SUMMER NIGHTS Maine Avenue Fish Market
On D.C. Waterfront, a Feast for the Senses
Tuesday, August 30, 2005
You can smell it from the freeway.
Whizzing along the elevated Interstate 395, hemmed in by block after muscular block of soulless government architecture, you suddenly get a whiff of steamed crab. If you know where to pull off, and if you follow your nose past the fancy neon-signed seafood restaurants, you'll enter a pocket of the District that harks back to days when the city was a little less buttoned-down and a lot more pungent.
"Ca pue!" said a scowling 16-year-old visitor from Metz, France, as he wrinkled his nose on a recent weekday evening. His sister, Myriam Davis, laughed and pushed a styrofoam container of jumbo steamed shrimp toward him. She and her husband, Bill Davis, who live up the street, are among countless D.C., Maryland, and Virginia residents who make regular pilgrimages to the Maine Avenue Fish Market, a clutch of family-owned barges docked around a parking lot at the end of the Maine Avenue wharf in Southwest Washington.
As dinnertime approaches, the evening customers pull in, angling for parking spots. Each barge is topped with a brightly colored marquee and lined with glistening rows of crabs, mussels, squid, oysters, whole fish and filets. Almost as varied as the wares are the vendors -- white and black, Hispanic and Asian, male and female, old and young -- calling out brightly, eager to hook a sale.
Some shoppers are faithful to one barge. Others browse, tasting a spiced steamed shrimp or a spoonful of chowder at Captain White's Seafood City, slurping down freshly shucked clams and oysters at Jessie Taylor Seafood, inspecting the croakers, snappers and catfish filets at Pruitt Seafood, which has been there since 1856.
The 200-year-old market is open 365 days a year, through hurricanes and blizzards. But summer is when people in shorts and tank tops linger, sweat rolling down their foreheads as the sky darkens and the barges bob on the black water.
Lydia Webb, 30, of Landover stood with her daughter and a friend at Jessie Taylor, where tangled mounds of blue crabs writhed at knee level. She pointed at the ones with the red-tipped claws.
"We're buying females," she said.
Her daughter, Amira, 3, widened her eyes as the man behind the counter scooped up a crab and held it upside down. It waved its legs hopelessly.
"See how he knows how to hold them so they don't bite?" said Lefty McBride, 39, who lives in Forestville and, like Webb, has been coming to the market since she was Amira's age.
"You want to know the difference between males and females?" said the seafood seller, a burly man named Pete Hill who wore a kerchief on his head.
He pointed at a distinct bluish pattern on the bottom of a female's white shell, a half circle with a little nub at the top.