Okay, here's the problem, here's why being a judge at the annual Talbot County Crab Cook-Off in St. Michaels is not the easy-breezy, nothing-to-it, tiptoe-through-the-squash-blossoms kind of lark you think it might be. The thing is, it's hard. I might even go so far as to say, at the risk of putting too fine a point on it, it's very hard.
But did my friend Dan Patrell, editor ofMaryland Lifemagazine, tell me that when he recruited me as a judge for this third annual battle of the chefs at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels? No, he did not. He just said it would be fun and delicious, which of course it was. But it was also hard. And. . . .
Okay, this is all starting to sound pretty whiney, isn't it? I mean, come on, Sayles, how bad can things be when all you have to complain about is how difficult it was to compare the crab-stuffed banana pepper prepared by chef Daniel Pochron (Mason's Gourmet Restaurant in Easton) with the crab-stuffed pot stickers and Thai dipping sauce from chef Jorge Alvarez (the Peacock Restaurant & Lounge at Easton's Inn at 202 Dover)?
Yes, life is pretty damned good when your greatest challenge of the day is figuring out exactly how to deconstruct and eat the beautiful little stack of miniature crabcakes, corn fritters and tomato slices—the "Chesapeake crab stack"—assembled by chef Randolph Sprinkle of the Key Lime Cafe in St. Michaels. (Answer: Knock it over. Bonus answer: Create a diversion and steal as many of the corn fritters as you can from nearby plates, because they are to die for). Or deciding whether or not to polish off the entire whopping wineglass of sublime lump-crab gazpacho from chef Barbara Helish of Bella Luna in Royal Oak, even though there were four more dishes to come—maybe five more, I don't know. A good gazpacho has that effect on me; I get disoriented.
So I have no business complaining that it was hard. But it was . . . hard. I was told there would be no math, yet time and again I found myself faced with the impossible task of assigning a 1-to-10 value to, say, a perfect little soft-shell crab on a mound of jicama slaw with a side of mango relish (from chef Michael Quattrucci of the Talbot Country Club, last year's winner). It was really quite impossible—though I did discover that if one is liberal with decimals, one can in fact score everything between 9.9 and 10.
I suspect the other seven judges had similar difficulties, but in the end we found ourselves pretty much in agreement on the day's winners. First place went to Mr. Pochron of Mason's, he of the magnificent banana pepper. While second and third place went, respectively, to chefs Sprinkle and Alvarez. I say "pretty much" in agreement because, had it been my decision alone, I'd have put Barbara Helish's gazpacho somewhere in the top three. But that's me, and you know how it is with me and a good gazpacho. I get . . . wait, what were we talking about?