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Get Crackin'

The crabs are back and the corn’s ripe, so it’s time to feast

by Sandra Olivetti Martin and Dennis Doyle with Michelle Steel

The Bay is crawling with crabs. Rivers and creeks, too. That’s the good news. We had more baby crabs this winter than have ever been counted in Maryland’s 22-year history of winter crab surveying.
    Not so good: We’ll have to wait till fall to eat most of them. That’s when 500 million or so small crabs in our waters will reach eating size, 51⁄4 inches from point to point.
    “It’s been boom and bust so far. Crabs only grow when they molt, so we don’t have a continuous feed into legal size,” says Brenda Davis of Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ Blue Crab Program. “They need to grow into the fishery.”
    So Maryland watermen are “scraping by, waiting for them to grow up,” says Larry Simns, president of Maryland Watermen’s Association.
    “We’ve been selling out every week,” says Lou Hyde who’s selling St. Mary’s crabs at Tyler’s Seafood in Chesapeake Beach,
    But the news is improving.
    “They’re picking up. We’ll have crabs for the Fourth and we hope through the weekend, and we never have crabs for the holiday,” says waterman Bob Evans, who sells his catch in West River. It’s a good thing, because, he says, “People are on an eating frenzy.”
    With crabs coming into abundance thanks to prudent catch regulations, you can eat your share without fear that you’re contributing to the demise of the species.
    So read and feast.

Catch ’Em …
    For the full experience, get out the crabbing gear. Crabs aren’t demanding. All you need is some cotton twine, chicken necks and a long-handled crab net. Any dock, pier or jetty on the Chesapeake or any of its tributaries is the place to look.
    Casting out your baited line into the water and waiting for a bite is the first step. When a crab finds your tasty morsel of chicken, the first thing it will do is try to carry it off. Your line will move and straighten. Then it is time to go into action.
    Make haste slowly. Grasp the line and pull in the crab ever so gently. The crab, intent on its meal, should not notice. As you ease your prey into sight, ready the net. A crab must be scooped from underneath, because at the first sign of danger it will flee downward, and a crab is a fast swimmer.
    One step up is a crab trap, a thin wire basket that collapses flat in the water. When the crab swims in to take the bait, you pull up your line and the basket closes. Don’t buy the spring-loaded CRAB ALERT trap; it’s illegal in Maryland.
    Or you can go after them where they live. With good eyes and access, in shallows where underwater grasses grow, you can scoop up scuttling crabs with a net. Walk gently; muddy the water and the crabs might see you first. Float your bushel basket on an inner tube attached by a line to your waist.
    Blue crabs are best kept alive in a simple basket with aerated sides. Splitwood bushel baskets are perfect, but a perforated laundry basket will do just as well. Crabs kept shaded and in a container of this type will keep fine for 24 hours or more.
    The best times of day to crab from shore are early mornings or late afternoons that coincide with high water — though anytime of day with a moving tide will provide a good chance.
    For up to two-dozen crabs, you don’t need a license. To catch up to a bushel, you need a license ($5 at your tackle store).
    The minimum size is five inches until July 15, when it rises to five and a quarter inches. Female crabs must be released; recognize them by the broad triangular apron on the underside.
    Get the latest crabbing regulations at your tackle store or

Or Buy ’Em
    Even if you don’t catch your own, you can feast on absolute crabs just out of the Bay. That’s the privilege of living in Chesapeake Country.
    Bob Evans — a crabber who sells from a small market behind his home in West River — says “how fresh do you want them? We caught them this morning.”
    At air-conditioned seafood stores, the crabs you buy are no less fresh. Crabs are a perishable commodity; they’re caught in the morning and sold live in the afternoon. Refrigeration stretches their shelf life only a couple of days.
    Many seafood houses cook them for you for the same price they’re sold live. Prices for Maryland crabs range from a low of $95 a bushel for No. 2s to $180 to $200 for No. 1s, also called regulars.
    By the dozen, prices range from $28 for medium to $35 for large to $45 for extra large. So you can go bigger still. Shoreline Seafood on Rt. 3 in Gambrills sells Regular Swamp Dogs for $69.50 a dozen and Super Swamp Dogs for $8.95 a pound.
    How many do you need? Six large crabs per person is reasonable.
    Now hurry home so you can eat them while they’re hot.

