After weeks of sharpening knives for people who want a clean blade when they cut the bird today, Robyn Webb will take a “blunt tip slicer” to the turkey at the center of another gathering .
“I have a quite nice Wüsthof carving set, but I like to carve catering-style,” said Webb, owner of Parkville Knives near Double Rock Park, his neighborhood for the past 10 years.
“I core out the breast halves and make neat slices buffet-style. Then I separate the thighs and slice them on the dark meat side of the platter. I leave the drumsticks whole for those who want the Fred Flintstone experience [a reference to Fred’s enjoyment of a pterodactyl drumstick] and jealously guard the thigh oyster for myself.”
Having the family knives professionally sharpened for the holidays, which begin in earnest today across the nation, isn’t quite like going out to find the perfect Christmas tree. But few things are more important when all eyes are on the person holding the blade above the bird while asking, “Who wants white meat?”
For this, Webb is grateful, having welcomed a parade of customers to his year-old business.
“I drove a cab for a while, was a stagehand around town and for the past 10 years worked on integrated [electrical] systems. Then I decided to get my knives back out.”
Webb will cook most of the meal himself, including oyster stuffing. In this, he is guided by the ghosts of Thanksgiving past: “I want to [replicate] my memories of how the dishes should be.”
Today finds him (perhaps in his Pink Floyd “Dark Side of the Moon” PJs) puttering in his backyard workshop, curing the turkey with his “secret” rub and prepping the smoker for the bird.
He isn’t sure what he’ll eat today, but it won’t be anything special. And he won’t be watching the Thanksgiving Day parade from the Big Apple, having boycotted the tradition, he said, “ever since they got rid of Bullwinkle” (esteemed American hero Bullwinkle J. Moose — of “The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends” fame — debuted in the Macy’s parade in 1961 and appeared every year until 1983, most likely when Robyn first staged his protest. Bullwinkle was brought back in 1996 and last appeared in 2000.)
Two days from now, Webb will host the traditional meal for an ever-dwindling alumni: the old Marble Bar crowd, many of whom have passed away or moved since the basement of the downtown Congress Hotel established itself as Baltimore’s punk palace in 1978, closing about 10 years later.
Guests will include Ed Linton, former bassist for Thee Katatonix, whose frontman — Adolf Kowalski (Ross Alan Haupt) — died this past March. A lifetime Dundalk resident, Linton and his wife, the former Robin Beatty, will be bringing the gotta-have-it-on-the-table sauerkraut.
The kraut, said Linton, who brought some of his knives to Webb this year (including a few with ceramic blades), was passed down in his wife’s family — Dundalk by way of Hungary. It includes a twist not common on local tables.
“She starts with silver floss kraut and browns some Ostrowski’s kielbasa in the kraut juice,” said Linton. “Sautee the kraut until the ends are carmelized and cook ’em together. An hour before it’s done, add the tomatoes and bake in the oven. It adds some sweetness and color.”
The colors on Webb’s table — the dark brown of his pecan pie, forest green on the vegetable casserole, an apple caramel cake by Marble alumnus Patti Codd — will be illuminated by gentle candlelight.
There wasn’t much that was gentle during the mid-1960s Rodgers Forge Thanksgivings of Webb’s childhood when immigrant men still pushed grinding wheels through the alleys to sharpen knives, a memory cherished by Frank Zappa from his Baltimore childhood.
“I remember my cousin Taylor [Lucas] and I rushing to finish our plates so we could go back and get more,” said Webb, whose mother had just relocated to Baltimore from Itasca, Illinois, after her divorce from Robyn’s father.
The clean plate memory is lost on Taylor, a Maryland horseman whose mother Jane was the sister of Robyn’s mother, Eleanor, known as “Tommie.” So much was going on during those long-ago Thanksgivings on Heathfield Road. At one time — with kids being born, marriages dissolving and uncles getting out of the Army — 14 people lived in the townhouse owned by Taylor’s parents.
“We were just little guys,” said Taylor, who will carve a turkey and ham for 10 at his Hunt Valley home. Though the knives he’ll use have not been sharpened by Robyn, “we’re on his list.”
Robyn’s older sister, Kitty Hanson Evans, splits her time between Roland Park and St. Petersburg, Florida. When in Baltimore for Thanksgiving, she and her husband Hervey Evans dine with Robyn.
This year, as they did on the fourth Thursday of November last year, the Evanses will be with friends in a fishing town about a 40-minute ride from Cancun, Mexico.
“They own the house we rent, and we told them about Thanksgiving,” said Kitty. “We couldn’t find a turkey, so we made a huge pot of black beans with ham hocks and vegetables. I made corn pudding.”
Kitty was one of Robyn’s first customers when he opened the sharp shop. Not long after they went home with their kitchen cutlasses, the phone rang. It was Robyn asking if anyone “had cut themselves yet.”
Well, said Kitty, “Hervey nipped his finger.”
Robyn learned the blade trade while working at Mencken’s Cultured Pearl across from the Hollins Street Market, one of the early efforts to reinvigorate the neighborhood when it opened in 1984 before closing in 1998.
“We used to take our knives to the Grinding Company of America when it was across from Camden Yards,” said Robyn. “I watched and picked their brains about it.” The GCA is now on Anabel Avenue in Brooklyn.
Matt Newman, a Pikesville resident and engineer at Northrop Grumman in Linthicum, was one of about two dozen customers who brought their family’s knives to Robyn before the holiday this year.
“I took the whole block of knives, about six or seven,” said Newman, 32. “I started getting my knives sharpened one November and it became a habit this time of year.”
Newman, his wife Emily and their toddler, Hailey, will welcome about 19 people to their home today, six of them children. There will be two turkeys to make sure everyone gets their fill. Matt will carve one and pass along Webb’s handiwork to slice the other.
A “must-have” on the Newman groaning board is a big side of sweet potatoes topped with baked marshmallows. But even that could be overlooked as long as the feast takes place at home among friends and loved ones.
“One time when I was about 12, my dad got dragged to a restaurant on Thanksgiving. My mother’s brother belonged to a country club in Nashua, New Hampshire, and that’s where we wound up,” said Matt. “My father made it clear: ‘Never again.’”
Rafael Alvarez is the author of the “Orlo and Leini” tales set in 20th century ethnic East Baltimore. He can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org.