In every rural town I’ve been to whether it was in France or Portugal, or in this case, Maryland, there was the Local Establishment. It’s usually a place that survives because it offers quality food with a local flair and plenty of local color to match.
So on the Monday night, we landed in Ridge, Maryland, there weren’t many options for food. Most tourists are there for the weekends, and the rest of the week, the local restaurants shut down. The owner of Woodland, the place we were staying at, suggested we try Courtney’s, a fish restaurant that never seemed to close, where the proprietor went out in the morning to fish and then served whatever he caught that evening.
“But I’ll give you this warning. It’s not the kind of place where they’ve been to hospitality school.”
By evening, it was pouring rain, the kind in which there’s not only cats and dogs but probably a full barnyard of animals. Every once in awhile the sky would sizzle with lightning and then a thunderous pound would send any comfort right out of your bones. We pulled up in front of the restaurant, just a few yards from the harbor, and ran through the mud inside. The five seconds outside had left me thoroughly drenched.
There was no one waiting to seat us, so we decided to seat ourselves amid the other customers. Two guys were obviously locals, baseball caps pulled over their mullets and sleeveless denim vests protecting their shirts from the weather. There was a French family from our hotel at one table and another table that seemed to be an extended vacationing family. Later there were some hipsters with their father, but I’m still not even sure how they managed to end up in such a remote place. Maybe their Iphone GPS had screwed up.
The restaurant was simple. A wood floor, a salad bar with dwindling vegetables, and a bevy of Budweiser signs plastered around. The menu was even more straight-forward with its selection of fish, crabs, and meat and sides like coleslaw, fries, and hushpuppies.
After about 20 minutes, an older man came out to take our drink orders. My dad ordered a carafe of wine and four glasses. Barely a nod later, the man was off. The two local guys called after him, “You sure you gave me bacardi? Tastes like Jack.”
“It was from a bottle of bacardi.”
“Sure doesn’t taste like it.”
The proprietor, Courtney himself we later learn, returns with the bottle of bacardi, a white film of dust around it. The guy with a mullet sniffs it. “That is not any good. Must have turned.”
Courtney nods and brings him something else.
We sit for a good while before he comes back again to take our order, bringing some rolls with him. Since it’s Maryland, my mother and I go straight for the soft shelled crab, my youngest brother going for fish and chips, and my dad getting the special of the day: a fish in a cream cheese sauce which a questionable description. My brother, Mike, is feeling bold and orders the blue crabs.
“How many do you want?”
“How big are they?” Courtney puts out his hands – salad plate sized. “Three?”
“They come in orders of six or twelve.”
“Oh, uhhh, six I guess.”
We wait even longer for our food. We’re in no rush and it’s early for us anyway. We are used to eating dinner around 8pm and its just past 6:30pm.
The guys with the mullets leave. The French family looks nervously around. The hipsters are talking about something ironic. Eventually our food comes and with it a bunch of newspapers and a hammer for the blue crabs.
“Do I need to show him how to do it?” Courtney asks.
No, we assure him. My dad is the semi-native of the region. These are all male crabs, my dad explains, since you can’t fish the females. The way to tell is that on the belly, the males have the Washington monument and the females have the Capital building. He takes the newspaper lays it out in front of Mike, takes a knife, pries loose the monument, then picks up the hammer and taps the knife up the middle to crack the crab in half.
The French are amazed that we have a hammer and every time Mike stars banging the mallet to open the crab, the little boy, who is about six, lights up, says something about “un marteau” and then starts banging an imaginary one.
|Out of Focus Picture of a Blue Crab and Me (Courtney is in the background)|
The soft shell crab is basic, the batter a little too heavy for my taste, but satisfies my craving. The one thing I love about being anywhere more “Southern” is that you can count on there being good cole slaw and something delicious made from corn. Here it was hushpuppies, which are fried corn bread balls that you can eat with honey, mustard, hot sauce, whatever you want.
The surprising winner of the night was my dad’s fish special. Made from rockfish that was caught earlier that morning, the “cheese sauce” was more like a delicate white sauce with a beautiful arrangement of vegetables. While it was rich, it wasn’t heavy.
And as for the blue crabs? Everyone commandeered Mike’s order, so we had to order another six crabs. In the meantime, my mother and I got blackberry cobbler, made from fresh berries and served in parfait glasses with ice cream. It somehow was perfect.
At this point in the night, Courtney was more talkative, everyone else having left and cheerfully teased us about our demolition of crabs. And our request of a second cobbler.
When we finally left, it had stopped raining and besides the neon lights from the restaurant, it was hard to tell in the steep blackness that there was any traces of humanity in this part of the world.
Later, when he happened to talk to the owner of Woodlawn, he said there were many anecdotes about guests visiting Courtney, including one where he decided to take a nap behind the bar while some customers were still finishing up.
“Poor man,” my mother said, “Imagine having to fish all morning and then cook all night.”
“I don’t think he ever plans on stopping. Who knows what will happen when he can’t run it anymore.”