Of Shore Food, Which Is Great Fun, And Hermit Crabs

I went to the shore again. Last time, in my post “Of The Shore, Which Is A Weird Place” I found some strange and tantalizing road-trip goodies, like the funny-but-possibly-ominous chicken farm sign (click here if you’d like to revisit that trip), but I never got to salt water taffy or hermit crabs, so let’s start there.  Or, rather, let’s start on the way there.

There are two main ways to get to Rehoboth Beach, DE from Maryland. Last time I went one way. This time, I went the other.  The way I went this time is actually the way I am used to going (the way I went last time was kind of an accident. Any who know me will not be surprised) and I was looking forward to stopping by my “favorite” farm stand. I’ve only been there twice so I guess the criteria for “favorite” isn’t very high but the two times I went there they had a most prodigious collection of local honeys so I wanted to see what was going on with all that.

So I’m driving along, minding my business, if you will, and I begin to see the  “chicken bbq” signs I was telling you about last time and I thought to myself, “Oh, here we go again” and then a sign that said “pit beef” which, if you read my post on Maryland Pit Beef where I started out cautious but ended up in fandom, you’ll know that kind of sign would catch my eye. Then I see the pit beef cart, all locked up (bummer!) and in the next breath I see a storefront (sweet!) so I pull over rather dangerously and careen into the parking lot which was, fortunately for all involved, rather empty. And there, in all it’s glory, is Hot Off The Coals. They don’t have a website (although, it looks like one is in the works), but they do have a Facebook page, which you can see here.

Hot Off The Coals, MD Rt. 404 & Rt. 309, Queen Anne, MD

You’ve got to love a place where the pit is in the front parking lot and it’s guarded by a kicking bull with flaming red eyes. Better still, this pit beef shack is annexed to a gas station — win win!

Guess you don’t want to mess with the bull!

The pitmaster happened to be tending the pit at the very moment I approached and he very obligingly opened the pit for me to photograph. Sadly, the flames were kind of off the hook and he had to close it again rather quickly, but the smell was phenomenal.

What good timing! Thank you, Pitmaster.

I only had a second before the lid had to come down again…

I had a good feeling about this place. And I was right. The pit beef was delicious. Signage states they use apple and hickory wood, and it was a smoky delight. Done up with some sauce, horseradish and onions sliced so thin they were actually dainty, the sandwich had me humming. Or maybe that was partly the ringing in my ears from the horseradish, with which I was a little too enthusiastic (you can see it in the photo, below). For a few seconds I was actually crying a little, which seemed to faze my neighbor a bit. He was from Pennsylvania and wasn’t real sure what to expect.

Horseradish sure can surprise you…Stacked Pit Beef on a Kaiser roll

I liked this place so much that they got me coming, and then when it came time to drive home 9 hours later, they got me going, as well. That time I got the Stacked “Slaughterhouse” Beef Brisket on a Kaiser roll, and it was actually amazing. I highly recommend it.

Brisket on a Kaiser roll. Fantastic!

So, that was Hot Off the Coals. What a lucky find. Check ’em out. Now, on to the produce stand! While they seem to have scaled back their local honey collection (only 1 kind to be found), they had some very lovely produce and a basket I could buy to put it in to make me feel very Nantucket. And an elixir I wasn’t quite brave enough to try.


Tiniest little sweet potatoes! Aren’t they adorable?

Like Little Red Riding Hood!

Some of my finds. I bought some clearance basil plants — did you know there is a bush basil, too? — to try to plant them and get one more flush out of them before the weather cools.

You are probably wondering if I am ever going to get to Rehoboth and if you are, then you and I are on the same wavelength. But, as I like to remind myself, “It’s the journey, not the destination,” right? Right. So now that I am all kitted up, I can roll into town and catch a few rays. I came prepared this time with my backpack lounge chair and a fresh new roll of quarters.

And the beach was delightful and the water was cold. You should try it. And when it comes time to stock up on souvenirs, here’s what should be on your shortlist: salt water taffy, Fisher’s popcorn, and hermit crabs (although some may not appreciate the last one as much as the first two).

