“From Soup to Putz” by Mike McHugh

This story appears in the anthology “Not Your Mother’s Book…On Family.”

One thing that I’ll always remember about Uncle Jack is that he could cook a mean pot of crab soup. Maryland style—the only way to do it as far as he was concerned—with lots of fresh vegetables, halves of backfin and claws still in the shell. Bisque was simply not his bag. “Just a fancy name the French people came up with so they can feel good about eating baby food,” he’d say.

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Uncle Jack showing what a great deal he got on his bottle of gin!

Uncle Jack’s crab soup was legendary. He’d spend all day in the kitchen at the Knights of Columbus hall cooking up 50-gallon batches for their annual crab feast. And he never used a recipe. The soup would be gone before the affair was half over. On one occasion, when the pot began running low exceptionally early, Uncle Jack caught the event chairperson trying to water it down. The man learned a lesson that day—a stainless steel ladle in Uncle Jack’s hands carried the power of Thor’s mighty hammer.

As good as his soup was, Uncle Jack was always modest about his culinary ability. Whenever I’d pass along to him the many compliments I’d heard about his soup, he’d brush them off, saying, “Oh, you could put a horse turd on a lettuce leaf and this crowd would eat it.”

Uncle Jack may have downplayed his skill, but we—his family—were grateful. I recall many summer days during my childhood when we’d gather at the apartment he shared with his sister, my Aunt Rita, for a bushel of steamed crabs and his soup.

Neither Uncle Jack nor Aunt Rita ever married, so they lived together their entire lives. That’s one thing I envy about Uncle Jack even more than his soup—how he was able to share a place with his sister all that time in relative peace. Putting my sister and me together would be like Martha Stewart rooming with Larry the Cable Guy.

Their living arrangement was not always cool breeze and sunshine, however. For example, there was the incident involving jockey shorts. Aunt Rita worked for a dealer who leased cars to a number of players for the Baltimore Orioles. One of the clients was Hall-of-Fame pitcher Jim Palmer, who was also a model for Jockey underwear. One day while visiting the dealership, Jim Palmer gifted her with a pair of autographed shorts. Aunt Rita was a huge fan of his and was elated at receiving this odd treasure.

“What in the hell are you going to do with those?” Uncle Jack chided when she brought them home.

“I’m thinking about hanging them on top of the Christmas tree this year,” she told him.

Uncle Jack didn’t fancy the idea of having a pair of men’s underwear hanging around in the apartment. Luckily, crab season comes in summer, thus we were all spared the indigestion that such a display would surely have caused among the male element of our clan.

old bayThe traditional way to prepare crabs in Maryland is to steam them whole with lots of Old Bay Seasoning—a local, red-pepper-based concoction. You spread newspaper across the table and dump the hot crabs in a pile in the middle. It takes no small amount of work with a wooden mallet and a table knife to get to the meat. You expend more calories hammering at the shells than you do eating the meat once you’ve exposed it. Our country’s obesity problem would be solved if the fast-food restaurants made it as hard to get at their double-patty hamburgers.

Uncle Jack and my father operated on their crabs with surgical precision. My brothers and I were more like the comedian Gallagher with his Sledge-o-Matic at a produce stand. If crab shells were shrapnel, my mom and Aunt Rita would have been awarded Purple Hearts. Mom yelled scathing remarks at us for splattering crab guts all over the place. I offered to wipe them up with Jim Palmer’s undershorts. Aunt Rita was not amused.

Clearly, eating steamed crabs is a messy affair. In addition to all of the shells and guts, you end up getting Old Bay all over your hands. For this reason, Maryland leads the nation in consumption of paper towels per capita, a leading cause of global deforestation, outranking paper wasted by law offices. And even with all those paper towels, it’s impossible to keep your hands clean of the peppery gook. This is why when eating steamed crabs, it’s critical to wash your hands thoroughly before engaging in certain other activities. My youngest brother learned this lesson the hard way.

What with all those spices, Dad and Uncle Jack considered eating crabs a perfect excuse to drink lots of beer, leading to frequent nature calls. On this particular occasion, nature had a bullhorn in my father’s ear. Unfortunately, when he went to the apartment’s only bathroom, he found it was occupied.

Dad was admirably stoic. However, after several minutes of shifting in his seat as if a sea nettle were lodged in his shorts, his patience reached its limit. Surveying the room, he found that all of the female members of our clan were present and accounted for. So he figured it was my brother. It was unheard of for a male member to spend more than a few minutes doing his business, except maybe if the meal included refried beans. But this one didn’t.

It was then he noticed that his youngest offspring was missing from the room. He knocked on the door, asking his five-year-old son if he was OK. “Yes, uh, fine,” my brother answered from behind the door.

“Well, finish up and open the door. There are others waiting to use the bathroom.”

“Uhh, I can’t. Yet.”

“Open the door,” he said in that tone we all knew too well. Sergeant Carter barking at Gomer Pyle came to mind.

So he opened the door, and there he stood, holding a cup of water with his tinkler fully submerged.

I don’t know what was redder—the crab shells or my little brother’s face. “But, Dad! The Old Bay—it burns!”

From that day forward, my mother never had another problem getting him to wash his hands. And life for our little family continued on, crab soup and all.

Family 250rgbMike McHugh is author of “The Dang Yankee,” a humorous column about life in Louisiana and the world at large. His column appears in The Louisiana Jam, a publication covering Southwest Louisiana and Southeast Texas. He also has two stories in Not Your Mother’s Book . . . On Home Improvement. Mike invites you to mosey on over to his website: http://www.TheDangYankee.com

Again, this story appears in “Not Your Mother’s Book…On Family.” The book is filled with 60 funny stories that confirm families aren’t always perfect! Purchase this book today from your favorite retailer, Amazon (http://amzn.to/1uWdwES) or Barnes & Noble (http://bit.ly/11HEQLy).

To submit your stories for consideration in future NYMB titles, go to http://www.PublishingSyndicate.com and click on the “Not Your Mother’s Book” tab.