Though he grew up on the Potomac River eating Chesapeake Bay seafood, Luke Morgan had never prepared blue catfish or soft-shell crabs in his own kitchen before this summer.
“My wife laughed at me, because I had to look up a beer batter recipe for the soft shells,” said Morgan, a dentist from Edgewater, as he stopped by the parking lot of an Annapolis hotel to pick up his biweekly bag of seafood through the Bay region’s newest “community-supported fishery” program.
“My grandfather was a waterman; my great grandfather was a boat builder,” Morgan said. “Growing up, it was normal to go to Great Grandmom and Granddad’s and eat crabs.”
A pilot project of the Annapolis-based Oyster Recovery Partnership, the program mimics “community-supported agriculture” (CSA) models that offer weekly shares of farm produce, for pickup or, in some cases, delivery. That model asks customers to sign up and pay upfront for the season’s produce, which helps farmers purchase seed and other inputs for the year.
Old Line Fish Co., formed by the partnership, asked subscribers to do the same for the seafood-focused program, which cost $225 through the summer, and to accept the risk of not knowing what would be in their bags every other week. One time, it may be rockfish far fresher than what’s offered at nearby retailers; the next, it blue catfish and lump crabmeat, or perch and steamer clams.
George Arlotto, superintendent of schools in Maryland’s Anne Arundel County, said his family was already signed up for a produce CSA when they heard about the seafood program. They liked the idea of variety and of ensuring his children, ages 14, 17 and 20, would try dishes like the rockfish, oysters and blue crabs he grew up eating in Washington, D.C.
“There’s not something else like this that I know of, not even at Southeast Waterfront in DC, where there’s fresh fish but not this kind of seafood share,” said Arlotto, who works in Annapolis but lives on the District’s Capitol Hill.
Along with his share last week — the last of the summer series — Arlotto picked up a special order: a half-bushel of blue crabs from Wild Country Seafood for his daughter’s 17th birthday that evening, upon her request.
“The crabs are going to be devoured tonight,” he predicted.
Nearly 280 community-supported fisheries operate in the United States, according to the tracking website LocalCatch.org. The website lists Old Line Fish Co. as the only one operating in the Chesapeake Bay region, but Carol Bean of Talbot County had the first. She launched a “seafood CSA” several years ago, through which she sold her waterman husband’s oysters and other locally caught seafood. After a devastating barn fire 1 ½ years ago, Bean said in an email, they’ve relocated and are focused for now on getting their new farm going. But with a newly granted oyster lease from the state of Maryland, she said, she’s considering launching an oyster CSA once their aquaculture operation is up and running.
Kelly Barnes, who manages Old Line Fish Co., said the Annapolis-based program started out of a desire to connect consumers with the watermen and fishing communities just beyond their reach. As a nonprofit that recycles cast-off shells from restaurants and communities into new oyster reefs in the Bay, the Oyster Recovery Partnership often heard from consumers about how difficult it can be to source decent, local seafood.
“We have access to this seafood here, but we don’t know where to go and how to get it,” said Barnes, who formerly worked for the Maryland Watermen’s Association and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
Old Line partnered with a handful of Maryland watermen with the intention of supplying them another market for their catches during the 10-week pilot program, which was underwritten by a grant from the Ratcliffe Foundation. Subscribers, in return, received enough seafood to feed a family of four every other week: filleted fish, shellfish both in the shell and shucked and crabs live, steamed or picked.
Participants in the first series of shares paid about $45 a week for 3-4 pounds of seafood — and many were thrilled with the deal.
“A soft-shell crab sandwich alone runs $15 around here,” said Morgan.
His final bag of the season in late July included four soft-shell crabs, a pint of shucked oysters, a pound of backfin crabmeat and a half-gallon of soft- shell clams. It was the second time Barnes had included soft-shell clams, also called steamers or longnecks.
“People either love them or hate them,” she said of the bivalves that grow in the Bay’s soft sediments and are typically served steamed.
“A lot of people said they’d never had them before, and one of the girls said it was her favorite of the whole season,” said Lauren Donnelly, who was also handing out that week’s bags at the Old Line Fish Co. tent behind The Westin hotel.
Marcia Feliciano of Arnold, MD, couldn’t say enough about the program that gave her an excuse to try new recipes this summer.
“Last time, we made a crab gazpacho, and it was divine,” said Feliciano, an avid cook.
A regular refrain of subscribers to the first program was that they tried new things — mostly the blue catfish or soft-shell clams — and that they were fresher and cheaper than what’s for sale at the local grocery store.
Most also said they plan to sign up for the fall program, which begins in September and lasts through Thanksgiving, at $270 for 6 shares.
“Not to bash the retailers,” said Morgan, “but it’s hard to find quality seafood other than farm-raised salmon and cod. Here, I can get catfish that was in the water the day before.”
Morgan had never cooked Potomac-caught blue catfish, either, though it is sold at some area retailers like Wegmans. He took it on a beach trip with his mother-in-law, who was skeptical.
“We put it in foil on the grill with salt, pepper and butter, and she was convinced. She said she’d buy it in the future,” Morgan recalled.
Barnes smiled to hear that. “That’s sort of the point,” she said.