Dolle’s rules the roost on salt water taffy in the DelMarVa area.

Nostalgia decrees one eats certain foods while in certain places. At the carnival, it’s cotton candy. At the fair, it’s funnel cake. And at the beach, it’s salt water taffy. In Rehoboth, Dolle’s rules the roost in salt water taffy, but I grew up going to the Jersey shore, so for me it’s Fralingers. Fralingers and Atlantic City go hand in hand. Sometimes I’d ride along with my grandmother, Nona, on chartered bus trips to Atlantic City where you’d buy your bus ticket and they’d give you a voucher for  X amount of “casino quarters” back to cash in at the Taj Mahal, or Harrah’s, or whatever casino was booked for that day. Nona and I would play our $10 in quarters, then walk through the casino to get to the boardwalk and spend the day making our way up and then back down the boardwalk poking around in all the bizarre, cheesy knick-knack stores which constitute boardwalk shopping. We always came back with a box or two of taffy from Fralingers. You had to, really.

Fralingers Salt Water Taffy, Atlantic City, NJ

There were two salt water taffy shops on the Atlantic City boardwalk: James, and Fralingers.  When I was reading up on Fralingers, I learned that one family bought and now owns Fralingers, James, and a boardwalk chocolate shop called Bayards. There is actually an interesting video on the history of the three stores on jamescandy.com. You can also find it here, on YouTube. Fralingers also has a Wikipedia entry. If you’ve never had salt water taffy, try to imagine a candy with the chewy texture of caramels but with the fake fruity flavors of jelly beans. Kids love it, of course, and if you go on vacation a box of salt water taffy better show up in the office break room when you get back. It’s that kind of thing.

Rehoboth also boasts a rather tasty caramel corn from Fishers Popcorn. It’s made fresh on site and dumped hot into the front window case of the stores. Hot sugar is an interesting thing to me, so I always pay special attention when they are scooping it up to order. When it’s hot, it’s very malleable — think Rice Krispy Treats before they harden — but it firms up in no time flat so by the time they pack it and seal it the container, it’s on its way to a solid mass. Anyone who has made popcorn balls at Christmas knows what I am talking about. But, before that happens, there are those few glorious minutes where it’s soft and chewy at the same time. If you like buttery caramel, that 5-7 minute window is definitely worth trying for.

Two Delaware Beach favorites, side by side.

My affection for soft-serve was probably pretty evident in my first shore post, but here’s one shot just to show you how pretty it is:

It was plenty hot that day, so this didn’t stay upright for long.

Some say a trip to the shore wouldn’t be complete without boardwalk fries. Again, boardwalk fries, like caramel corn, wasn’t something I was particularly dialed into until I met Delaware beaches. But, people love them! And I can see why. Malt vinegar shaken down into the cup cuts the salty goodness.

Boardwalk Fries

Thrasher’s take the cake for boardwalk fries at the DE and MD beaches. There’s usually a line. For french fries.

If, at long last, you’ve sunned yourself and eaten your fill, consider a final parting gift: the hermit crab. Hermit crabs are a beach staple, and whether you think they are a good idea or not, hermit crabs happen. They practically fly off the shelves. Half these hermit crabs probably don’t even survive the car ride home, which is a shame because they are very interesting little creatures.

Hermit crabs are crustaceans with soft bodies that need to be protected by shells which they do by inhabiting the discarded shells of other creatures! Sea snails, for example. That’s right, they don’t come into this world with shells of their own and yet they need shells to protect themselves. Isn’t that odd? And, when hermit crabs outgrow their current shell, they step into the next size up so they’re always on what I like to call the shell hustle.  Also, since they effectively scavenge their shells from other creatures, if there are not many creatures available to “donate” their shells…well, you can imagine what happens if push comes to shove.

Hermit crab. Hello, buddy!

Hermit crab accessories, Rehoboth Beach, DE

Wikipedia describes what happens when a bunch of crabs living together decide it’s time to change shells: “Several hermit crab species, both terrestrial and marine, use “vacancy chains” to find new shells: when a new, bigger shell becomes available, hermit crabs gather around it and form a kind of queue from largest to smallest. When the largest crab moves into the new shell, the second biggest crab moves into the newly vacated shell, thereby making its previous shell available to the third crab, and so on.”

