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Jun 26, 2007 06:22 AM

where to eat /buy crabs: a question of terminology

I grew up in Baltimore--although my parents hailed from a non-crab eating city, and not huge fans of crab picking--but I have always called a place to go and eat crabs out a 'crab house.' It is not until reading CH that I have heard the term 'crab shack.'

Am I missing something? Is there a difference?

Is, for instance, Mr. Bill's Terrace Inn a 'crab house,' and is Chris' Seafood on Montford Street in Canton a 'crab shack? Or, is every place for crabs both a 'house,' and a 'shack?' FWIW, no local I've known has ever referred to a place for crabs as a 'shack.'

(And, yes, I do know in some parts of the country there are 'clam shacks,' but, conversely, I don't think anyone ever calls them 'clam houses,' or do they?)

And, while I'm on this subject, is there anyone who calls the wooden thing you use to get the claw meet a 'hammer,' and not a 'mallet?'

Thanks for you thoughts on this weighty matter!

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  1. As a native is my take.........Crab Houses are places you go to eat crabs there, ie Bill's, Ocean Pride, the old Carney Crab House,etc. Crab shacks refers to places where you get crabs to go and from my past I remember some where there may have been a picnic table or two to eat at. But alas, no table service of any kind. These crab shacks could be found everywhere...Rt. 2, Rt 40, all over the Eastern Shore. In town, think of Hales in Parkville, when it did not have a front store part. They normally only sold crabs, usually steamed but also live if you so wished. I even remember that in my youth, we had trucks driving around the neighborhood like ice-cream trucks with steamers that had steamed crabs to go......Crab Trucks. I have never called a mallet a hammer....but of course as a true Balto. person, I only use a heavy handles knife to do my cracking. JCK

    4 Replies
    1. re: jck


      Crab trucks? Amazing! And to think, I get all excited when I can get crabs delivered just like pizza.

      This brings up one more question: I thought the mallet/handle of knife divide was the Chesapeake Bay, i.e., over on the eastern shore they don't bother with mallets, but we do over on this western side.....

      1. re: baltoellen

        Mallets are only used to get into the claws - anyone pounding on a whole crab with a mallet in an out of towner. Personally, I just use a knife to get into a claw.
        Also, I have eaten crabs in places I consider "Crab Shacks", i.e. Lazy Susan's in Lewes. Crab Houses to me are more like restaurants whose main focus is steamed crabs. Hales is just a crab carry-out!

        1. re: hon

          My test if people are from out of town is if they sit down at the table, and immediately start pounding their mallets like a gavel! I'm sometimes leery of taking a group of out of towners for crabs, just because I find this soooo annoying!

        2. re: baltoellen

          When I was a kid crabs were so cheap and plentiful our community swimming pool sold them at the snack bar. Me and my brother used to swim all day and bring home steamed crabs for dinner.

      2. I think you should trust the guidelines from jck and hon who are real natives and know their stuff about the traditions and terminology of the Chesapeake Bay region.
        As you say in your original question, "in some parts of the country there are ... 'shacks' " and I think that as more people move to the Baltimore/Washington area from other areas and discover our native crabs, they are applying their terminology to regional food and traditions and unfortunately diluting it. Then they want to change the recipes. They don't mean to but it happens.
        They didn't grow up eating crabs, which aren't easy to pick, and are handed mallets so they think that's the way to go. Real Marylanders (and Gulf Coast types like me) use knives and hands, but that's a skill you learn as a little kid. Mallet/hammer? They don't know the difference.
        That's why you hear so many confusing terms, recipes and opinions on the local specialties and traditions. You can either go with the "heritage" version or the "evolving" version of the newcomers..

        It's been more than 30 years since I move here from Louisiana and I adore the heritage and traditions of the Chesapeake Bay and I have tried to make them my own. I even steam my crabs now. The old traditions are worth preserving and I make every effort to learn about them. The most important thing I've learned is the the more simple you keep it, the better off you are.

        I consider "crab houses" where you go to eat crabs. I rarely hear "crab shack" used in the section of the Eastern Shore where I have a house; we just go to the dock or the seafood markets, some of which steam crabs. There are crab trucks by the sides of roads. There are a couple of small picking houses left, everybody locally uses knives, including my family. The restaurants have mallets for tourists.

        1 Reply
        1. re: MakingSense

          I've lived in Maryland most of my life and I've been eating crabs for over 30 years.

          I use mallets, but only on the claws.

          I like cider vinegar with crabs, but it's not essential. I didn't know about eating them with vinegar until I was in my teens.

          Some people like drawn butter with crabs. That just doesn't make sense to me. Butter is for lobster.

        2. One pretty famouse 'clam house'.

          I've always called it a crab mallet



          16 Replies
          1. re: KOK

            Born in Baltimore and grew up on the "west side"...nevery heard of any place called a "crab shack". Crab house, yes...
            I do use a mallet (we do call it a mallet) for the claws, but just because it allows me to bang loudly, which I enjoy.
            I only only use a knife to lift the apron. The rest is all by hand...especially getting at the back fin!

            Here's a new twist on crab-feasting that I had never heard of until a few years ago...dipping the meat in a small bowl of vinegar and extra old bay. I find it unecessary IF the crabs are prepared properly Anyone else have an opinion on that one?

            1. re: sistereurope

              I also use a MALLET for the claws only. I don't like banging loudly, though! I really question the mallets for tourists, and back of knife for locals....I do think it's more regional.

              I've seen the vinegar and extra Old Bay only on the Eastern Shore. I also find it unnecessary.

              1. re: baltoellen

                I use both knife and mallet...I use the mallet to tap on the back side of the knife to get it started through the claw shell.

