Life Aboard LULU

October 22, 2005 (Nothing To Crab About)
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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.

Baltimore Inner HarborBecause 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 crabcake.

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 hard.)

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 missed.

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 brewski.

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.

Starvation rations

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 biggest appetite.

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.” Puh-leeze.

Definitely they get bigger wine pours, which I can, and do, measure on a case-by-case basis.

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.

Shakespearean play

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 perfect sunset.

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.

Wye River: Mansion or McMansion?Walls 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.


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