Celebrated journalist R. W. (“Johnny”) Apple was a veteran political reporter, a New York Times bureau chief and an incisive and prolific writer. But the role he was most passionate about was food anthropologist. Known both for his restless wideopen mind and an appetite to match, Apple was also a culinary scholar: witty, wide-ranging and intensely knowledgeable about his subjects. Far Flung and Well Fed is the best of legendary Times reporter Apple’s food writing from America, England, Europe, Asia and Australia. Each of the more than fifty essays recount extraordinary meals and little-known facts, of some of the world’s most excellent foods —from the origin of an ingredient in a dish, to its history, to the vivid personalities—including Apple’s wife, Betsey—who cook, serve and eat those dishes.Far Flung and Well Fed is a classic collection of food writing— lively, warm and rich with a sense of place and taste—and deserves to join the works of A.J. Liebling, Elizabeth David, M.F.K. Fisher and Calvin Trillin on the bookshelf.
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R.W. APPLE JR. worked for The New York Times for forty years, serving at various times as Associate Editor, Chief Correspondent, Chief Washington Correspondent, and Washington Bureau Chief. He began writing food articles for the Times in the late 1970s, when reporting from London. His writing also appeared in a variety of magazines, including The Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, GQ, Saveur, Travel & Leisure, Departures, Gourmet, Town & Country and National Geographic Traveler. He lived with his wife Betsey in Washington, D.C, where he died in 2006.
CORBY KUMMER is a Senior Editor at The Atlantic Monthly, where he also writes extensively about food, and is the author of The Joy of Coffee and The Pleasures of Slow Food. He lives in Boston, where he is a five-time winner of the James Beard Foundation’s Journalism Award, including its MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award, for his Atlantic columns.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
FAR FLUNG AND WELL FED (Chapter One)Northeast / Mid-Atlantic
The Glorious Summer of the Soft-Shell Crab
The sun was a blood-orange disk pinned to the horizon as Thomas Lee Walton eased his 24-foot Carolina Skiff into the creek and headed toward the Rappahannock River. An osprey was perched in a dead tree on the far shore. It was 6:05 a.m. We were going crabbing.
Our quarry was the Atlantic blue crab—Callinectes sapidus to marine biologists, which means “savory beautiful swimmer” in Latin. But not the run-of-the-mill fellows you boil up with plenty of Old Bay seasoning, then crack with a hammer before pulling out the sweet, delicate white meat. Mr. Walton fishes for “busters” or “peelers,” which are crabs that have already begun to shed their shells, or are about to, before growing new ones.
“Watching them shed,” Mr. Walton said with a tender reverence suprising in a rugged outdoorsman, “it’s like they’re reborn.”
If you catch them at the right moment and pull them from the water, the process of growth stops and you have a soft-shell crab, one of summer’s most prized treats, not only here on the rim of the Chesapeake Bay, but also, increasingly, in cities across the United States.
They seem to be on every menu in New York this summer, prepared in more or less the same way: You eat the whole thing, claws, legs and all, sautéed or grilled, maybe seasoned with a squeeze of lemon juice. Before you try one, it sounds decidedly dubious, like tripe or seaweed. But a single taste makes a convert.
Years ago, I served a soft-shell, grilled in my garden, to Paul Bocuse, who formed a wildly inflated view of my cooking skills as a result. Soft-shells can be deep-fried, too, which makes them crunchier, and good ol’ boys like to stick them between two slices of white bread to make sandwiches. Me, I prefer my soft-shells sautéed, because I think the crust masks the flavor.
All crabs molt, up to 20 times during their lives; they must do so to grow. But the soft-shell form of the Dungeness crab on the Pacific Coast or the king crab in Alaska is seldom eaten, if ever, and Europeans use soft-shell crabs mostly for bait. In this as in so many things gastronomic, the Venetians are an exception. They consider Mediterranean shore crabs that have shed their carapaces, which they call moleche, a great delicacy.
Even here, where soft-shells have been savored for more than a century, putting them on gourmands’ tables is a dicey proposition, requiring luck, hard physical labor and painstaking attention to detail, in roughly equal proportions. Nobody has found a way yet to farm crabs. Mr. Walton and his fellow watermen, as they call themselves, must catch peelers in wire-mesh traps, take them ashore, transfer them into shallow seawater tanks and check each one carefully every six hours around the clock, waiting for them to shed their shells.
The crabs, elusive and pugnacious, don’t make it easy.
In William W. Warner’s fine book about crabs, Beautiful Swimmers (Little, Brown, 1994), he quotes a splendid triple-negative aphorism he heard from a waterman on Mary land’s Eastern Shore: “Ain’t nobody knows nothing about crabs.” Mr. Walton agrees, steeped though he is in crustacean legend and lore. “Catching crabs is mostly instinct,” he said.
