoyed. Thrilled beyond measure. But when I glance over at Bill, he's rolling his eyes and shaking his doubting head. I cannot take this ghost home with me, but I promise I'll come back to visit him the next time we're in town.
|Wait a Minute! I Thought We Were in Virginia.|
|by Susan Elnicki Wade, Jan. 16, 2012|
On research trips around the Bay, I’m the designated driver. This has nothing to do with alcohol consumption; it’s all about speed. When I watched a carload of nuns pass my snail-paced husband on a highway, I knew my place was behind the wheel.
But Bill’s a whiz at deciphering maps and charting travel routes. Today, I’m counting on him to navigate the course to crab decks on the Potomac River near Colonial Beach. But he’s quieter than normal. Something on the map is bugging him. He shows me that the MD/VA dividing line seems to run along the Virginia shoreline rather than up the middle of the Potomac. That can’t be right.
We pull in to Coles Point Tavern, a weather-worn structure that’s built on a rickety wooden pier above the water. The wrap-around deck looks inviting, but we walk inside and take a seat at the bar. “Welcome to Maryland,” says the bartender, and I glare at Bill, assuming his renowned navigational skills have failed us.
I thought we were in Virginia. “Nope. The minute you step onto our pier, you enter the State of Maryland. Virginia’s border stops at the water’s edge, and Maryland has the rights to the entire Potomac River,” explains our bartender.
Ok, I’m curious. So, your business pays taxes to St. Mary’s County, MD, right? If you get married on a boat next to the restaurant, you need a Maryland marriage license? And if I walk back to the parking lot, I’ll be in Virginia? “You got it,” he nods.
It’s delightfully quirky, but how did this happen? Our resident historian tells us that in the early 1600s, Maryland was part of the Virginia colony. But in 1632, King Charles I took a chunk of Virginia and granted the land to Cecil Calvert of Baltimore, who established the colony of Maryland at the banks of the Potomac.
Virginians sorta ignored the boundary line. Even George Washington built a herring hatchery on the Potomac near Mount Vernon and never paid Maryland for using “its” waters.
The dividing line has been debated and contested for centuries, especially during the Oyster Wars when watermen on both sides fought over rights to the region’s rich oyster beds. Nonetheless, the border remains as it was drawn in the 17th Century.
It gets even more interesting in the 1950s when gambling became legal in Southern Maryland, but not in Virginia. The good citizens of Colonial Beach and Prince William County wanted a piece of the action, so they put slot machines on barges in the water on Maryland turf – but made sure Virginians could walk out on piers to test Lady Luck. Three “floating casinos” still exist: Coles Point Tavern, The Riverboat, and Tims II.
Amused by this great local lore, I look around the old tavern with renewed interest. But with only a few stacks of Keno cards and a TV showing horse racing, it doesn’t seem like much of a casino.
Near the kitchen door, I notice a home-made roulette wheel that had mixed up the numbers 14 and 15, so I ask the bartender how it works. “If you look on the back of the bar stools, you’ll find numbers stenciled in white. When the mood hits, we spin the wheel, and the lucky patron who’s sitting in the stool with the number that comes up gets a drink for $1.”
I check the back of my seat and call out, “Come on number 6!”
|Dorothy, We're Not in Maryland Anymore!|
|by Susan Elnicki Wade, Jan. 2, 2012|
Maryland is homey and familiar, and we know that part of the Bay like the back of our hand. But the quest for crab decks is taking us into Virginia, which is new and uncharted territory. We’ve ventured South before, but I once had a run-in with a woman from Richmond who “hadn’t gotten over Gettysburg,” so I’m wondering what’s in store for us.
We’re on the Eastern Shore today, breezing down Route 13 past Pocomoke City and taking our last gasp of Maryland air. After we cross the state line into Virginia, it doesn’t seem much different — gentle landscapes, sleepy little towns, and plush farmland.
Then the unexpected crosses my eyes. I slam on the breaks and back up the car. “Sweet Jesus, it’s a cotton field!” I tell my two boys in the back seat to put down their electronic gadgets and witness a real-live cotton field. They look and shrug, only moderately impressed. Other than scenes in Gone with the Wind, this Pennsylvania gal has never seen cotton growing, so I’m excited about the new experiences that await us.
We get back on the road, but before long, we have to stop again. I spot a bright lemon-yellow trailer that requires investigation. Signs plastered to the walls promise to sell us a menagerie of local wares — peanuts, BB guns, country pork products, cheap cigarettes, and fireworks. Who could resist?
Inside the dimly lit general store, we stroll past an eclectic assortment of explosive devices, plastic-wrapped snacks, camouflage dress wear, souvenirs, and more. I grab a burlap bag stuffed with smoked pork belly bacon and find Bill near the section dedicated to Confederate flags and garden gnomes. I whisper, “Dorothy, we’re not in Maryland anymore.” “Yes,” he grins, “This is a hoot.”
Promising no more delays, we head for our afternoon destination — The Sunset Grill in remote Kiptopeke, VA. We arrive just as the sun begins its descent into the horizon, casting soft light across the shoreline. I pause to take in the breathtaking view of a long beach with children playing on sandbars and adults picking steamed crabs on the deck.
I look around and realize I’m alone. My boys are down at the water, chasing crabs and throwing sand clumps at each other. Bill is sitting on a wooden bar stool, holding a cold Budweiser and shouting at the TV with other Redskin fans.
A warm breeze lifts the fishnets hung around the bar’s open windows. When I step inside, a suntanned waitress says “Welcome to Paradise” and takes my order. We might not be in Maryland anymore, but right now we don't want to go home.
|Welcome to the World of Crab Decks & Tiki Bars of the Chesapeake Bay|
|by Susan Elnicki Wade, Dec. 19, 2011|
For eight months, we devoured about 11 gallons of crab soup, 300 oysters, 85 crab cakes, 40 pounds of mussels, 25 rockfish, 200 steamed shrimp, and an undisclosed amount of rum. We raised a glass to rosy sunsets at marinas in every Maryland county along the Bay and washed down hot crabs with icy beers from Solomons to Crisfield.
What's behind this feeding frenzy? Research. My husband Bill and I set out to write a travel guide to all the waterfront restaurants on the Chesapeake Bay, so we had to sample the goods. You see, Bill’s a Maryland native, who takes blue crabs very seriously. He grew up catching them from his family’s boat and can pick crabs faster than a Phillips processing plant worker. Western Pennsylvania is my home, so my youth was spent scrambling up rocky streams with my brothers in search of the elusive brook trout.
But Bill converted me to a fan of the Bay. He courted me with romantic get-aways to B&Bs in Cambridge and fishing trips from Kent Island. After our boys were born, we camped under the stars at St. George Island and swam in the warm waters at Calvert Cliffs, praying the dreaded jellyfish wouldn’t sting their tender skin.
At home in Washington, DC, we told friends about our adventures on the Eastern and Western shores. Their relentless requests for Bay destinations convinced us that we had to share our experiences with everyone.
This June we published our first book, Crab Decks & Tiki Bars of the Chesapeake Bay, and it’s a big hit with boaters and landlubbers alike. Nearly 160 waterfront eateries in Maryland got full coverage, but we ran out of steam and only offered an appendix of Virginia.
After an outcry from Virginia crab lovers who felt neglected, we decided to explore the Old Dominion and write a second book about how they do crabs in the Bay’s southern waters. As we cruise around Virginia, we’d like to share our stories with you. Come join us on our adventures.