We make Atlantic City along with the twilight.
After days of rain, neon spilling from the surrounding casinos lights the
vaporous air. Tall masts and building spires disappear into an otherworldly
purple glow, a purée that hovers over the entire harbor.
Seven PM finds us bowing, scraping and begging in Chef Vola’s vestibule,
Atlantic City’s own Rao’s. We throw ourselves at the mercy of Lou, the
gatekeeper and proprietor, who’s wearing his signature rolled-up sleeves and
cute Jersey-Shore accent. Though it’s Saturday night of a jammed Columbus
Day weekend, Lou now recognizes us as his Sailing People and, after an hour
or so, corkscrews us in. Such largess naturally prompts a round of
tumultuous over-ordering. We leave with scrumptious leftovers (plus a fresh
order of football-sized crabcakes) for the next several days of meals
sailing and at anchor. Never mind the still-bursting freezer.
The dismal weather travels with us, though we count ourselves lucky it
doesn’t pour most of the time. It’s merely chilly, showery and everything
around us—sky, water, land—is a uniform, grungy gray. We traverse the narrow
C&D Canal, a calm route that passes us from the Atlantic into Delaware Bay
and finally the Chesapeake Bay.
It’s eve of Yom Kippur when the Northstar cockpit computer/chartplotter—our
navigational deity—forsakes us, refusing to turn on. As if it knows we have
no plan to fast.
this device is to us as a spear gun is to more macho cruisers, we scrap the
Annapolis plan and divert to Baltimore, where we can more quickly send it
back for repair. With important local boat shows in process, after 20 or so
offshore phone calls (what did we do without cell phones?) we luck into a
downtown marina amid the colorful modern skyscrapers and bricky restored
power plants and warehouses of the Inner Harbor.
Here’s a small world—that is small sea—story. While plowing into
Baltimore harbor, we spot a sailboat that looks familiar. Passing, we see
its name: Enkidu. With that name (Google it, if you’re interested—something
about friend to Gilgamesh, something about one with Nature) we know it can
only be our friends Barbara and Bob, cruisers we met a year-and-a-half ago
in San Andres…off the coast of Nicaragua and a more remote Caribbean island
there never was. We’re in next-door marinas and are invited for cocktails
with their daughter and a whole bunch of interesting Baltimore locals.
Still, Baltimore’s main attraction is our kids, Karen and David, who work
for the Sun, and our delicious grandchildren, Ronnie and Sammy, far yummier
than the round of gourmet and down-and-dirty eating we embark on. Karen, the
newspaper’s restaurant reviewer, guides us in our chase after the tastiest
She also points us to Wegman’s surely the most surprising supermarket
ever: under one roof Whole Foods’ wholesomeness, Harrods’ hautiness,
Citarella’s displayfulness, Eli’s breadiness, Picholine’s cheesiness,
Greenberg’s pastryness, all married to the double West Side whammy of
Fairway/Zabar comprehensiveness and un-priciness. Wegman’s is butcher,
greengrocer, fishmonger, farmer’s market, European street market, Lower-East
Side ethnic and Upper-East Side gourmet all rolled into one thrilling
assault on senses and palate.
(Forgive that assault of New York references: lifelong residency dies
And then there’s the Café—in concept, haute cafeteria. Side by side are
Kosher deli, gourmet pizzeria, soup kitchen, sandwich and panini factory,
flanked by a healthy stretch of Oriental buffet. You park your cart in a
carriage corral, grab your oversized Paris street-scene plastic tray, heap
it up with heart’s desires, jump in an elevator and arrive upstairs at an
eating gallery overlooking the visually entrancing store, There are plenty
of tables, with choice of conventional dining chairs and—get this—small
sofas and comfy easy chairs.
On Saturday we drive up to suburban Philadelphia to be with son John,
wife Lisa and the triplets-plus-one. With the gloom finally evaporated,
we’re treated to several ideal fall days, perfect for outings to
playgrounds, T-ball games, hayrides and pumpkin patches. All the kids are
bright, verbal, funny and endearing.
Monday morning dawns crisp and sunny, potentially a perfect sailing day,
but we stall shoving off by an hour—missing the wind window—so we can hit
Lexington Market, a cornucopia of individual stands that hawk meat, chicken,
turkey, produce, plus a jumble of prepared foods. We await the 10 AM opening
of Faidley's, purveyors of the phenomenal crab cakes we will call
lunch—chunky with the freshest, lumpiest crab the famous local crabbing
industry has to offer. From a nearby stand we also grab one monster turkey
wing and one-half pound of still-hot dark meat. Breakfast.
