As my Mom tells it, we were leaving San Francisco for good that day. The car was packed (a little red hatchback, missing its backseat), and we had driven across town to say good-bye to J, the man who would later become my stepfather. But when it came time to hit the road, the engine wouldn’t turn over.
So we moved into J’s one-room basement apartment.
Someone (an old girlfriend? A previous tenant?) had thought stripes of red and black paint would improve the cement-block walls. I slept on the floor of a closet curtained with hanging beads. At night, banana slugs would creep through the kitchenette window, leaving glossy trails on the formica counter.
After a month at the neighborhood school, it became evident that the white teacher was ostentatiously favoring me as the only white kid in the class. So my mom concocted a scheme. Friends of friends owned an essential oils and incense company called “Flash” in our old neighborhood, and its street address would become my new, false place of residence. With the deep and rigid morals of a first grader, I felt cramped with fear that my teacher would ask me where I lived. At the end of the school day, I’d walk to “Flash,” where I’d wait for my mom to pick me up, filling the time with wary sniffs of patchouli, sandalwood, and eucalyptus.
J, who is six years younger than my mom, had just returned from Vietnam, and Vietnamese restaurants began to appear in the city. I can’t remember, but we must have eaten at Thanh Long, which became a local phenomenon when it opened in the early 70s. I know I always ordered the spicy Vietnamese roasted crab.
If you had asked me then, “What’s your favorite food?” I probably would have answered crab—cracked crab—the real San Francisco treat. I did love it. But I also knew that my love of crab was strange (and, I thought, sophisticated) for a kid. I think my mom and I got a kick out of how other patrons responded when her little girl sat tall and ordered her own plate of the Dungeness crustaceans. I enjoyed the ritualistic labor that crab demands, with its very own tool-set: a nut-cracker, a tiny trident, a little spear. And what’s the reward for penetrating its orange armor? A squeeze of lemon, dripping butter, and a delicately sweet meat.
A few years later, in the bicentennial, we moved to Maryland. Since my parents couldn’t afford to buy a house, we lived with J’s newly divorced sister, Annie, in Silver Spring. In those days, before she moved back to Oklahoma to raise Basenjis, Annie was a clothes buyer for Hecht’s department store. She read Harlequin Romances, drank Tab, and watched Star Trek religiously. It was Annie who introduced me to fried soft-shell crabs at Crisfield’s. Crunchy, juicy, and delicious. It felt primitive to eat the critter’s house, but it’s such a tasty exoskeleton.
After many inedible experiences, I won’t order crab cakes in a restaurant unless we’re on the Chesapeake Bay. But we regularly have what the kids call “crabby patties” at home.
(Be sure to keep this recipe from the eye of Plankton):
1 lb Crab Meat (I use Phillips Special Crab Meat, pasteurized, available in the fresh fish section)
½ Cup of Panko bread crumbs
1 Tablespoon of mayonnaise
A few dashes of Tabasco sauce
2 teaspoons of Old Bay seasoning
Juice from ½ lemon
1 scallion, chopped
1 tablespoon of diced green pepper
Salt and pepper
1 Cup of Panko bread crumbs
Squeeze any excess moisture out of the crab meat. Mix all of the ingredients thoroughly, minus the final 1 Cup of Panko bread crumbs and the canola oil. Divide the crab meat mixture into 5 evenly sized balls. Pat these balls into patties, and then dredge in the remaining Panko bread crumbs. Chill the cakes for at least one hour. Heat about a ¼ inch of canola oil in a skillet. Fry the crab cakes, about four minutes a side, until they’re golden brown.