Baltimore seafood festival-goers shake a spicy finger at PETA controversy

Meredith Cohn

This year, the Baltimore Seafood Festival served up bushels of crabs with a heaping side of attitude about that billboard an animal rights group recently erected in Baltimore.

The billboard, put up last month by PETA, had the words, “I’m me, not meat,” next to a picture of what looked liked a blue crab, the Maryland state crustacean.

This crowd was having none of that on the Canton waterfront. They were having crab tots, crab sliders, crab mac-n-cheese, crab cakes and even crab soup.

“Crabs are the one reason I decided to come here,” said Tammye Watkins of Baltimore, whose fingers were encrusted with Old Bay and crab parts. “In this city, we live for crabs in the summer. We even eat them all year round.”

She said PETA should move their campaign to Pennsylvania or another state where cracking crabs isn’t a local pastime.

The billboard sparked something of a backlash in town when it went up on East Baltimore Street. Jimmy’s Famous Seafood of Dundalk countered with its own billboard that said, “SteaMEd crabs. Here to stay. Get Famous.”

The festival-goers were Jimmy’s people.

More than 8,000 people had come through the gate about an hour into the event, and if the sun continued to shine, organizers said, the count could beat last year’s tally of 8,500. Beth Laverick, owner of B Scene Events & Promotions, said ticket sales had plateaued in the run-up to the weekend when it was unclear whether Hurricane Florence was going to affect the region but began selling again when it appeared that the day would be clear.

The especially bright sun and clear sky made an un-forecast showing, pleasing festival-goers largely in summer attire.

For their part, Jimmy’s operators declined to comment about the billboard controversy or even the festival, but they were fielding orders from a long and winding line of customers at their tent. The restaurant, the official crab steamer of the festival, took 1,500 pre-orders for trays with a half-dozen crabs each.

Linda Scharf, who was waiting for some crab nachos from Jimmy’s, said she was aware of the billboard back-and-forth.

“I’m not boycotting, in fact I’m inclined to give Jimmy’s more business for what they did,” she said. “It is the state food.”

There was also a line for something a bit less Chesapeake-oriented, lobster rolls. But that’s probably not on par with rooting for the Patriots. And the festival was still mostly about spicy, steamy, crabby-ness, and also some raw bar fare.

“These are crab fries, and don’t they look awesome,” said Pam Siehler, showing off french fries with a gooey pile of crab dip atop. She came with Scharf from Mount Airy,

Others came from farther afield for the bay delicacies.

Charlena Griffen, came from Brooklyn, N.Y., for steamed crabs. She said her grandfather introduced her to them when she was a kid and the family would go to New Jersey sometimes and buy crabs and try to re-create the Chesapeake version.

She decided to drive to Baltimore for the second year in a row to have them done for her.

Pizza, New Yorkers have down. But crabs? “They just don’t do them right.”

For their part, PETA supporters were out near the billboard off President Street to protest crab eating, hand out information on veganism and “amplify the billboard’s message,” said Lauren A.R. Koslow, a local organizer for the animal liberation network Direct Action Everywhere, which partnered with PETA on the effort.

“Crabs and other aquatic animals feel pain and deserve freedom from exploitation,” she said from the roadside along with a small group that earned honks of support and requests for information, as well as a few jeers from drivers.

Koslow said she understood that giving up meat, or specifically crab, is a big cultural change for people like her who grew up eating animal products. But she hopes some people consider that they are consuming living creatures.

“And aquatic animals are often overlooked,” she said. “But they are just as deserving of their lives.”