New York Times food writer Sam Sifton turned his worldly-man’s attention over the weekend to ” crabs, blue-clawed and olive-backed, staring up fierce and rowdy from a basket .” In explaining how one—or rather “you,” in his second-person-literary style—would cook this “bounty of jimmies and sooks,” Sifton sprinkles his usual wealth of knowing details:
The best [crab seasoning] to my taste is Old Bay, a concoction out of Maryland minds that combines a lot of salt with mustard, paprika, celery seed, bay leaf, black and red pepper, cinnamon, cloves, allspice, cardamom and ginger….Your cousin from Fell’s Point…will scoff again and call for Obrycki’s, a blend that arises from the Baltimore restaurant of that name and is more heavily scented with black pepper… Even more parochial tastes may demand J.O.: a yet saltier, yet spicier mix, a taste of Tangier Island in the Chesapeake Bay.
Like various crab-spice blends, or Mitch Albom, Sifton is not to everyone’s taste. My father, after reading Sifton’s ruminations on winter roast beef (“there would be small planters of paperwhites rising into the living room’s warm air, false spring forced into flower”), described his prose style as “a meticulously arranged breeding between a stud from the Peterman Catalog line and a bitch from Cooks.com, lovingly supervised by a pipe-smoking fancier.”
But underneath the precious flourishes, does Sifton know what he’s talking about? Your attention falls—if you are from the land of Obrycki’s and the Bay, and you grew up laying down sheets of the Sunpapers to soak up the spills of your feasting—to the last two words of Sifton’s recipe for a dozen steamed crabs , the tell that ruins his bluff: ” Serves 4 .”
Twelve crabs? Serves 4 Brooklyn dabblers, maybe. Serves 1 or 2 people who eat crabs.
(Disclosure: Many years and many jobs ago, Sam Sifton burned me on a sourcing question, told his editor he would call me back to discuss it, and chickened out. Ever since, whenever I’ve had to face somebody who was upset about something I’ve written, I’ve reminded myself not to be like Sam Sifton.)