Cooking Your Own
    There’s no better way to taste the Chesapeake and honor its traditions than cooking your own Chesapeake Bay blue crabs. It’s quality time for friends and family, too, as a feast for avid eaters continues for a couple of hours.
    Once you’ve secured the making of your meal, you’ll need a large pot to steam them. One with an inside strainer or a separate steamer section is best. In a pinch, you can use a stockpot with a steamer basket positioned in the bottom.
    Once you get into cooking crabs, you’ll want a rig: a steamer on a propane burner stand so you can cook outdoors.
    Handling the crabs can be a chore, and tongs or padded gloves are necessary to keep from getting pinched. There is another solution. Soaking the crabs in a frigid ice water bath for about five minutes will make them go dormant. They can then be handled easily and stacked compactly in your cook pot and they’ll not regain consciousness as the temperature rises and cooking begins.
    Pour a beer plus an equal amount of water and a half-cup of vinegar into your pot, and give your tasties at least 20 minutes steam time (but not more than 30 minutes) until their shells turn bright red and an ambrosial smell fills the air.
    Use clean tongs to handle cooked crabs. Never use tools that have touched raw crabs before washing them in hot, soapy water or in a dishwasher.

Preparing the Feast
    Eat inside only if you have no reasonable alternative. Crab feasting, like a picnic, is a way of getting back to nature. What’s more, crab feasting makes a mess. Deck, backyard, porch or patio are perfect — unless you linger into the mosquito hours.
    Place multiple layers of newspaper on your table to absorb the moisture and to protect the tabletop from crab cracking — online editions won’t help you here.
    Provide each guest with a small bowl of butter or vinegar for dipping and a small knife and mallet for opening and eating. Have a roll or two of paper towels for hand-wiping.
    The purist needs nothing more, though some feasts include good crusty bread, corn on the cob and watermelon.
    The beverage of choice for crab feasting is beer, in cold cans. Light beer is good, because it’s less filling, leaving more room for crabs. Iced tea is fine for tee-totalers and kids.
    When the cooked crabs are piled in the center of the table for your guests to enjoy, mist them with water or beer and pour on a generous amount of Old Bay, J.O. No. 2, Kent Island Special Blend or homemade crab seasonings. Try equal parts salt, ground pepper and paprika or cayenne with a bit of cumin.
    Now it’s time to get cracking.

Cracking Crabs
    There’s a right way to crack a crab.
    Here’s how:
    Turn the crab on its back, apron side up. Slide your crab knife under the apron, moving from the edge of the crab to the center. Remove and discard the apron.
    Flip the crab over. Cut off its face and, lifting gently but firmly with your blade, pry off the outer shell. If you like the mustard, cut it out of the points of the outer shell.
    You’ve now exposed the gills, also known as dead man’s fingers, and intestines. Cut off the gills, and scoop the entrails out of the center.
    Add both to your mounting heap of debris.
    Now you’re getting to the meat. Cut the body of the crab down the middle and proceed by halves. In each half, meat is locked in chambers by a thin, opaque shell membrane.
    The first bite is the best: the backfin meat connected to each swimming leg. Remove it carefully, gripping the leg and sliding your index finger along it into the cell where it’s stored. Push up, and lift the lollipop out, breaking the thin shell membrane.
    Lift off the remaining legs in the same manner and other nice bites may come free. You may also pick these legs, or just scrape the meat out as you pull them through your teeth. Reserve the claw.
    Now slice through the shell membrane to open the chambers. Pick out the meat with your crab knife or fork.
    For claws, you need a different approach. Lay a crab claw on the table. Hold your knife above the middle of one of its two meat-loaded segments. Gently tap the knife with your crab mallet until the shell splits. You don’t want to cut through the entire claw. Break the shell in half gently, and you may be lucky enough to pull out a finger of meat. If not, dig the meat out with your knife. Repeat and eat.

Cleaning Up
    When everyone’s eaten their full, remove and count all the knives, forks and mallets to make sure none are lost among the carnage. Then, starting at one end of the table, roll the shell-littered newspaper into a bundle and slide it into a plastic trash bag.

Feast without Fuss
    Is this too much work?
    Then enjoy Atlantic blue crabs at one of Chesapeake Country’s many crab houses. Way back when, author and crab coinsurer Whitey Schmidt counted 250 from Baltimore to Virginia Beach and Ocean City to Washington in his book The Official Chesapeake Bay Crab Eaters Guide. Bill and Susan Elnicki Wade’s own book, Crab Decks & Tiki Bars of the Chesapeake Bay, out last year, lists 150. If you eat crabs out, you’re bound to have a favorite.
    Whether you go to Stoney’s on Broomes Island, Abners in Chesapeake Beach, Calypso Bay in Tracys Landing, Skippers Pier in Deale, Thursdays in Galesville, Mike’s on the South River at Riva or Cantlers in Cape St. Claire, large crabs are running about $60 to 65 a dozen, with jumbos closer to $80 and medium or mixed less. Stoney’s had the best price, at $48 a dozen for No. 1 Maryland crabs.
    Call ahead so you won’t be disappointed.
    At those prices, you should ask a couple of questions. Are you buying Maryland crabs? Only a couple we surveyed, including Thursdays, said yes; other popular destinations may sell blue crabs from the Carolinas, Louisiana or Texas. And don’t be afraid to ask how long ago the crabs you’ll be eating were cooked.
    Now sit back and get crackin’.