A “vacancy chain”?? How cool is that? Just picture all the crabs lined up in descending order by size waiting to step into their new shells while their current shell gets handed down to the little guy.  Like the Jeffersons, they’re moving on up. This image makes me laugh.

The social hermit crab. At the height of the season, these cage walls would literally be covered with hermit crabs waiting to go home with you.

Hermit crabs are social and it’s really cool to see them all bunched up together happy as…well, clams, I guess. While these “beach vacation” hermit crabs probably don’t live too long — they do require more effort to keep alive than the average 8 year old would probably be interested in providing — some species of hermit crabs can live in the ballpark of 23 years! Plus, hermit crabs are just cool. It’s fun to watch them scrabble around in their cages, and in your hand if you can handle it. You have to watch them a bit since they will latch on to you with their big claw, which can surprise you, and nip you enough that you could drop them if you’re not expecting it.

Most of these shells have hermit crabs living in them.

Hermit crab getting ready to change his shell.

Seeing a hermit crab change his shell is like waiting for paint to dry — good luck. This little fella kept doing the shell-change fake-out — he’d lift himself out, then slide back in.  You can see the new shell is much bigger than he needs — a real hermit crab McMansion — so maybe that is the reason he never quite made the jump. Or, maybe he is just a ham — he had several of us dancing on a string waiting for him to change. He was really working us. I had to give up after a while.

Yes, the shore is indeed a weird place. Then again, what place isn’t weird? But, any day where you can find pit beef, baby sweet potatoes, sand, sun, and salt water taffy is a good day in my book.

Of The Shore, Which Is A Weird Place

As you know if you have ever talked to me for more than five minutes, I am almost fanatically in love with Northern California. I love Berkeley like other people love their sports teams, but without the numbered jerseys. Even so,  there are many things I genuinely like about the East Coast. One of the things I have always admired is the annual pilgrimage to the beach. Or, what they call going “down the shore.” Going to the shore IS the summer vacation. You rent a house for a week and decamp to Jersey, or Delaware, or Maryland, or even as far north as Rhode Island (hey, Little Compton!). It’s fascinating.

It’s an intimidating process: the people, the traffic, the cost, the hassle. Everybody from all points west is trying to get to the main shore points, due east, on the same few handful of roads at about the same time of day on a Friday afternoon. But, once you make it, I have to admit it’s pretty awesome. You put on your suit, stuff your big canvas bag with towels and magazines and cold water that will quickly become warm and gritty with sand, and head out for the day. You roast in the sun, go brave the water, then roast in the sun, then go in the water, then go “walk the boards,” get a slice of pizza or some soft-serve, and go back to your towel which is now covered in kicked up sand from other people tromping by, and lay back down for another turn. That’s a day at the beach. A night at the beach is a whole other ball of wax which I actually don’t know much about. As a voyeur, I’m generally almost always a day-tripper.

City of Rehoboth Beach plaque with boardwalk, then ocean in background.

Fortunately, I went down mid-week in late June — the calm before the storm. The gloves come off right around the Fourth of July, so I made sure I squeezed in a quick visit before the real mayhem of summer. Rehoboth Beach is about 100 miles from where I live in Maryland, so it’s a bit of a haul for a day-trip, but I happen to enjoy that drive. I usually find some odd, interesting scenery, even if it’s just to marvel that in a road lined with signs broadcasting roadside BBQ chicken,  they have always, mysteriously, either happened just before I rolled through, or are about to happen right AFTER I roll back out. Hmmm. The ever-elusive BBQ chicken stand.

This time, since it’s been three years since I made the drive, I went (unintentionally but predictably) off the beaten path and found this truism:

Then I found this lovely little bit:

And then this funny little bit:

Which I thought was either a tongue-in-cheek or an ironic/sardonic comment on the state of farming today, until I saw read the rest of the sign:

…which I then just found confusing and a bit ominous. The Eastern Shore has a long history of chicken farming, and Perdue Chicken plays a huge part in that history, for better or worse. And it’s mostly worse, from what I hear anecdotally. I’d like to look into this more in a later post, perhaps on another day-trip.

