Catcher in the Wry
I was a Cub Scout for a brief period in my childhood. I was a complete failure at it. My lack of success in this noble organization stemmed from both an early burgeoning of rebelliousness and a sense that I had been gypped. I felt gypped because I thought I was going to learn how to do useful things that a young boy imagines doing, such as starting fires with rocks and sticks–with no adult supervision, or tracking wild, elusive game like grizzly bears or mountain lions and killing them with my bare hands. You know, Dan’l Boone stuff, stuff that would make me cool enough to wear a coonskin cap without feeling like a silly poser or a dork.
Instead, Cub Scouts attempted to teach me all kinds of un-Dan’l Boone-like things—boring, sissy stuff like sewing, keeping my fingernails clean, memorizing and reciting foolish oaths and pledges and “marching” in parades (and it wasn’t even really marching; it was walking—I had known how to do that since toddlerhood). It definitely wasn’t the kind of stuff that would give me enough Frontiersman creds to legitimately wear a coonskin cap.
Back then, the Cub Scout cap that came with the uniform was a silly-looking hybrid of a cap and a beanie. I wore my cap backwards because it annoyed the Den Mother. It was the birth of my rebelliousness. I liked annoying her. Now, I realize that she was merely the end product of a bad idea or trend, likely devised by a male Scoutmaster somewhere high up in the Scouting hierarchy, who rightly figured that no adult male would have either the patience or fortitude necessary to control a dozen loud, bratty eight-year old boys. It is likely that the Scoutmaster was so old he had forgotten what it was like to be an eight-year-old boy. The logical step, as too often occurs, was to dump the thankless, miserable task into a woman’s lap.
Having a Den Mother was like having a baby sitter. In the mind of most eight-year-olds, a baby sitter is a demeaning, unnecessary nuisance, at least during daylight hours. They aren’t really an authority figure but, rather, a substitute parent, with no clout other than vacant threats of consequences and attention-giving scolding. Further diminishing the Den Mother’s authority was the requirement—likely conceived by the same genius that thought Den-Mothering was a good idea–that the Den Mother wear a feminine version of the Cub Scout Uniform. It was laughable.The poor woman looked like a paramilitary cross-dresser.
Unlike many of the kids in my pack, I was never cruel to the woman. I was inattentive, daydreaming of
hacking wildlife to ribbons with a Bowie knife, while she droned on and on about the virtues of sock darning and other sissy good deeds. My inattention probably irritated her as much as me wearing my cap backwards. She never blew up at me, very likely because the other boys were doing much worse things than I, but also it is likely that she had ingested enough Seconal to sedate her sufficiently to keep from going postal on a mob of loud, obnoxious eight-year-olds.
I suspect my Den Mother had a conversation with my real Mother, suggesting something polite like, “maybe scouting isn’t for Joe”, and politely inquiring, “does he always wear his cap backwards?”. My mom kindly gave me the option to quit, which I accepted. I avoided the solemn ceremony of disgrace: me, standing stiffly and stoically at attention, as all of my merit badges and buttons were ripped from my little blue tunic by the Den Mother, drums beating me to the netherworld of Scouting shame, where no campfires are lit and all beasts are safe—me, forever branded….none of that. Besides, I hadn’t earned a single merit badge.
My Mother’s answer to the inquiry about wearing my cap backwards would likely have been, “Why yes, he always wears his cap backwards”, spoken in her Louisiana drawl, as if nothing was wrong with it, smoothly implying that anybody who didn’t wear their cap that way was, “out of their cotton-pickin’ mind”. And she wouldn’t have been lying, at least with respect to me wearing my cap that way.
Several years before my failure at scouting, I had had a short career playing T-league baseball. All T-league careers are short. It’s sort of like baseball day care, designed for very young children who haven’t developed the experience or motor skills to throw a ball accurately or to catch a ball without closing their eyes. Basically, T-Leaguers are short, uncoordinated novices, more convinced that closing their eyes will prevent less injury than obeying the first fundamental of baseball to “keep your eyes on the ball.”
