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Down by the Bay

I headed down to Crisfield to see where that passion came from. The town was built on the crab and oyster industries. In the 19th century, when Important Men routinely gulped down eight dozen oysters before moving on to saddle of lamb at Delmonico's, Crisfield was a gold rush town. Today it looks a bit like Edward Hopper's Nighthawks, with a fish theme.

"What are you doing here?" the ticket seller at the museum asked, giving me a wink. "You must be doing something. My husband always said, "When you come to Crisfield, it's 'cause you're coming to Crisfield.'"

Mostly I was there to take a peek at the canneries, such as Byrds, where a sign over the front door proclaims, THE LORD'S PRAYER IS SUNG AT 9 A.M. EVERY PICKING DAY. If you ask nicely, you can get yourself invited to see the crabmeat being packed. You make your way on slippery gray-painted floors to a white-enameled room, where women spend all day listening to the radio while their hands work the crabmeat. Nobody has yet figured out a way to get the meat out of a crab and into a can mechanically. Each woman has her own system, but no matter how she does it, it takes about a minute to get the meat out of a single crab, and it's hardly noticeable in the can. That's why crab costs what it costs.

Offshore from Crisfield, Smith Island (population 600) is a little haven of Methodist fishermen that's invariably described in guidebooks as "lost in time." It can't be that lost; it has a Web site. The 12:30 p.m. mail boat takes you there, and when it returns at four, you are expected to be on it. Filling those 31/2 hours isn't easy, but two things make the trip memorable: Smith Island layer cake, more than a dozen layers of fudge held together by the slightest excuse for yellow cake; and the crab-cake sandwich at Ruke's General Store, where I felt like the guest star on Petticoat Junction.


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