My dream of a perfect evening.....
It's a warm, summer night. The torches are lit on the deck and we have the television pulled outside to watch the O's game. Our close friends are over and we are enjoying a few beverages, possibly even of the adult type. In the center of our outdoor table is a mountain of the largest Maryland Blue Crabs I have ever seen, steamed to perfection! Sounds good to you too? I bet it sounds good to everyone who was born in, moved to, or passed through our beautiful spot at the head of the Chesapeake Bay. I love that I can make a phone call to the crab shack down the street and within the hour, I can walk up to the window and they will hand me my brown bag of crabs all ready to go. How easy is that! However, a book passed through my hands at the library the other day that made me stop and think about how all of the wonderful delicacies from The Bay actually get to our table.
The book is Beautiful Swimmers: Watermen, Crabs and the Chesapeake Bay, by William W. Warner. Published back in 1976, it was the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction. Growing up on the banks of the North East River and being proud to boast that I came from the Eastern Shore, I have always been in love with the towns and the people around the Bay. On top of roaming the banks of my own river every day, I used to hunt on a farm in Galena and spent countless days in St. Michaels and Easton. Every trip ended the same way. We would stop at a place where you could gorge yourself on crabs, crab cakes, clams or oysters. All pulled right from the waters next door. Sometimes, the boats would pull right up to the docks of the restaurant where we were dining and the watermen would throw their bushel baskets up on the dock, collect their money and be off again in a flash. Seemed like an easy job to me. Boy was I wrong!
Beautiful Swimmers chronicles the lives of the watermen who fish and crab the waters of our beloved Chesapeake Bay. Warner actually lived the life of these amazing men, going out before the break of dawn and working side by side with them to know and understand the backbreaking toil of their work. They rise before sunup all year, in every kind of weather. Sometimes they spend an entire day working themselves to the bone, only to come home with nothing. They fight weather, nature, politics, outsiders, and sometimes, each other. They are so accustomed to the hard labor that the work looks effortless. Until you try it for the first time. By the time they account for the expenses to run their operation, many just barely break even. You may ask why the keep at it. They will tell you that it's in their blood. Warner learned to love these men and the Chesapeake Bay where they live and work. He came away from his research with undying respect for them. Not just the men, but the woman of The Shore as well. These ladies work the same long hours as the men. They sometimes hold down two or three jobs to help support their families. They work in crab picking houses or clam and oyster processing plants. Then go off to jobs in restaurants or retail stores. I myself have a new respect for the people who bring us the food that makes us true Marylanders.
The book also vividly details the life stories of the crabs and other creatures that inhabit the waters of The Bay. It was fascinating to learn of the blue crab's life cycle and of the history of the oyster and clam beds. Warner tells the tales of the fishing wars of the past and present. It was very cool to read about places that he visited and talked about in the 1970's. Some that I remember from that time and some that are still a part of our culture today like the restaurants, tourist spots and boats that still sail.
The fact that Beautiful Swimmers was written almost forty years ago makes it even more captivating. When we look back at the trouble and turmoil that The Chesapeake has faced in our lifetime, some of the practices that went on when this book was written are shocking! Want to know why the crab population was so decimated? One reason could be that some crabbers actually dredged the impregnated female crabs out of their hibernation grounds during the winter to send to markets! The book is loaded with history, folklore and facts that will make you want to learn more. Of course, many things have changed over the years and some things have been made easier. The Chesapeake Bay is in better health and is carefully protected by all of us who live here. But for those strong, proud people whose lives are forever tied to these waters, much has stayed the same. Manual labor is still manual labor.
I will never sit down to pick a crab or shuck an oyster again without thinking of these people who work so hard to bring us what we love. Everyone who has ever enjoyed the bounty that comes from The Bay must read Beautiful Swimmers. And we should all say a little thank you to those watermen who make it possible to walk up to a window at a local crab shack and walk away with our treasures packed up nicely in a brown bag.
Recommended by Donna Nichols