“Every time you think you’ve got them figured they change on you,” he added, standing at the tiller of his boat, bronzed from a summer’s work. “We try to outthink them, but they don’t think. They just react to changes in the water, little changes in chemistry that we don’t understand.”
He put in a fresh wad of Red Man chewing tobacco and squinted into the sun, looking for the buoys that marked one of his lines of traps.
Mr. Walton’s family has lived and worked on the water for generations—how many, he could not say. They moved to Urbanna from remote Tangier Island, out in the bay, after a terrible hurricane in 1933. They have been here ever since. He, his brothers, his uncle, his aunt and his son, Lee, are all crabbers, all true Tidewater folks who pronounce “about” not at all like the rest of us, but about halfway between uh-BOAT and uh-BOOT.
Jimmy Sneed is what the Walton family and their neighbors call a “come-here”—someone from somewhere else. But after almost a decade he has won their confidence, and they have taught him most of what they know about soft-shells, which is one reason his restaurant in Richmond, the Frog and the Redneck, may serve the most delectable soft-shells anywhere.
Bearded, ribald, shod day and night in one of his 14 pairs of Lucchese boots, Mr. Sneed is (and is not) the redneck in his restaurant’s name. It comes from a moment of comic conflict more than a decade ago, when he was working for the French chef Jean-Louis Palladin, then the proprietor of Jean-Louis in Washington and now installed at Palladin in Manhattan.
As Mr. Sneed tells the story, Mr. Palladin was shouting at him, not for the first time, and Mr. Sneed snapped. “Shut up, you stupid frog,” Mr. Sneed shouted back. Mr. Palladin whirled, glared, slammed his knife on the counter and demanded, “What did you call me?” When Mr. Sneed repeated the epithet, Mr. Palladin yelled, “Then you must be a...a redneck!”
He isn’t, of course, though he sometimes relishes the role; the son of a Veterans Administration administrator, he grew up in a dozen towns and cities, including Charleston, S.C., and Peekskill, N.Y. Of course, Mr. Sneed and Mr. Palladin became close friends. And of course, when Mr. Sneed decided to move to Richmond after five years of running a restaurant in Urbanna, he could not resist naming his new place in honor of his mentor.
Crab has become Mr. Sneed’s metier. Every night of the year, he serves a rich, red pepper cream soup garnished with crab, as well as ethereal crab cakes, made of prime backfin lump crab meat, bound together with little more than a dab of mayonnaise and the chef’s prayers. He serves them even when crab is so scarce, as it is right now, that he has to charge $32.50 for them to make a profit. When soft-shells are in season hereabouts, from May until mid-October, he serves them, as well.
Mr. Sneed buys mostly from Thomas Lee Walton, who saves the softest of soft-shells for him. These are the ones that have been culled from the tanks within a half-hour of molting. (The tanks are called “floats” by the watermen because in the early days of the industry they were slatted boxes floating in the creeks.)
The new crab shells begin to form at once, and because the watermen can’t hover over the tanks, they get only a fraction of the soft-shells at the optimum moment. These are called “velvets” in the colorful terminology of the crabbers. Plump and bursting with salty-sweet flavor, they are also very fragile, so Mr. Sneed, his wife or his daughter drives to Urbanna every other day, a two-and-a-half-hour round trip, to fetch them at the source.
“Soft-shells are very important to us,” Mr. Sneed told me in a rare outburst of understatement. “And you have to try for the premium raw materials, no matter how much trouble it is. Product is king.”
A self-described culinary minimalist, Mr. Sneed cooks the crabs in the simplest way imaginable. He pulls them from the refrigerator, dusts them with Wondra flour, which is milled extra fine so that it doesn’t clump, and slides them, shell side down, into a heavy cast-iron frying pan filled to a depth of a quarter of an inch with a 50-50 mix of canola oil and drawn butter. After 60 seconds, he turns them and cooks them 30 seconds on the other side.
“Careful,” Mr. Sneed warned. “When soft-shells are really fresh, they’re full of salty water, so they tend to pop and burn you.”
And don’t serve them with tartar sauce, not unless you want to make the nonredneck see red.
It took the watermen many years to make the discovery that put the soft-shell trade on a sound commercial footing. Finding a buster in a pot or along the shore is a relatively rare occurrence. They needed some means of forecasting when other crabs were about to molt, so they could take it ashore and wait for it to do its thing. Finally, some unstoried hero noticed that on the next-to-last section of the articulated swimming leg, the most translucent part of the crab, a white line that later turns pink, and finally an intense dark red, can be detected when a crab is about to shed its shell.
It can be detected, that is, by an experienced waterman like Mr. Walton. I could just barely make out the line at its cherry reddest, when the crab was an hour, maybe minutes, from molting, but the rest of the time I couldn’t break the code, no matter how closely I looked.
