Earlier this summer, Spenser Magazine sent us on a little excursion with an assignment: Go to Tangier Island, Va., to write about the heritage and crabbing traditions on the tiny island in the Chesapeake Bay. We'd been wanting to visit Tangier for a long time, so saying yes was a no-brainer. We packed up and made the four-hour drive down to Crisfield, Md., where we caught the U.S. mail boat to the island.
From the moment we stepped on that mail boat, we knew we were heading to a unique place. Tangier is a minuscule dot of land in the middle of the bay, a tight-knit, workaday community of about 450 people who either fish for crabs or support the men who do. The only way to access the island is by private plane or one of the infrequent ferries from the mainland.
Standing on the deck of that slightly beaten-up mail boat, we found ourselves surrounded by piles of all the stuff you can't buy on the island, bound for Tangier residents -- crates of groceries marked with family names, dog food, garden stones, Gatorade, potting soil and paint. (Tangier has only one tiny general store.)
With us on the boat were a few residents who had gone over to the mainland to shop. Naturally, we eavesdropped. Not because of what they were talking about, which was the shrinking population of Tangier, and how they had watched school classes of 20 shrink to 10 or fewer (this year's high school graduating class was made up of three students). No, the reason we were listening in was because of the women's accents. Thanks to Tangier's extreme isolation, the residents' accents are unique from anywhere else in the world. They're unlike any we've ever heard -- sort of a honking blend of Irish and coastal Southern U.S. If you want to hear for yourself, you can sample them in this video, from a documentary about American dialects.
To hear about all about the island, and to read about experience out on the water with Tangier's mayor, James "Ooker" Eskridge, check out our story in Spenser. You'll learn about what it takes to fish for soft shell crabs, and about Tangier's fascinating history, as well as its threatened, uncertain future.
As a bonus to the article, we want to share a few of the photos we snapped while on Tangier, to give you a sense of what it's like to visit there.
And of course we want to show you what we ate.
We stayed at Hilda Crockett's Chesapeake House, a short walk from the boat drop. (Well, okay, everything's a short walk from the boat drop. The place is tiny.) Breakfast and dinner were included with our room -- there are very few restaurants in town -- although the final seating for dinner was 5 p.m. When we arrived at dinner, we were the only people in the dining room. And since the food is served family-style, we found ourselves facing a huge spread.
Toward the top right of that photo, you can see Hilda Crockett's famous corn pudding. It's a light, sweet mousse, and it's delicious. The recipe was actually featured in a 1981 issue of Bon Appétit!
And take a look at these crab cakes from dinner at Hilda Crockett's. They're huge and -- no surprise -- delicious. There are spices but very little filler, and they're perfectly browned.
One of our favorite things we ate at that dinner were these simple pickled beets. There wasn't anything unusual about them, but we could have eaten the entire bowl.
For the Spenser story, we spent some time on the water with the Tangier Island mayor, James "Ooker" Eskridge, a lifelong crabman who was born and raised on the island. (Folks call him Ooker because that's the sound he used to make as a child to imitate his family's rooster. Just about everybody on Tangier goes by a nickname.)
Ooker took us out on the water to show us how to catch soft crabs. We watched him haul traps out of the water to inspect his catch. Here, you can see a few soft shell crabs that had ventured into the trap.
Back at Ooker's crab shack, where the soft-shell crabs live in tanks as they grow and molt their shells, we were able to see crabs at various stages and sizes.
We were even able to see a crab actually shed its hard outer shell! The crabs are nearly bursting at the seams, ready to shed their outer layers. Here, you can see a crab literally come out of its shell. We love the little dance the crab does once he's out of the shell -- freedom!
We hope you'll check out the full story in Spenser.