T-League is really all about hitting the ball, anyway: A ball is placed on top of an adjustable tee, making it simple for the clumsy little Munchkin batter to whack it into a glorious game-winning-over-the-fence-home run. That never happened during my entire T-league career. In fact, the ball very seldom even made it to the outfield—which was a good thing. Most of the outfielders were shorter, clumsier kids who usually sat in the outfield, lazily daydreaming, looking for four-leaf clovers or blowing the white fuzz from germinating dandelions into the air, knowing that if a ball did come dribbling their way that there would be plenty of time to get up, retrieve it, and make a limp, awkward throw somewhere in the neighborhood of the infield, whereupon they could lazily return to their field of dreams.
For whatever reason, the coach made me a catcher. It was probably because I was the only one who didn’t bitch about wearing all of the gear that a catcher is required to wear… a claustrophobic mask that all but blinded me, a hot, bulky, oversized chest protector, and cumbersome shin guards that made me run with all of the speed and grace of a turtle with a stick up its ass. The catcher’s mitt was like wearing a new, poorly designed prosthetic hand, completely unable to catch anything, even if I could see anything through the damn mask. Wearing all of that gear was very perplexing to me, except for the requirement that I wear my cap backwards. Equally perplexing was the fact that I was called a “catcher” and the pitcher was called a “pitcher”. The pitcher never threw a single pitch. It was T-Ball.
The pitcher was really the-guy-who-waited-on-the-mound-for-a-ball-to-come-dribbling-to-him. I was the-sweaty-kid-standing-behind-the-plate-waiting-for-something-else-to-happen. The only balls thrown my way came from the infielders, usually a blind, misdirected throw that would bounce past the backstop into the parking lot; or, less commonly, a well-aimed shot that would ricochet off of my useless mitt, careening into the parking lot, whereupon I would do the turtle and stick shuffle, huffing and puffing, to retrieve it from underneath a Studebaker. Meanwhile, base runners would score as a result of these series of errors…yielding a huge score rendered solely by unearned runs. Fortunately for me—and probably for all of the parents who were spectators– T-league games were only a few innings long. All of that shuffling back and forth to the parking lot was exhausting.
Still, I considered myself a catcher, even if I was, in reality, a retriever. I liked the identity associated with being a catcher—a fearless signal-caller, skillfully snagging every lightning bolt pitch thrown his way, even though all I did was stand around sweating or waddle after passed balls. I wore my cap backwards on and off of the field. It was part of my identity. It made me feel different. It made me feel cool. It was comfortable.
I wore my baseball cap that way, well into the mid-80’s…a little gem of childhood to which I clung—harmless, unique and nostalgic. By the time I was thirty, I stopped wearing it that way. That was when I gave up my fruitless career as a drunk, embarking on the alien frontier of sobriety.
Sobriety makes one notice a lot of stuff. A few years after taking the pledge, I noticed an abundance of young men and boys wearing their baseball caps backwards…and they weren’t playing baseball. In my sotted absence from noticing anything other than the location of liquor stores or sources of ice, I had missed the emergence—on a grand scale—of a cultural trend that plagued the country for the next two decades…a trend which I genuinely felt that I had started.
Bitterness isn’t really in my nature. I only succumb to it whenever I feel as if I have been robbed or cheated. The Hat Backwards trend robbed me of the accolades and fortune I felt was due to me as the founder, the originator, chief promulgator and Sole Trendsetter of something that was uniquely mine. My sober mind prevailed over this bitterness—I had been too drunk to foresee it as a trend, too stoned to file a patent or copyright to yield the fortune I felt I richly deserved. I let it go, watching the trend go the way of all trends—an expression of avant garde rebelliousness devolving into a silly, overdone statement for all things un-cool and commonplace. Who would want to be the author of something like that? Certainly, not me.
It could be said that my last foray into the world as a trendsetter wannabe occurred thirty-two years ago, when I moved from Baltimore to Maine. Baltimore is all about crabs. Maine is all about lobsters. I wondered if “introducing” a lobster-centric culture to the Maryland crab cake would have a deep, lasting impact on diners in The Pine Tree State. OK, that’s bullshit. I really didn’t care what kind of impact my crab cakes had other than being regarded as delicious. I had a limited arsenal of recipes back then, and crab cakes were a sure-fire weapon to hit the target. To me, selling crab cakes in any place other than Baltimore was an unexplored frontier.