                To me, "crab house" is somewhere where you eat the crabs. I don't have a particular term I associate with carry out crab places.

                As for my roots, like baltoellen, I grew up in Baltimore, but with parents from elsewhere (Louisiana).

              2. re: sistereurope

                Saw the vinegar/old bay around Pope's Creek in Southern MD. Eating crabs with friends from VA who said they ate them that way. VA side of the Chesapeake? Could be that it worked its way up to that area of MD from VA? I don't like it. Not necessary at all.

                1. re: sistereurope

                  HOUSE/SHACK: also born/raised in baltimore and also grew up on the west side. I don't think I ever heard the term 'crab shack' locally, closest thing was "the crab shanty" out in ellicott city and later something like 'old town crab shack' also out that way...catonsville mabye, but I never really heard anyone say "i'm going to the crab shack" or anything like that. Crab House.

                  HAMMERTIME: As far as getting into the crabs is concerned, i don't see what the big deal is. Personally I prefer to use a mallet to drive a knife to score the claws for easy breaking if I can't get the meat out by hand. There is no use for a mallet on any other part of the crab. A knife, heavy-handled or otherwise, is most useful to pick the crab 100% clean. If someone wants to whack away at their poor crab with a mallet, they can be my guest. I would rather they hammer it to high heaven and get all the meat out than make a half-hearted attempt to pick it apart properly, leaving much of the good meat behind.

                  VINEGAR: I have been dipping the meat in cider vinegar (when the mood strikes me) since I was a tot...I don't do the extra seasoning after the vinegar dip but I have seen this frequently (though certainly not universally) practiced at backyard cookouts and crab eateries throughout my upbringing, and still do. Two years ago, some friends I made later in life who were lifelong PG county residents were so bothered when I did not have vinegar for a crab feast at my house that they left to go buy some at Safeway and came back. So I don't think its just an eastern shore thing. But I am no crab historian, I only know what I saw in my own little circle.

                  1. re: sistereurope

                    Eating crabs can be very expensive. I'd rather taste the crab meat that I'm paying for than the vinegar or butter. I haven't seen either used, and it doesn't make much sense to me.

                    1. re: Steve

                      Vinegar is best used sparingly - a little bit on the crab meat adds some nice flavor.

                      1. re: 4X4

                        One of the most popular crabmeat dishes in Mobile, Alabama and the surrounding Gulf Coast region is West Indies Crab Salad. Crabmeat with some chopped onion and an oil and cider vinegar dressing, served on a bed of lettuce. Fabulous on a hot, muggy summer day.
                        If you like a little vinegar with your steamed crabs, you should try this recipe!

                        1. re: MakingSense

                          My wife just got back from Mobile and asked me if I'd ever heard of it. I asked her if it was like a ceviche, but she wasn't sure. She said she liked it a lot. SInce then, I've been waiting for the inevitable "Where can I find a West Indies Salad in DC like I had in Mobile" Thread.

                          1. re: Steve

                            I have never seen West Indies Salad on a DC area or Eastern shore menu. Only at private homes. You'd think one of the local "Southern" places would offer it. Everybody around here is Crabcake,crabcake,crabcake. You don't even see Crabmeat Imperial or Norfolk which were the old time upscale standards in MD and VA long before crabcakes moved upmarket and uptown. Crisfield's is one of the few.
                            Local restaurants are in a serious crab rut.

                            1. re: MakingSense

                              Most of the old school crab house/seafood restaurants in the Baltimore area still serve Crab Imperial, places like Obryckis, the Ocean Pride and the Crab Shanty:

                              Bo Brooks doesn't have Crab Imperial but they have another old time favorite, the Crab Fluff!
                              The Seaside in Glen Burnie has a bunch of old school favorites including the fried hard crab.
                              Mamas on the Half Shell has Flounder stuffed with crab imperial, loved that when I was a kid!

                              1. re: hon

                                Looks like I need to spend more time eating in Baltimore. Those dishes just aren't on any of the upper-end DC seafood menus. Regular places either for that matter. Hardly ever see stuffed fish. Not much local fish at all in DC.
                                Just crabcake. Filler is a sin. Frying is bad for you. Broiled pile of backfin.

                                1. re: MakingSense

                                  This is a Baltimore/DC divide.
                                  I commuted to DC for more years than I care to recall, and remember talking to a colleague who had just eaten at Oceanaire. (They hadn't yet opened in Charm City, and I'm not so sure that he realized that it was a chain.) Anyway, he raved about the 'retro' menu, and the fact that they had offered clams casino as an app. And, I told him that within a five to ten mile radius of my SE Balto home, I could probably find at least half a dozen places that had it on the menu, and it wouldn't be there for some oh so 'ironic' reason!

                              2. re: MakingSense

                                Ellen and hon are right about the old school Baltimore seafood joints, but I sometimes fear that their (the seafood joints, not Ellen and hon) days are numbered. As the oldtimers die off and the young pups crave "hip and trendy", these old-style dishes may become increasingly endangered.

                                1. re: Hal Laurent

                                  Even bigger problem in Washington. They're virtually extinct. When I have visitors who ask for "local specialties," I'm stuck! The seafood restaurants here serve the same dishes my friends can get in their hometowns. Shad season saves me for a few weeks. Chincoteagues if the raw bars even have them. Rockfish - as long as they don't mess with it - and that's not strictly local.
                                  This wasn't always the food of "joints." It was served in fine restaurants. Shame traditional Chesapeake Bay food hasn't been kept on menus like Haute Creole has in places like Galatoire's and Antoine's in New Orleans.

                    2. re: KOK

                      eaten there, the food was pretty terrible, it's a tourist trap!