The crabs with white lines, known for some reason as “greens,” shed in two weeks; those with pink lines, sometimes called “ripe,” will molt within a week; and the red liners, termed “rank,” will need a day.
In fact, the telltale lines are the edges of new shells, or exoskeletons, forming inside old ones in anticipation of molting.
I marveled at Mr. Walton’s skills. When we arrived at the traps, or pots, that he had set out along the northern shore of the Rappahannock estuary, he chugged up to the first, set the tiller so it kept the boat tracing a circle around the pot and put on an oilcloth apron and two pairs of gloves. Then, with practiced grace, he snagged the buoy with a boathook and pulled up the line attached to it, hand over hand, heaving the pot into the boat until it broke water.
The pot is a cube-shape contraption with three conical entrances, which crabs can swim into but not out of. In the first one were a half-dozen crabs, as well as a croaker and an alewife, as menhaden are called hereabouts. Mr. Walton undid the latch and dumped the catch onto a sorting table, then quickly pitched the fish and the hard-shells back into the water, closed the latch and lowered the pot.
Only five or six times all morning did he expend more than a passing glance in “reading” which crabs were peelers and which not. Most of the time, he instantly tossed the greens into one bushel basket at his feet, the ripes and ranks into another and the few busters into a blue plastic basin filled with river water so that they could continue to molt there. When he was unsure, he held the crab in question up to the sun, its claws a beautiful powder blue, studied it and pitched it in the appropriate direction.
On picking the right crabs on such slim evidence rests his livelihood. He makes few mistakes.
But if the crabs aren’t there, no crabber can catch them. Mr. Walton pulled about 70 good peelers and busters from his first line of 50 traps, but from the second and third, he got only about 10, and then he quit for the day. August is never the best month for soft-shells. That comes each May, when he usually takes five or six bushels of crabs off his boat at day’s end—about 1,000 to 2,000 crabs. The May catch is almost as big as those of all the other months put together.
At $1.50 each, the morning’s work grossed about $120. But out of that Mr. Walton has to pay for gas and the upkeep of his boat, his pickup truck, his pots (which cost $12 each) and his two dozen shedding tanks, which look like shallow plastic bathtubs. No formula for instant riches.
Is the overall crab catch in the bay and its tributaries shrinking, as the harvests of striped bass and oysters did in recent years, with disastrous economic consequences? Many watermen, and Mr. Sneed, think it is, and they blame winter crabbing with dredges, which pull hibernating crabs from the mud, along with laws permitting crabbers in Virginia to keep female crabs carrying a spongelike mass of eggs.
Not so, said Mike Osterling, the top crab expert at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science at Gloucester Point, near Hampton.
“I’ve seen no records indicating a long-term decline in soft-shells,” he said. “Soft-shell fishing has its good days and bad, like anything else. But more people are going into the soft-shell business every day, all the way from here to Texas, and that’s no sign of a fishery in decline.”
Tradition says that the Chesapeake produces the best soft-shells, and I’m a great respecter of food traditions. But the season lasts a little longer farther south because of the warmer water, and I’ve eaten some pretty good soft-shells taken by fisherman in Louisiana and North Carolina, mostly small operators like the watermen on the bay.
As for Mr. Walton, he sells all the velvets he has to Mr. Sneed, and those with a slightly firmer shell, called “shippers,” he ships. Every so often, a refrigerated truck stops here, picks up trays of crabs covered with wet paper or eel-grass and heads north toward the big fish market at Jessup, Md., near Baltimore.
Sorted by size—whales are the biggest, spiders the smallest, with jumbos, primes, hotels and mediums in between—they go to a wholesaler named Louis Foehrkolb, whom Mr. Walton has never met. He keeps track of the shipments and sends Mr. Walton a check at month’s end.
I asked whether he ever worries about being shortchanged. “Nah,” said Mr. Walton, whose smile is as roguish as ever at 52. “I figure if he stops sending me money, I’ll stop sending him crabs.”
—Urbanna, Virginia, August 11, 1999
Tempura of Soft-Shell Crabs
(Adapted from the Frog and the Redneck, Richmond)
Time: 20 minutes
8 cleaned soft-shell crabs
1 cup flour
1¼ cups water
¼ teaspoon baking soda
2 ice cubes
Peanut oil for deep frying
Sea salt to taste
Yield: 4 servings
Roasted Ripe Tomato Salsa
(Adapted from Lucky Star in Virginia Beach, Va.)
Time: 1 hour, 20 minutes
10 plum tomatoes, halved lengthwise and cored
5 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon herbes de Provence
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
3 ripe tomatoes, cored and diced large
3 shallots, peeled and julienned
1 yellow bell pepper, stemmed, seeded and diced medium
3 scallions, trimmed and sliced
1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
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