Doing what it takes for creativity sake
On a random Tuesday in early May of 2020, I found myself, tongs in hand, wrestling a couple of live crabs into my little apartment freezer. A friend had gotten some beautiful blue crabs, knowing I wanted to paint them. And in very early pandemic style, texted me as she drove by and left two taped inside a restaurant to-go box on the floor of my apartment lobby with my name written on top. I grabbed the box, brought it up to my apartment and proceeded to open up the container in the kitchen while my husband was in the middle of a work zoom meeting from the dining room table right beside me. I didn’t know they would be alive. I’m not sure what I expected, but I quickly realized why the box had been taped shut in the lobby. As they tried to scoot across the kitchen counter, my husband and I tried to carefully get them back in the box and figure out a solution. After doing some googling, I found out that you can temporarily put a crab to ‘sleep’ by putting them in the freezer for 20 minutes. This also serves as a more humane way to kill them. After they had their freezer time, I quickly set up my white board on the floor near the window with all the natural light coming in, grabbed my camera and started snapping away.
The process definitely felt a bit morally wrong, especially as a person who generally doesn’t even eat meat or very much fish, and enjoys a mainly vegetarian diet. But it was also such a unique and curious experiment and let’s face it- in the early months of the pandemic when the days all ran together, any experience out of the ordinary was VERY enticing. Extra carefully moving my crab models across the white background, this claw sticking over this way, this little leg bent a little over there. It was like I was playing with dolls. Except they definitely were not dolls.
Once I got my crab reference photos, I put them back in the freezer to let them sleep again before sadly putting them into a very opposite temperature pot of hot boiling water. It was a strange thing, photographing these creatures and then also killing them. I gave a little prayer of thanks as I dropped them in the water, and again when my husband and I picked out the little bits of crabmeat for our dinner. There was some comfort that at least this crab was getting memorialized in painting form. There would be a somewhat more permanent trace of their existence out there in the world, through my eyes, hand, and paintbrush.
This painting was created at a smaller scale (9x12”) and was really challenging. The shell held so much depth, grain and texture, while also an overall blanketed lovely sort of translucent shine. I combined some colored pencil on top of many layers of watercolor to get more of the detail and depth. Below you can see my process from pencil sketch to finished painting.
My mom grew up on the eastern shore of Maryland where blue crabs were aplenty. Crab cakes are still one of my family’s favorite meals to gather around. Blue crabs may not be my favorite variety of crab (I know, sacrilegious for a native Marylander!) but it’s hard to beat a really good eastern shore crab cake.
Sharing my mom Penny’s words and recipe-
Maryland Crab Cakes
“This recipe originated with my Father's Aunt Martha. She was a wonderful, hard-working woman who lived in Salisbury on Maryland's Eastern Shore and had access to delicious fresh crab meat from late Spring through the early Fall. We have all altered this recipe in various subtle ways over the years. My Mother added mustard; I have added cornmeal, and later, the panko breadcrumbs; some use more or less Old Bay (or even-perish the thought! An alternative brand-Seafood Seasoning.) Do what you want with it- EXCEPT don't stretch it with more than the one cup of cracker crumbs! You will love these crab cakes.”
To 1 pound FRESH crabmeat (Special, Lump, or a combination of Claw and either of the above), add 3 Tbsp. cider vinegar. Let stand while you beat up the other ingredients and make the cracker crumbs. NOTE, If your crabmeat is quite fresh, you can skip the vinegar bath. It enhances the flavor of crabmeat that has been frozen.
Beat together: 2 eggs
2 heaping Tbsp. mayonnaise (or oil)
1 tsp. Old Bay Seafood Seasoning
2 Tbsp. (or more) parsley, minced
Salt and pepper (or lemon pepper) to taste
Using blender or food processor, make into fine crumbs enough saltine crackers to yield 1 cup.
Now, combine all three mixtures. Be sure to pick over the crabmeat to remove any pieces of shell.
Form into balls, about 1 and 1/2 inches in diameter (a heaping handful!) Drop the balls, one at a time into cornmeal, or preferably, panko breadcrumbs and flatten into cakes while covering each side in cornmeal. note: now that i have discovered panko (Japanese bread crumbs) I use them instead of cornmeal.
Fry in a combination of butter and oil (Canola is good; don't use anything with a strong flavor) until golden brown and cooked through. Enjoy!
This is available as a giclee archival print in my shop and the 18x24” size just happens to be on sale for the remainder of July.
Happy season of the crab to my astrological Cancer friends out there, and happy birthday month to my mom AND father-in-law, who just happen to share the exact same wonderful birthday, July 17th.
Current Musings and Inspirations…
-This episode of the Emerald Podcast is a delightful trance-like meditation on the fullness of the forest.
-My dear friend Yasmine is currently solo cycling the entire Ring Road in Iceland, making her the first Arab woman to ever do so. You can follow along on her adventure as she shares her day to day journey on instagram here.
-I got to illustrate some very cool botanicals and beverages for Danny Childs’ new book Slow Drinks coming out this autumn. I just received my advance copy and it is FANTASTIC. Full of gorgeous photography shot by Katie Childs, as well as very fun cocktails and beverages of all kinds. Highly recommend pre-ordering your copy now! Pre-orders are hugely beneficial to the author. You can check it out and buy your copy here. My husband and I are going to attend one of the book release parties being held this October out at Plow Share Farms in Pennsylvania. You can read more about the event and get tickets here.