Mainers know a good thing when they eat it. Today, a multitude of restaurants in Maine sell crab cakes. I don’t take any credit for starting the trend—merely contributing to it. Over the years, I’ve prepared and sold thousands of crab cakes, received enough awards and accolades to last me a lifetime. It’s a cool feeling. My inner-frontiersman is, at last, satisfied.
TAH-DA! FINALLY…THE CRAB CAKE RECIPE
Traditional Maryland crab cakes are made from the “lump” meat of the blue crab that is indigenous to Chesapeake Bay. Since I live in Maine, I use the crabmeat found in the local waters, the Maine rock crab aka the Peekytoe crab. Maryland crabmeat is robustly sweet with a thick hearty texture. Maine crabmeat is texturally less hearty, but does have a sweetness similar to the Maryland variety of crab. I prefer Maryland crabmeat, but it is more expensive than what I can buy in a local fish market.
I never use frozen crabmeat to make crab cakes. After thawing, it has a very fishy aroma and its sweetness greatly diminishes. When crabmeat is going bad it will have a strong odor of ammonia. Don’t eat this! It’s a one-way ticket to the porcelain throne for a two or three day tour.
Canned crabmeat is OK, but I don’t usually recommend it. It usually has a slight metallic, unfresh aftertaste. If you’re really jonesing for a crab cake buy canned “lump” meat and not canned “claw” meat
And, one last thing. If you want to make a genuine Maryland crab cake, you have to use Old Bay Seasoning. There are no substitutes. Old Bay was formerly made by The Baltimore Spice Company. Years ago, it was bought out by the McCormick Spice Company, also located in Baltimore. McCormick makes a zillion wonderful spices and rubs but, in my opinion, Old Bay Seasoning is their crown jewel. It has multiple uses for seasoning things other than crab. As with many things that are very good, seasoning with Old Bay is a very worthwhile trend.
- 1 lb. lump crab meat, picked free of shells & cartilage
- ¾ cup-more or less-dry, ground unseasoned bread crumbs
- 1 large egg
- 3 Tablespoons extra heavy mayonnaise
- 2 Tablespoons half & half or heavy cream
- 1 Tablespoon fresh lemon juice
- 1 Tablespoon dry sherry
- 1 Tablespoon McCormick’s Old Bay Seasoning
- 1/3 Tablespoon Coleman’s Dry Mustard
- 1 minced stalk of green onion
- 3 Tablespoons of minced red bell pepper
- 2 Tablespoons vegetable oil + 2 Tablespoons margarine…for cooking
- Put the picked crabmeat into a medium-sized mixing bowl…add the breadcrumbs and gently toss them into the crabmeat, being careful not to break up the lumps
- In another mixing bowl, combine all of the other ingredients—except for the oil and margarine—whisk thoroughly with a wire whisk until all of the ingredients are well mixed and the Old Bay & dry mustard are not in clotted lumps
- Pour the liquid mixture into the crab & breadcrumb mixture. Lightly toss—again being careful not to break up the lumps of crabmeat. If the mixture seems soggy, add a few more tablespoons of breadcrumbs. Cover & refrigerate for about twenty minutes.
- Remove from the fridge when the twenty minutes is up. Pat-a-cake the crab mixture into four to six balls (size is up to you). If the mixture seems too moist, dust with a little more breadcrumbs as you roll them
- Meanwhile, heat the 2 Tablespoons of vegetable oil + 2 Tablespoons of margarine in a 10-inch no-stick skillet. Don’t get it smoking hot, just hot enough so that your hand feels very warm when held six inches above the oil
- Slightly flatten the crab cakes and gently place them into the hot oil (you won’t be able to fit more than 4 cakes in the pan without crowding them & making them difficult to turn) Reduce the heat to medium low to low. Cook for about 3 minutes on the first side and then gently cook them on your lowest heat setting on the flip-side for another 3-4 minutes or until dark golden brown.
- Remove from the heat onto a paper-towel covered plate to absorb any excess oil