Finally we’re off, completely unscheduled, for a two-week romp around the
Chesapeake Bay, virgin territory for us. Bay? It’s vast, more like an ocean
considering our 40 years cruising the scrawny chicken neck known as Long
Island Sound. The Chesapeake is 180 miles long, ranges from 3 to 30 miles
wide and dates back more than 10,000 years to the melting of the glaciers
and the Atlantic Ocean flooding into the Susquehanna River valley.
Tributary rivers—there are hundreds of them—seem to branch off about
every five minutes, then subdivide into myriad creeks, coves and cul-de-sacs
beckoning with secluded anchorages, tiny, historic old towns and former
shipping ports. Thousands of miles of pleasure cruising grounds lie ahead.
Daunting. Immediately, we create a schedule.
We duck into one of the first rivers—the Miles River—and stop at quaint
St Michaels, dating back to the 1600s, a former trading village and
shipbuilding center. Today, pretty, nicely preserved 18th and19th century
houses line the streets. Shopping, not shipbuilding, seems to be the chief
industry. Talbot Street, the three-block main drag, is a run of gifty,
nautical and super-trendy boutiques for women, each tucked into a porchy old
home. We visit the nautical museum with its squat, also-porchy Hooper Strait
lighthouse, moved from a more remote area of the Chesapeake, which sits on
posts that are actually screwed into the floor of the sea.
Our sightseeing—frequently perfunctory—complete, we pop into the Crab
Claw, a clubby, woodsy, touristy restaurant overlooking the harbor. There we
discover paper plates have given way to plastic plates, molded to look like
paper plates. This may be because it’s fall or it’s simply a trend we’ve
The menu is lackluster, an assemblage of generic Seafood-by-the-Sea
entries, so I order my current standby, crabcakes. Halfway through these
pale, breadcrumby patties barely hinting of crab, I discover I’ve somehow
missed the quintessentially Maryland meal: steamed just-caught whole blue
crabs. This I discover as I hear a loud clatter behind me. Turning, I see a
waitress upending a tray the size of a coal chute, disgorging a slagheap of
giant crab specimens. They are mitt-sized—bigger than many a New England
lobster touted as a two-pounder. Thickly encrusted with spicy, ruddy Old Bay
seasoning, they give new meaning to the phylum “crustacean.”
The crabs, attempting to join a mounting Iwo Jima whose base is a mere
four-top of a table, fall helter-skelter atop each other. Looking almost
alive, they claw at the pile as if attempting to hang on. Failing, they
bounce, ricochet and frisbee themselves at their intended devourers: a
sweatshirted foursome who stab at them in mid-flight, now more resembling
the Yankee infield than convivial cruisers sharing a bucket or two of
These four have actually ordered FORTY of these bruisers. Now how did I
miss that menu selection—a choice of 20 or 40 jumbo blue crabs? It’s
personal slippage of significant proportion.
Notwithstanding, appraising the yet-quivering but at-last contained hill
of crabs, I decide their appetites will surely flag and, following a few
clever-enough conversational sorties, I’ll be invited to join them with a
rubber mallet of my own.
Now that scenario might play out as envisioned, but I get too impatient
watching the gusto with which they attack those mamzers. Though they’re
prizing ridiculously small morsels, mere shreds of meat, from those slippery
shells, nonetheless they’re smacking their lips in delight (or just possibly
pain.) So I order my own, moderating myself at two, which appears do-able
after two crabcakes and a side salad.
When mine arrive I note they’re at least a third smaller than theirs.
”No they’re not,” says Gary, speaking, he thinks, out of the depth- and
size-perception of his recently corrected, cataract-surgeried eyes.
“Yes, they are….just look at the weeny claws on mine compared to theirs,”
I hiss. “How come they got the catch of the day, not me?”
”C’mon, Lou, don’t go there—just enjoy your crabs,” begs Gary, who’s now
sat through the equivalent of two lunches.
This unfortunate situation is a recurrent theme in my alimentary life.
It may be so that I actually get the smallest serving. Or it could be the
result of a self-generated myopia lens through which I view whatever appears
on my plate.
Or—what I really think—it’s part of the larger conspiracy against my
getting the portion size I want, crave—and can absolutely finish.
Sometimes, usually to soothe myself when I’m overweight, I tell myself it
must be because I’m the smallest person at the table. Though always with the
Often I decide it’s the result of a waitress’s vendetta: I sent back the
soup because it wasn’t really hot. I was too exacting about what I wanted in
my omelet: “Are the mushrooms fresh, I mean really fresh, not fresh from the
can? Can the onions be really, really well done—in fact, ask the chef to
burn them. And the cheese, will it be actually melted?”
Now how hard is that? Apparently impossible.