The tractor store I passed a few miles later was a very busy place which shows how big a part farming still plays in the economy of the Eastern Shore.

I only wish I could have taken a photograph of what I saw in my rear view mirror driving behind me as I passed this store — it was some sort of tractor, but up high off the ground with enough space underneath it through which a small car could pass! It looked like I was being pursued by some kind of tractor spider. This machine probably has a real name of which I, being urban — or, if not urban, at least not rural — know nothing about. That’s part of what I like about going to the shore: it’s weird to me. There’s always some funky store or funny road sign or strange man with a metal detector and head gear on to stimulate the imagination. You just never know what you’ll come across on these day trips.

Once you wander your way through these scenic photographic tangents and broach the Coastal Highway itself, you just need to find a good parking spot, so bring a roll of quarters — YES, QUARTERS, I kid you not, no credit card slots — for the parking meters — the TWO-HOUR parking meters, by the way, so don’t stray too far from your parking spot searching for the perfect quadrant of sandy heaven since you will be feeding the meter every 120 minutes.

For the uninitiated, the learning curve on the beach itself can be steep. The Atlantic waters are actually warm enough in summer that you can swim in them so, naturally, I thought the ocean was my friend. This is not necessarily so. I’ve gotten sucked underwater hard enough to lose my sunglasses on two separate occasions in water not much deeper than my knees (and that was 0 for 2, by the way: I did it the first time, then did the exact same thing the very next time). Lesson: don’t wear sunglasses into the ocean. Also, “undertow” is a real thing. Hmm.

But, if you can manage to keep yourself in one piece, you get rewarded by the sun beating down on you and the sound of the waves crashing into the sand, and the gentle call of shore birds circling above (or, un-gently,  very, very close if some yahoo near you decides to feed them a piece of bread and suddenly you are surrounded by, no joke, three dozen gulls ready to peck your eyes out for a soggy piece of hoagie roll. DON’T FEED THE GULLS. You’ll start a bird war and they are really not as cute when they are all up in your face.).

And, sometimes you get lucky. You see things like a school of dolphins arcing by. Or, around happy hour, you’ll see extremely fit people lap-swimming — yes, lap-swimming! – freestyle through the ocean four times further out than anyone you were bobbing around blowing bubbles and doing dead-man’s floats with. Watching their smooth, efficient, horizontal strokes slice through one of the most powerful bodies of water on earth is really amazing, along with the respectful realization that it’s people like that who save people like me when we do foolish things like swim out too far or some other such nonsense.

Rehoboth Beach, DE

That is the recompense for your drive: a sunny day, gulls wheeling overhead, and the fun, happy feeling that comes from people relaxing. And soft serve. You could argue for salt water taffy, pizza slices, caramel corn, fudge –there are lots of things that come to mind when you think of beach boardwalk food, but for me, it’s soft serve. And in Rehoboth, it’s Kohr Brothers.

Kohr Bros., Rehoboth Beach, DE.

It was a rather (understatement) hot day, so my strawberry rainbow sprinkle cone incarnated quickly from this:

Pre-rainbow sprinkle bath

…to this…

Not even out of the hands of the soft-serve server and it’s beginning to slide…

…to this!

This cone/cup hybrid is a concession to the midday heat…

Ooh la la! Now, that’s hot. No matter, it was dee-licious.

In any case, more on food later (see my upcoming post “Of Shore Food, Which Is Great Fun”).

So, if you live within a few hours of the shore and you need to get away and clear your head, consider Rehoboth Beach for charm, or Ocean City if you want to get real about walking the boards, with all the rides and arcade bells and whistles that go along with that. You’ll meld into the crowds and watch generations of cultural legacy unfold around you as you become part of the undulating wave of another summer day at the beach.

And, if you do it, do it right: get a low-slung beach chair that you can wear as a backpack, bring a boatload of quarters for the parking meters, leave your sunglasses on your beach towel, and enjoy.

Sunset along Rt. 404 home from Rehoboth Beach, DE.