"Noooooo, don't do it like that!" my 72-year-old Aunt Eadie hisses, yanking my mallet away. "Don't crush it!" We're at Bo Brooks, a northeastern Baltimore crab house, and I'm about to bash a fire engine-red, seven-inch jimmy when my aunt springs into action. She reaches over, cradles the crab (underside up), and begins to demonstrate the true-and-only method for consuming it—a set of actions quite possibly as codified, if not as ancient, as those of a Japanese tea ceremony. "Now, first you grab hold of what's called the apron—start from this pointy little thing here—then you rip back until you've got the guts exposed. You see all that golden-yellow gooey stuff? That's the mustard. It's the fat, the best part. Eat it or I'll hit you."
And then we eat, just eat—rip, dig, crack, puncture, slurp, right to the top of our skulls—succumbing to the near-narcotic rush that comes from devouring vinegar-and-beer-steamed alabaster nuggets of good, pure Chesapeake Bay blue-crab meat, mixed with the pow!-right-in-the-kisser pungency of rock salt and Maryland seafood seasoning. Few words pass our lips. We're in crab nirvana. "Welcome to Bawlmer, hon," Aunt Eadie says as she flings me another crab.
It never fails. Regardless of how much time I have spent here, I am an outsider—an alien from out west whose parents broke free from Baltimore after World War II and raised me in California on Bergman movies and avocados and grilled lamb, not Orioles games and sour beef and scrapple. Aunt Eadie is my bridge to sacred back-east traditions long ignored or forgotten by my immediate family—and whenever I visit, I am a foreigner who must be taught how to eat, how to interpret the local dialect ("oil" is url; "pocketbook" becomes pockybook), how to appreciate this city all over again—and appreciation has not come easy.
The summer vacations I spent in Charm City—the name dreamed up by some public-relations whizzes to promote the town in the 1970s—as a kid were wondrous, but disorienting, too: Here was a place that was green all summer long, not brown and brittle like home. Here was a place where important Historical Monuments lurked around every corner ("Fort McHenry is my favorite hysterical place in Baltimore," Aunt Eadie would tell me, tongue only somewhat in cheek), as did social traditions that were every bit as fixed in the past. The city remained, and remains, unfamiliar to me. Why, then, do I know its savory, sweaty, sour, exaggerated tastes as well as I know the dream I had last night? Why, when I eat spice-encrusted steamed crabs and toothache-sweet, chocolate-frosted Berger's cookies—the antithesis of the California food I grew up with—do I feel that I am, in some primal way, eating the food I know best?
And so, in search of Baltimore's gastronomic essence, Aunt Eadie and I set out one morning, with "How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?" blaring on our car radio. "Look!" says Aunt Eadie, slowing down in front of a tiny sliver of clapboard house. "That's where we lived when we were so poor, one year all I asked for was a can of asparagus for my birthday." We're near our first destination, Hollins Market, in a gradually gentrifying neighborhood of quietly regal, upright row houses that H. L. Mencken once called home. Hollins is a remnant of Baltimore's city-subsidized market system, established in 1763. Once there were hundreds of such permanent, indoor markets nationwide. Now they only number in the teens, and Baltimore has six—Hollins, Cross Street, Broadway, and Northeast, all still city-sponsored, and the now privately owned Lexington and Avenue markets.
These places echo a time when everyday food-shopping meant bustling stalls and giant piles of staples like cabbages and carrots and potatoes—an experience considerably more engaging than a trip to the supermarket. At Dominic's Produce in Hollins Market, for instance, crowds of customers positively descend on four-foot-high mounds of assorted loose-leafed greens—collards, curly kale, mustard, turnip, and rough-and-ready clumps of field cress, roots attached—all destined for quick-frying with bacon or for long stewing with salt pork. Nearby, Bernie's butcher shop sells these and other "seasoning meats"—thick sheets of salt-crusted fatback, knobs of hickory-smoked ham hock from North Carolina, and rose-colored slabs of westphalian ham. I catch Aunt Eadie, trying to conceal a tear, paused at the poignant intersection of food and memory: "It's just whenever I see ham like that, I think of Mama," she says. "She used to stew everything with a hunk of that in it."
Elsewhere in the market, at Chuckie's Fried Chicken, a queue some twenty people long leads the way to the juiciest, most delectable fried chicken north of Kentucky (its deliciously crackly skin is spiked with a mild seafood seasoning). It's lunchtime by now, and we happily crunch our way through a few thighs and drumsticks. "Now we need some dessert," Aunt Eadie announces. She suggests we stop at the bakery inside Eddie's, a market a short drive away. Here, Aunt Eadie and the counterwoman converse in reverent tones about their favorite Baltimore desserts: fresh peach cake, snickerdoodle cookies, and that queen of local confections, a real ladies'-circle kind of thing called lady baltimore cake—three dreamy layers of white cake with a mixture of chopped pecans, dried fruits, and boiled frosting sandwiched in between. After a slice apiece and some coffee, we're on our way.
