For some reason, the scenes I remember most vividly from books and films usually involve food and / or drink. The movie example which immediately springs to mind is The Ipcress File, which for me basically comprised just three scenes (and John Barry’s hugely evocative theme music of course): The famous coffee making opening title; the “champignons” exchange in the supermarket and finally; the omelette preparation scene with the girl. The rest of the film and its tortured plot line remains mostly visual white noise.

Perhaps the most famous cup of coffee ever made…(and that superb music!)

The author of the original book, Len Deighton was a gourmet who, like many good thriller writers, enjoyed building scenes around food and drink, seeing them as useful tools for creating mood and atmosphere. Deighton knew Ian Fleming who had an equal penchant for including food and drink in his James Bond novels. But whereas Deighton was a stickler for gastronomic and oenological “correctness”, Fleming could be more mischievous; his unorthodox Vespa martini – “shaken not stirred” et al – being the classic case in point.

Harry Palmer (Michael Caine) and the tin of champignons – sadly no video available.

Talking of Fleming, and all the many culinary delights enjoyed by his super-spy hero; the one which always stuck in my mind from the first moment I came upon it in the novel Live and Let Die, was soft shell crab with sauce tartar served up to him at the Regis Hotel in New York City. For some reason, the idea of this particular dish stimulated my mental taste buds more than most and I longed for the chance to try it one day, and naturally, Stateside.

Aspiration and reality rarely meet exactly as preconceived, and my first encounter with soft shell crab in America missed the mark in several details. For instance: for the Regis Hotel, NYC, read a spit and sawdust crab shack on Chesapeake Bay and; for tartar sauce, read an acrid powdered spice seasoning. However, I doubt that I would have been any more enthused by the crab itself, whatever the accompaniment, for soft shell crab turned out to be a fiddly, messy seafood with a sparse and disappointing meat. My long-held fantasy of replicating James Bond’s tucking into succulent, sweet crab-meat was instantly shattered together with the shells that littered our table.

This was actually the table next to ours (hence the lack of drained beer glasses), but I thought it created a still life that encapsulated our experience perfectly.

Nevertheless, that lazy, messy lunch on the Chesapeake shore remains a magical memory in its own right and my disillusionment with the crab was short-lived. A couple of long cold beers soon washed away the nasty taste of the industrial spice mix and the setting was as stunning as it was serene and remarkably photogenic, even the debris from the unfinished meal.

4 thoughts on “SHATTERED CRAB SHELLS – and dreams…

  1. Having known you for the best part of thirty years I am somewhat puzzled by your opening “For some reason,” food and or drink form a huge part of the way you in particular perceive any experience, and I know that you are aware of the fact that they are both a visceral and a more cultivated and cultural appreciation. Not to mention that they are also primarily perceived by the olfactory sense which is so intimately connected to memory.

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  2. Soft shell crabs were a specialty in many fancy Washington, D.C. restaurants. I had them one time, and they were great. But never again did they equal that first experience, and I gave up on them. Reading your post, I have come to the conclusion the first batch must have been crispy, well-seasoned and the only thing crab about it was the shell. When it came to hard shells, I love crab meat, but hated the work of prying little bits of meat out of the shell.
    Your photo includes a “crab mallet.” True story: Maryland Congressman Rogers Morton sent a set of crab mallets to Wisconsin Congressman John Byrnes. The Wisconsin secretary, who had never seen a crab mallet, dutifully prepared a thank you note for Byrnes to send: “Thank you for the set of 6 unfinished gavels.”

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