On Tuesday, I went on an “educational play date with benefits” with 6 other foodies and Steve Vilnit, the marketing director of the Maryland Department of Fisheries. We toured the oldest blue crab processing plant in the world, the J.M. Clayton Co, and The Choptank Oyster Company, the only privately-funded oyster hatchery in Maryland.
I live not too far from the Eastern Shore of Maryland and don’t get there often enough. That area is lovely, especially if you can get off the beaten track. Although popular as a summer destination, it isn’t crowded or difficult to reach after Labor Day. Leaving by car from a metro stop just outside of Washington at 8 am, we got over the Bay Bridge and to Cambridge MD before 10 am. We visited the two operations, ate lunch and I was home before 6 pm – a full and rewarding day.
The J.M. Clayton Co., founded in 1890, is still run by the same family that started it and still uses machines and techniques from generations ago. It is one of only 20 crab picking businesses in operation in Maryland and the only one left on the waterfront in Cambridge.
I’ve always loved Maryland crabs. You can buy hard shell crabs by the piece or the bushel and after they are steamed, use a mallet and your fingers to pick out the meat. Eating crabs this way is messy business, but with a cold pitcher of beer or lemonade, it’s an unbelievable feast. If you prefer a more civilized meal, already picked fresh - or even canned – crabmeat is great in patties or casseroles. My personal favorites are soft shell crabs (ones that have shed or molted their skins and not yet developed another hard outer shell) lightly battered and fried – and yes, you eat the soft outer shell.
Maryland Blue Crab Facts:
- To check whether a hard shell crab is full of meat, look at its underside. If it has an orange/rust tinge, the crab is meaty; if it is bright white, the crab isn’t as full of meat.
- You can tell a male from a female crab by checking its claws (the female’s have an orange/reddish tip) or the from the shape of the “apron” on the abdomen (the male’s is thin and elongated, while the young female’s is triangular and the mature female’s is rounded.) Am I the only one who thinks the apron shapes resemble sex-linked human body parts? (I can already see my kids’ eyes rolling as they read this.)
- Crabmeat is generally labeled by where it comes from in the crab: jumbo lump is big white pieces of meat from the swimmer fin of the crab, lump is all-white meat from the same area but smaller pieces, backfin is white meat out of the small cavities and claw is darker meat from the claws.
- Maryland blue crabs are considered tastier than varieties from other areas and vendors have been known to advertise crabs as Maryland blues when they are not. The MD Department of Natural Resources has established a “True Blue” certification; participating restaurants, retail seafood stores, and other foodservice establishments can use the True Blue logo to certify that they do, in fact, sell Maryland blue crabs.
The Choptank Oyster Company farm was quite amazing. Although it grows approximately 10 million oysters in floats on 4 acres of water, the oyster “farm” is a rather serene environment. Judged by its output, the operation is busy, harvesting close to 1 million oysters per year. However, the floats on which the oysters grow quietly bob in the water and the harvesting process seems to be a rather low-tech operation.
Honestly, I’m not a big oyster fan, and don’t eat them raw. Although I figured there would be samples, I didn’t plan on eating any. I changed my mind as I watched our host, Kevin, grill fresh oysters. After opening them, he put the oysters directly on the grill with the bottom half of their shells serving as mini-pan into which he put Romano cheese and a mixture of olive oil, butter, and basil. Served with a dab of Sriracha sauce on top, the oyster liquid bubbled merrily and my hesitation gave way to hunger. Although we ate them off the shell in much the same way I have seen others eat raw oysters, these were cooked, tasty, and not at all slimy – an unexpected treat for me. I’m not sure I would make them at home, but I would definitely eat grilled oysters again if someone else prepared them for me.
- The old adage about only eating oysters in months with an “R” is not true. You can eat oysters in any month or season and Choptank Oyster Co harvests them year round.
- Oysters help clean and restore the environment. As filter-feeding shellfish, they “eat” algae and silt from the water. The floats in which they live on the farm also serve as reefs, providing a habitat for fish and other species as a natural oyster reef would.
- Oysters are low in calories and high in iron – 6 medium oysters have only about 60 calories and provide about 30% of the recommended adult requirement for iron.
There is no more fitting end to a foodie road trip than a meal. So, before heading back to DC we stopped for a late lunch at a restaurant that Steve recommended for its fresh seafood. Ocean Odyssey, unassuming and perched just feet from busy Route 50 heading to the Bay Bridge, is the equal of many better-appointed restaurants. The well-prepared crab and oyster dishes that we sampled, the generous portions, fair prices and extensive menu of craft beers had all of us agreeing that the meal was a “two thumbs up” experience.
Both J.M Clayton and The Choptank Seafood Company sell to retail stores in the DC area, so I will look for their products and hope to post a crab or oyster recipe in the near future. In the meantime, you can learn more about Maryland seafood from the state’s seafood website. Many thanks to Casey Benedict of Kitchen Play for inviting me to join the trip, to Steve and the operators of the facilities for hosting us, and to my intrepid companions for being so much fun as we toured and ate our way through the day.
PS - If you live in the DC/MD/VA area, please visit the From the Bay, For the Bay. Area restaurants are doing a fundraiser for the Oyster Recovery Partnership by donating $1 to that cause from every Maryland seafood dinner they sell this week.