Welcome June, Welcome Crabs

Vol. 8, No. 22
June 1-7, 2000
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From Start to Finish, How to Throw Your Own Chesapeake Bay Crab Feast
By Sandra Martin

I admit it. We’re Johnnies-come-lately who had to look up Maryland on a map to find where we were headed. But we caught on quick.

Traveling eastward nearly two decades ago, we discovered blue crabs just this side of the Blue Ridge. “Pull over!” I commanded at the second crab truck out of the mountains. We spent our first night in Washington dissecting these strange, wonderful creatures. Falling into bed after hours of eating, we dreamed we’d gone to heaven.

But what we made up in enthusiasm, we lacked in seasoned skill. So our new Chesapeake Bayfront neighbors announced a year later, pounding their thighs and holding their bellies with laughter at what had just fallen off the turnip truck.

By then, we’d have come home broke had we hired ourselves out for piecemeal picking pay, but we could take apart a couple dozen crabs neatly and efficiently. We’d learned to catch our own crabs, first chicken-necking and then, when we had the luck to fall out of that turnip truck on the shores of Herring Bay, setting out our own pots. We could cook ’em, too, and our first housewarming present had been a real crab steamer.

But when those new neighbors, seasoned Marylanders, came to our first crab feast, they saw we had a way to go.

It was a spring evening, too cool to eat outside, so we’d set the white table in our white kitchen. Wiping the tears out of her eyes, one of the neighbors suggested that even so, this wasn’t a meal for the good china. She whisked off plates, cloth napkins and placemats and covered the table with The Washington Post.

“That,” said she, “is how you sit down to a crab feast.”

And that, you can tell, was a long time ago, or our table would have been covered with Bay Weekly.

While we’ll never match the skill of a native-born crab-eating Marylander, we’ve learned a thing or two more about crab feasting.

And figured out a bit about Chesapeake Country. We landed on a rising tide. In the last three decades, Calvert County’s population has tripled, skyrocketing from 20,000 in 1970 to an anticipated 75,000 when this year’s census figures are in. By percentage, Calvert is Maryland’s fastest growing county. Anne Arundel has seen its own boom, growing from 290,000 to 486,000.

Many of those thousands have had no Kirkpatricks to bring them up to speed. As we saw at a crab feast where not only was the table set with plates but the overhead television was tuned to an instructional video detailing how to eat crabs.

“Bill,” said I to my spouse, “this is a job for Bay Weekly. If people have got to turn to the media to learn how to eat crabs, the right medium is newsprint. You can set the table with the instructions, read them as you eat and, when you’re finished, roll up waste and throw it all together in the trash. And you won’t get a stiff neck.”

So, friends, read and feast.

Catch ’Em …

If you’re a fanatic, a true Chesapeake crab feast begins before dawn, when you roll down to the water. That’s when the licensed pros go out, so they’ll be working their pots or playing out their trot lines by first legal light: 5:30am. These professionals use intensive-catching methods, submerging hundreds of crab pots or floating trot lines hundreds of feet long to supply the crabs you buy in markets and restaurants.

Maryland’s average yearly catch through most of the 1990s was 38.7 million pounds. But last year, a bad year, the catch dropped to 32 million pounds.

If you’re one of those pros, you won’t be reading this story. But amateurs catch plenty of crabs. Scarcely a morning from mid-April into November do I cross the Tracey’s Creek bridge on my way to work without seeing chicken-neckers. Some mornings it’s a couple of old guys. Others, it’s whole families, all having a good time while catching their dinner.

All you need to join them is some shallow, moving water, a perch above it, a long piece of string, a crab net and an old chicken neck — plus maybe a heavy glove to pick up the ones that get away. Crabs have a mean pinch.

Standing above the water on bridge or pier, tie one end of the string securely around the chicken neck. Hold the other end in your hand. Drop the baited end into the water and wait. When the crab grabs hold, you raise the line with one hand while, with the other, you maneuver the net below the crab. Work smoothly and stealthily, for if the crab sees what you are doing, he or she will let go. Store your catch in a bushel basket in the shade.

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 your line up and the basket closes.

To be taken legally, hard crabs must measure five inches from tip to tip. Jimmies, the largest #1 males, measure five and one-half inches on up. Medium males, #2s, are just as good, but supply less meat by the dozen. Fat females are #3s, which some recreational crabbers prefer to throw back to increase the population with the millions of eggs they will lay. We think that’s a good idea.

A crab’s gender is clearly visible on its underside. Both sexes wear an ‘apron.’ The male’s apron takes a phallic shape, while a female’s is a broad triangle, widening as the crab matures. It’s unmistakable. Plus, with their red-tipped claws, females seem to be wearing fingernail polish.

If crabbing gives you a thrill as well as a feast, you may want to move up to potting.

If you’ve got waterfront property, state regulations allow you to set out two crab pots marked with floating buoys. Pots — rectangular cages made of galvanized chicken wire, sometimes plastic-coated for longer life — are sold in most marine stores and at many Bay area hardware stores. To save species, pots must have a turtle excluder device, and, to protect young crabs, pots must have two cull rings, which let smaller crabs and other species escape. Penetrating the pot’s center is a deep bait well.
To get many crabs in your pot, you need bait. Crabs are the vultures of the Bay: They eat just about anything, and they don’t particularly like their food fresh. Try chicken necks, meat scraps or bait fish. You don’t need bull lips, like some pros prefer.

Like chicken-necking, crab-potting involves a lot of waiting. But with pots, you don’t have to hang around. Once you set out your baited crab pots, crabs will find them. They’re strong swimmers with an acute sense of smell. In peak season, you can catch enough crabs for a four-person crab feast in one day.

