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On one hand: Fall … on the other: CRABFEST!!!

September 15, 2009

I wasn’t kidding, I really am done with summer. And I have my first early fall cold to prove it.

But Mr. Craig Laban of the Philadelphia Inquirer just wouldn’t allow it, tempting me and crab-lovers everywhere with hardshell crab heaven, a mere 90 minutes south of Center City. Well played, Mr. Laban. Well played.

The day this article came out, my Maryland friends and I conferred virtually to discuss planning our First Annual CrabFest 2009 – which was something along the lines of:

“So, how does your end of August look?” 

“Not good, I’ll be in Prague and Vienna…but how about your Labor Day?”

“No good, I’ll be in Virginia Beach and getting ready for my trips to Seattle and Las Vegas…maybe mid September before my conference in New York?”

Sure, as long as we do Sunday?” 

“Works for me.” 

That whole interchange made me feel a bit dirty and important, but since when has life been so crazy that we need to schedule things 3 to 5 weeks out? CrabFest was more then just a Fest of Crab! It would be a break from the rigors of scheduled life for some crab-induced haze! And that it just so happened that RiverFest in Charlestown was occurring the same weekend, was obviously a karmatic sign that we were meant to eat crab!

Let me just say, Philadelphia is not totally void of crustaceans. As Laban points out, dainty crab cakes? We have plenty. But when it comes to the messy pursuit of whole critters piled high and all that they entail – the big dining halls filled with paper-topped tables, the joyous sound of mallets crunching down, the tangy celery spice of Old Bay seasoning the air – Philadelphia has far too few places to indulge.
First stop: The Rivershack at the Wellwood and RiverFest  Know all that soaring rhetoric about not wanting to over-schedule? Well, our dining companions double booked themselves, so we were definitely on our own for the first stop. No worries, the boy and I could handle it. This mural-painted dining room and sandy-beach-like outdoor patio are opened from May to November. And a pile of a dozen medium hardshells was going for $35, which we happily split – although the $30 per person all you could eat crab & fried chicken was tempting, it didn’t seem reasonable considering that a) this was lunch and b) 6 hard shells per person already goes well beyond what I’m comfortable eating in a single seating.  
The crab was incredible – flavored with far more then just Old Bay, and with waiters and waitresses that were first rate and incredibly proud of their crab-crushing knowledge. They were happy to sit down at your booth and walk you through all their “best practices” for quickly chucking a crab open and getting to the good stuff. 
Onward to dinner, The Tap Room was in the beautiful Chesapeake City, amid the charming 19th-century clapboard cottages of Chesapeake City along the C&D Canal, it feels more like a spot where you’d find an old sea captain with salty tales from the sea, rather then a beach bungalow. 

And maybe, maybe, I suppose its possible that we were just a bit crabbed out from our the first leg of CrabFest, but our Maryland friends met up with us for a rather disappointing dinner. The crab cakes had way too much filling for a place that surrounds itself as the crab place on the Canal. If you are the crab place, I better be able to taste the crab. The Tap Room’s famous garlic crabs fared much better – they were exactly what we hoped for, cleaned and sauteed in a pool of olive oil with fistfuls of chopped garlic. There’s no avoiding the fragrant mess, and completely impossible not to embrace. Regardless of how long my fingers will smell like crab.

Regardless, our favorite stop in Chesapeake City was the tiny Canal Creamery (97 Vanderlyn Dr., 410-885-3030) on the green near the canal,  scooping some exceptionally rich, farm-fresh ice cream from Kilby Cream. After a main course of zesty crabs, can there be a more fitting dessert than a caramel-chocolate-cashew scoop of “Fear the Turtle”? I think not.

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