Our next stop is Cross Street Market in Federal Hill, one of Baltimore's oldest neighborhoods and the recent site of much enthusiastic urban renewal. We pay a visit to Tommy Chagouris, proprietor of Nick's Inner Harbor Seafood—where, from outward appearances, all of Baltimore must come to slug down National Bohemian beer, tell crass jokes, and eat the best crab cakes in town. Chagouris, a sharp, energetic guy, has been working full-time at this wildly successful fish market and raw bar (previously owned by his father) since the moment he finished high school. "The day I graduated," he recalls with a shudder, "my dad set the alarm for 3:30 the next morning and said, 'Son, you're going to work.'" As we walk around his small seafood empire, I pose a question: How does Baltimore's market culture stay so alive and kicking? "Everyone gets along with everyone," he says simply, and adds, "There are lots of people in this city who wouldn't have anything to live for if our markets didn't exist."
Aunt Eadie and I can't resist ordering a few crab cakes before we go. We pull up a stool in front of Nick's executive chef, Bill Thomas, who could make crab cakes with his eyes closed. What's his secret? Nothing much—literally. Only the faintest trace of binding (eggs, cracker meal, and a dab of mayonnaise) holds Thomas's cakes together, allowing the spectacular sweetness of his jumbo-lump local crabmeat to take center stage. "Don't let anyone tell you that crab from Florida or the Gulf is the same as ours—and don't even talk about crab from South America," Thomas says, scowling. I bite into a golden-crusted morsel. Oh, yes, there's a difference, all right—this crab is a pure taste of sea spray that just about plunges me right into the Chesapeake Bay.
If I had the unenviable task of identifying what Charm City, USA, tastes like, what would I say? That it is defined by Maryland seafood seasoning—the spice blend that shows up in (or on) virtually everything but dessert in Baltimore? That it tastes of the impressive harvest of the Chesapeake Bay? That it is all about the sweet-and-sour flavors that the city's German immigrants tossed into the stew pot to produce dishes like sour beef (Baltimorese for sauerbraten) and sauerkraut? Or that it tastes of the North as well as the South? Baltimore is, after all, equidistant from Virginia and Pennsylvania, and you'll find fried chicken alongside scrapple on menus all over town—as well as pit beef, a specialty that unites both sides of the Mason-Dixon.
Nancy Longo, chef-owner at Pierpoint Restaurant & Bar in the harborfront neighborhood of Fell's Point, has been concerned with these kinds of questions about the city's culinary identity for the better part of her food-obsessed life. This lovably tough Baltimore native (picture Tatum O'Neal in Paper Moon , all grown up) has fashioned a menu that ranges from Maryland to the Mediterranean to Asia, with fabulous-tasting updates of typical Baltimore dishes—like crab cakes made with unorthodox smoked crabmeat, and sublime crisp-fried oysters stacked atop fried red tomatoes and sprinkled with kernels of grilled Silver Queen corn.
One sunny Sunday, Longo and I sit in her restaurant leafing through vintage Baltimore menus. Looking at those from a trio of the city's greats, we marvel at how little the food has changed since the 1940s and '50s—except, of course, for the prices: There's Maison Marconi, an elegant Baltimore institution that calls to mind Galatoire's in New Orleans, where you can still order the chicken a la king, sole florentine, and lobster cardinale (diced lobster in a mushroom-sherry cream sauce, served in the shell) that are listed on the 1947 menu—classy dishes that disclose rich sauces and gentle seasonings and leave you yearning for a manhattan and some sparkling conversation. There's Haussner's, maybe the most flamboyantly decorated restaurant in the history of the world. (I'm not joking: More than 500 paintings and dozens of sculptures adorn its interior. It's an acid-trip version of the Metropolitan Museum.) On its yellowed 1952 menu is the same Smithfield ham and crab "saute" (actually broiled) that is pleasing diners today. And there's the Woman's Industrial Exchange tearoom, whose delicate offerings for the ladies-who-lunch set have barely changed a lick in 45 years—chicken salad and tomato aspic are standards—and a staff that hasn't changed much, either.
"You think you can leave this place," Aunt Eadie tells me, "but you can't, no matter how hard you try. I've tried before. But I keep on coming back." My aunt and I are scrambling for seats at that mother of all Baltimore food traditions: a backyard crab feast, held during the peak crab season of deep summer. The cast of characters at our event—25 in all—has altered somewhat from those in the snapshots in Aunt Eadie's battered family-photo album, but the food is identical: There's corn on the cob, corn pudding, coleslaw, crab soup, cucumber salad, sliced tomatoes, and, of course, great, freshly steamed stacks of crabs that we bought live earlier from one of the roadside vendors that stud Baltimore's landscape, especially in summer. There's loud conversation and even louder boasts about the prodigious number of crustaceans Uncle Pete consumed in one Roman-style crab orgy back in '55. Here at this meal, old ghosts dance around every picnic table and memories are always guests of honor.
Deep in the throes of the feast, I turn to my aunt. She is teaching an old friend, a steamed-crab virgin down from New York, her crab-eating protocol: "Nooooo, Darrell, don't do it like that—don't crush!" she scolds. He blushes. I smile. The spices burn my lips like someone's set flame to them. But no matter: I stuff my face as if I'd been fasting for days. In just a few weeks, crab season will be over. In the meantime, I have Baltimore coursing through my veins.