Sunday, April 29, 2012

Feeding Frenzy

My father in law invites us regularly to crab feeds. We have declined consistently until this year, when we realized that free (for us) all you can eat crab might not be such a bad thing. Setting our preconceived notions of old men sitting around a Legionare's Hall picking at crab legs and discussing the good old days aside, we agreed to go.

This particular events was a fundraiser for the police department's youth outreach program, PALS. It was held at the Ulatis Community Center - which is new and modern on the outside with dramatic landscape lighting. My hopes rose. Inside though, its just another Legionares Hall. Sigh.

A few things struck me as odd, and I quickly realized, there is a whole culture to crab feeds, one I knew nothing about. I hate to think of all the faux pas I committed unknowingly that night, although for once I am happy to claim ignorance. I am sure all the crab feed afficionados are still looking down their butter smeared noses at me, but I was just there to eat crab.

First, each place setting had a crab bib, supplied by Joe's Crab (who presumably got let off an illegal crab smuggling charge by providing the police force with large quanities of fresh crab for their fundraiser). Plastic or vinyl, I am not sure, but the bib was, in a word, terrifying. A large, true to life red crab was painted across the front. Little tabs pulled off to create ties for around your neck- which reminded me of the way toilet seat covers pull apart. Not so appetizing. At first I chalked the bibs up to festive decorating -certainly cheaper than buying fishing nets and sand dollars to decorate the tables in a crabby theme. But after we sat down and introduced ourselves to the other couples at the table, everyone proceeded to pull out their bib ties and wrap them around their neck, as if this was totally normal behavior, as if we didn't all have giant red crabs, the exact likeness of the food we were about to eat, waving pinchers across our chests. Can you imagine going to a rib eating contest and wearing a cow on your shirt, as you consumed said cow? Twisted....I turned to my husband and his sister, both relatively hip, normal, stylish people. They both already had their bibs on. I pondered what kind of crab was so messy that we even needed these bibs. We ate crab at home, and no one ever tied an apron or a Safeway bag around their neck. We weren't dressed up -  its not like there was silk or cashmere at stake. Apparently, the bibs were for morale, as if to show the cops that yes, we really did care about the kids, and by golly we would feast on crab wearing sadistic bibs to prove it. And the cops, to their credit, did their best to make us feel involved in the PALS program, even if we were secretly just there for the crab. Each place mat had its own PALS program statistic: "87% of PALS kids report better relationships after participating in the PALS program," "45% of PALS kids report better grades at school after participating in the PALS program." I am not sure of the statistics saying that after hanging out with cops, kids are more social but not necessarily smarter...seems like something could be said there but I'll refrain.

In addition to cheerful place mats and horrific bibs, each place setting had a plastic wine cup (for wine you bought with tickets - unless you accidentally put your wine tickets in the raffle barrel and tried to buy wine with your raffle tickets - keep your tickets straight people!), utensils (plastic), a plate and a bowl. I was a little confused about the knife, fork, and bowl...but no crab eating utensils. Apparently at these crab feeds (for charity, mind you, I can't imagine why they are trying to stretch their crab dollar), they try to cheap skate you by getting you to fill up on salad, spaghetti and nasty garlic bread before they bring out the crab. The strategy is, they make you arrive early to get a seat, then make you wait 2 hours for crab, so you are forced to eat the filler food or keel over from starvation before the main attraction makes its appearance. I held back - I was here for crab, dammit, and I would not be dissuaded from my mission. Also, the salad dressings were gross and I don't like spaghetti.

It was around this time that my father-in-law brought out two bottles of wine. I was horrified, as this was clearly not a tailgate kind of party. Who brings their own alcohol to charity dinners? Then I looked around. Apparently, everyone. In fact, we were the least equipped of the crab feeders, with just our wine and disposable chopsticks. Other tables had real glass wineglasses, magnum bottles, ceramic butter warming crocks set over tealights, crab crackers and tongs, coolers on wheels full of beer and wine and god knows what else. At our own table, the veteran crabbers brought out a baggie of sliced lemons for handwashing and two kinds of desserts - in case the salad, spaghetti, bread and endless crab weren't enough.

I also realized why we were introduced to everyone. We would wait almost two hours for crab, and that's a long time to sit at a table with strangers. Talk quickly turned to other crab feed charities. Our veteran crab feed couple told the horror story of attending a feed for $40 per person, and just one bowl of crab was set in the center of the table for everyone! The shame! The injustice! I started to worry - should I have eaten more spagetti? Would I starve? Would we have to arm wrestle for crab legs? (I knew I could beat my son, he was only 9 and had lost to me on both arms...but his dad and sister had me beat. I would starve.)

And then, the crab arrived. Pimple faced teenagers (lucky PALS recipients who, with new social skills and slightly increased intelligence, signed up to volunteer for the night) brought out giant trays of crab. I asked my mother-in-law, is it bad form to take the bodies here? I am partial to bodies myself. She replied there was no bad form at a crab feed. I took 5 bodies and added a few legs just so I didn't look picky, and started in. No half-assed pre-cracking here- apparently they had PALS kids with anger issues doing the cracking in the back - you simply had to peel off the shell and the meat fell right out. The meat was fresh, sweet, delicious. I became another person. It was just me and the pile of crab. I used my fingers to pry open shells, scoop out meat, and to shove it in my mouth. I was unstoppable.

My mother-in-law had joked that it had been embarrassing to be at a crab feed where they are packing up the tables and her husband is still eating. This became my new goal - to eat crab until they made me stop. I was focused, I was confident, I was dedicated. The table quieted, everyone consumed with the eating of crab. It wasn't an orgy, it wasn't gluttonous. It was determined, but dignified - as dignified as ripping meat from clobbered crustaceans with your bare hands while wearing a tacky plastic bib can be. Occasionally a server came to empty our shell bowl. Occasionally someone asked for a body or passed a new tray (we cleaned 4 or 5 trays between us that night), or passed the lemon slices. But it really resembled something holy - a meditation of sorts. The conversation was deserted. Only the bare minimum was spoken. Even my son, who always butters up a grandparent to pick out the meat for him, sensed the revery and picked his own crab (and silently!).

And then, the auction began. Oh, for the love of silent auctions. This was not silent. A zesty, peppy, incurably deaf old man was shouting into the microphone about the amazing wonders of a hair cut at the local salon, a golf lesson with the local pro, and a dozen donuts delivered to your office by, you guessed it, a Vacaville cop in uniform. He was on emotional viagra. He couldn't stop exclaiming the wonders of the aution items. He wouldn't settle for $10 or $20 bids. He wouldn't shut up. It was as if he was fighting for life by screaming at us - if he slowed down, or even paused for a breath, the grim reaper would appear and carry him off forever. It was that kind of fervor. And so our zen crab feasting took on a new level of discipline. If people were auctioning, the more crab for us. If we missed out on policemen reinforcing stereotypes, that was beside the point. We were here for crab.

And then, just like that, it was over. No more crab. Paltry sheet cake desert offerings from pimple faced teens. Giant black garbage bags emerged from the kitchen like a crab cleanup armada sailing for heathen crab bibs and unholy tattered napkins. The lights came up (actually, I just looked up from my plate), and we packed up and went home. Just like that, over. I heard the cop-delivered donuts went for $200. $2 for donuts, $198 for shaming a cop and getting away with it.
(written in 2007 and never published)

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