I’ve developed strategies to avoid getting the smallest veal chop. “Tell
the chef I want the man-sized one, not the ladies.” “Whichever one you’ll be
serving him, that’s the one I want.” For a long time, before he rebelled, I
actually switched plates with Gary.
The bare-bones truth is the man gets the bigger portion. Whether because
the average woman eats less or because he’s the brute and she’s the damsel,
I don’t know. More likely, it’s because he’s the tipper. So far I haven’t
proven my case, but I know I will. I’ve succeeded in this admission: “We
mark the lady’s choice on the order so we’ll know who to serve first.”
Definitely they get bigger wine pours, which I can, and do, measure on a
I’m not saying this is normal—or even healthy—on my part. If there’s a
psychological peg, an antecedent on which to hang this fixation about
portion size, it’s that I was a hugely fat child, invariably denied my fill.
In her more charitable moods (like when I wasn’t in view) my mother
called me "chubby." (Probably she couldn’t pronounce “gargantuan.”) But
mostly I was just the “fat horse.” She did use to say I had wonderful hair.
You can't have fat hair, you see.
Now having mothered three, I understand better her frustration, though
not her invective. I was so fat that when she took me for a tutu, there was
nothing close to my size. She had to buy two pink tutus and have them sewn
together. I think technically this would be called a four-four. Or maybe a
four-two. I've always wondered.
There I was, this absolute whale of a girl tap-dancing her pudgy young
feet off week after week, front-row center of Miss Pearl Brown's School of
the Dance. I could more appropriately have been auditioning to be a derrick
than a dancer.
Worse even for my mother, my graceful, pretty, little best friend Jane
cowered in the back row, while I shuffled off to Buffalo, not for a minute
realizing that I was the buffalo. With Miss Pearl Brown—tactful soul she
was—reminding me gently to give some of the other girls a chance at the
front row. Of course since nobody else had the nerve, it may have been
fortunate for Miss Pearl Brown and the symmetry of the class that I could
fill the first row just about all by myself.
At any rate, I never got what I wanted to eat. Unless Jane, blackmailed
with loss of favor, and an anorexic in the making anyway, handed me over her
ice cream cones. Behind my mother’s size -18 back.
We move from St Michaels and the Miles to the Wye River.
Wye? Well, the guidebooks say it’s quite beautiful.
“Yeah, but imagine what the Official Guidebook to Downtown New Rochelle
says,” remarks my husband, who could hold a degree in Vacationer Cynic.
We find the Wye not only winsome but also wyde and wyld with whirring,
wheeling, cawing herds of birds dominating the sky. Their relentless
squawking and chattering shatter the peace of an empty anchorage and a
After enthusing about how immersed we are in natural wonder, when they
finally become just damned annoying and impossible to ignore, I try to join
in their fun.
They’re the Early Birds—“Mabel, for Chrissake isn’t it time to stop for
dinner?” Or, they’re the Snowbirds heading south. “Harry, I hope you
remembered the to turn the heat down.” “My colorist left, I could be in real
trouble!” “Bathing suit—I don’t think so this year.”
It’s like eavesdropping on a Hadassah luncheon.
More so than birds, crab traps populate the Chesapeake and its
rivers—seemingly as many traps as waves. Individual floats attached to metal
baskets below form blankets of color on the water’s shimmering surface. Each
crabber has a signature marker: truncated lengths of Styrofoam noodles;
orange Tide jugs; white Clorox, yellow Penzoil and blue Dasai bottles. All
day long low-slung skiffs skim the water, their occupant crabbers leaning
over to yank up the booty below and transfer them to buckets. Annually
Chesapeake fishermen, crabbers, clammers and oyster harvesters drag up more
than a billion dollars worth of edible sea creatures: boilable, steamable,
fryable or just pop-in-your-mouth-raw.
of massive ancient trees line the shoreline as we dinghy up the Wye and,
next destination. the Tred Avon, feeling inescapably part of a Shakespearean
comedy. A more modern touch: copiously-columned, multiply-gabled, many-chimnied
waterfront homes rise heavenwards, explode sideways and backwards into
auxiliary buildings—mansionesque barns, poolside palaces, boat sheds worthy
of the Harvard scull team. Pasture-sized lawns sweep down to marina-sized
docks and magazine-quality yachts.
Architecture on steroids.
Such antebellum manors and their McMansion mimickers are easily mistaken
for clubhouses, hotels, condominium complexes. With “Gentleman Farmer” long
gone occupationally it’s hard, so close to the Beltway, not to think
congressional boondoggles, military procurement swindles, campaign-finance
“windfalls.” Common folk must win the lottery to live this way.
Except, graced with each other and this meandering, modestly challenging,
ever-changing lifestyle, we know that we have indeed won life’s lottery.