Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Eating In Empty Lots - Part l - The Crab Shack

If farm-to-table is the Platonic ideal for the food production-to-consumption model, the whole pasture-to-pie hole routine, then surely ocean-to-foodtruck comes in a close second.  For what culinary encounter could be better than chancing upon a seafood purveyor beached in a gravel parking lot strangely redolent of Old Bay?  By what gastronomic kismet would have you able to simply (if randomly) roll up to this truly improbable foodtruck, only to drive off, minutes later, with a garbage bag full of steaming crustations and a quickening across your heart?  Because it’s written in the stars.  Because the sensei of gastronomic excellence have so ordained.  You will eat at The Crab Shack, grasshopper, and yes, you will like it.  Such is their decree.

I know of The Crab Shack only because it suddenly appeared in my neighborhood one morning in a weed-choked empty lot, between a rarely-driven schoolbus (shown beside; the owner operates a CDL class when the mood strikes) and a psychic/palm reader’s place of business, if that’s what they’re calling the business of reading palms, these days.  Why would a seafood truck be here, I wondered.  Stolen, I thought.  Left to rust, I speculated.  Tomfoolery, I decided.  Madness.  For what kind of lunatic would find an overgrown, abandoned lot in a mostly-residential (and highly unfashionable) neighborhood of Alexandria South suitable for peddling a highly-perishable food product from a trailer better suited to hauling ponies around the childrens' birthday circuit?

John would.  That’s who.  The sole proprietor of this unlikely enterprise.  And he's no madman.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  He’s comfortably into middle age and wears the hair, tattoos, and complexion of a Native American who has known hard work for most of his life.  An old soul.  Knowing and wise.  But also someone with whom you’d want to address in careful tones of deference and respect.  Someone who you’d want  to have your back in a barroom throwdown, someone who could likely drop his opponent like a bag of rocks.  And if that’s not reason enough to be nice when ordering, John’s elderly father hangs out inside the trailer as well.  Wears a Fedora.  Fingers a cane.  And never blinks through what can only be described as an ex-pugilist’s leer.  Imagine William S. Burroughs in the person of an elderly erstwhile crabber and you’ll have the idea, boy-o.

Seafood stands like this are commonplace across the American South.  Travel the two-lane black tops of the Virginia Tidewater, the Carolina Low Country, north to south, and you’ll encounter an almost-endless procession of shrimpers or crabbers peddling the day’s catch from the tarpaulin-covered backs of their bombed-out F-150s.  But here, in this part Northern Virginia, that never happens.  It simply isn’t done.  Fisherman do not sell their catch from pickups, let alone trailers retrofitted with refrigeration and the ability to steam and season one’s catch for roadside patrons.  The county does not let them.  To have John tell it, he wanted to locate on land he's owned for years.  But Fairfax County shook him down for thousands in licensing fees and permits (to protect, no doubt, the proprietary fiscal interests of such culinary brick-and-mortar fixtures as Hooterbees and T.G.I. McFucksters).

So here he is, beached in a gravel parking lot between the psychic’s place and a big yellow school bus, a place almost existential in the loneliness it evokes.  But John’s loss is our gain.  Because his Crab Shack is exactly the kind of food purveyance my neighborhood (or any neighborhood, for that matter) needs.  Local.  Seasonal.  Fresh as it gets.  Because John sources his crabs and shrimp from Wanchese, North Carolina, a fishing collective on Roanoke Island, Dare County, in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, widely known for producing some of the finest crustations in the mid-Atlantic.

I stopped on a recent Saturday afternoon and approached this foodtruck misbegotten in the gastronomic wasteland that is this part of Fairfax County.  John greeted me.  He smiled.  Then he asked me what I’d like to eat.  I looked.  But my cursory glance at the menu was made superfluous by the sudden whiff of Old Bay adrift on the air.  Crabs.  A dozen, I said, followed by an emphatic and most polite please.  John left the trailer out the back door, threw a dozen of the little bastards in his steamer, and, moments later, walked out into the parking lot with a garbage bag full of the most glorious crabs I’ve yet encountered this season.  And as John tied off the bag and handed it to me, I understood by the glimmer in his eye that this was no mere food-for-money exchange.  This was more than that.  A proffering.  A gift.  A bequeathment.  Money had nothing to do with it.  For what John knew then, and what I was soon to learn as I ripped the bag open with my bare teeth, is that the act of sitting down at a wooden table in summer with a bag of perfectly steamed blue crabs and an ice-cold beer is one of the most transcendent culinary experiences a person can have.  Ever.  I experienced it.  And so should you.

The Crab Shack is located in the 5700 block of Telegraph Road in Alexandria, Virginia.  John is open for business (at the time of this writing) on weekends, midday to late afternoon.  Visit him.  Buy his food.  If you’re disinclined to eating in empty lots, I promise you a seat at my kitchen table.  And my beer is always cold.

Call John at 703.507.5607 for insight, wisdom, and directions.

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