We’re talking Atlantic blue crabs, but they’re so abundant in Chesapeake Bay that you can catch them even without bait. With good eyes and access, in shallows where underwater grasses grow, you can wade, scooping up scuttling crabs with a net. To keep the crabs you net, float your bushel basket on an inner tube attached by a line to your waist.

You’re sure to get some peelers, too, but that’s another story …

Or Buy ’Em

Short of catching your own, you’ll get the freshest crabs from a crabber. When we moved from Holland Point around the cove to Fairhaven, we took up residence in a community filled with crabbers. A block uphill from the Bay, crab potting was no longer so spontaneous and simple. But crabs came just as easy — right to our door step.

Surrounded by pros, we improved our education on crabs. Big crabs and giant Jimmies usually went to the crabbers’ commercial customers, but we could get “whites” at a fraction of the price. These recently-shed crabs have not yet grown to fill their new shell and are not as full as a “fat” crab on the verge of shedding. But we found them sweeter, juicier and easier to pick.

In Chesapeake Country, you don’t have to live next door to a crabber to get fresh, neighborhood crabs. In many communities, watermen finish their workday as retailers, selling the crabs they caught that morning from their homes or at small markets. Ask Bob Evans in West River how fresh his crabs are, and he’ll say “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.

As you get farther from the source, you increase the distance between yourself and the Bay’s great fishery. But unless you’re a serious crab-eater, you may not want to increase your familiarity with the creature you’re about to dismember and consume.

Preparing the Feast

“Where are you getting your crabs?” I asked the newest member of our staff, Kitty O’Dowd. Our West Coast-import was jumping right in, throwing a crab feast for her Finnish exchange student, Himmi, and the graduating senior’s German and Italian friends.

“S&S Seafood in Dunkirk. I got two dozen for $56 steamed with lots of Old Bay,” said Kitty.

“You bought them cooked?” said I, in the tone I use when a mother confesses to buying a birthday cake.

“Of course,” said Kitty. “I don’t have one of those big pots.”

As with ‘catching’ your crabs, you can put as much or as little work as you like into cooking them. If you shop at a seafood house, you can buy your crabs cooked as cheaply as you can buy them live. Or you can buy them the way we did our first time: steaming hot and spicy from the many crab trucks that fan out from the Bay to the mountains.

These crab trucks are a phenomenon of Chesapeake Country.

Across much of our nation, we truly are a United States — at least in the food we eat. The regional specialties that make traveling from, say, northern to southern Italy a culinary adventure were never so strong in the states, despite (or perhaps because of) our amazing heterogeneity. By mid-century, those differences had almost vanished, especially inland. Only our coasts have kept their signature cuisines. Those crab trucks I passed driving out of the mountains were the first sign I’d entered a region with a culinary culture all its own.

Inside and out, the trucks are something special. Outside, they’re as flagrant as circus wagons, proclaiming their offerings for the world to see. “Hot, spiced crabs” is the theme on which each entrepreneur plays his own message. They’re fragrant as well as flagrant, luring customers by the wonderful smell of spice and cooking crabs.

Inside, in steamy, close quarters, one or two or three cooks move bushels of crabs, male or female, from basket to steamer to paper bag and up on the counter to customer. Often, those cooks are watermen who’ve diversified horizontally — and don’t mind working hard — to get the best price for their catch. Out on the water at dawn, they’re home by 1pm to shower off the sweat and jellyfish slime. Then they’ll pack up their crabs with the fresh catches of other watermen and drive off to steam and sell crabs all afternoon and into the evening. Rush hour is their prime time.

Mostly, they’re not itinerant. They’ve shopped around until they’ve found the best place to park, and there they set up shop. Intersections of major highways are good, and especially good are neighborhoods with large African American and Asian populations. Crabs are as likely to travel to northern Virginia as stay in Maryland.

But if you buy cooked crabs from a truck or seafood market, you’ll want to hurry home to eat them while they’re hot.

Live or steamed, how many should you order?

Kitty’s high school girls ate two each, which is about average for beginners and for the squeamish — who are more likely to play with their food than consume it. Serious crab eaters will happily consume eight, while very serious crab eaters may down a dozen and a half. To help me prepare this story, three serious crab eaters did in two dozen, with no leftovers to pick for crabcakes or crab soup. If you’re planning a real feast for a company of crab lovers, order a half bushel or a bushel.

Call all the serious crab-eating friends you’d love to spend a couple of hours with. It’s time to get cracking.

Cooking Your Own

If you’re a purist, you’ll want to cook your own crabs. It’s no easy job, but it’s one more stamp on your passport to citizenship in Chesapeake Country.

The first decision is whether to cook your crabs indoors or out. If you’re the one in charge of cleaning the kitchen, you’ll know what Bill Burton means when he says “If you know the answer, it’s not a question.”

To cook outdoors, you need to be well equipped. With practice, you can cook crabs in a steamer atop a really hot charcoal grill, but a propane cooker’s a sure thing. If you, like us, don’t have a propane cooker or a summer kitchen and want your crabs sooner rather than later, you’ll come inside and heat up two burners on the kitchen stove.

On the heat, set the bottom section of your steamer filled about two-thirds with water. Some cooks add a can of beer or a cup of cider vinegar. Put on the lid. As the pot comes to a boil, prepare your crabs. Here’s where cooking wet, crawly crabs gets messy.

To shorten the crabs’ suffering and to keep their legs and claws attached to their bodies, a careful cook will kill each crab with an icepick before throwing it in the pot. Left alive in a heating pot, the crabs attack one another and, as a natural defense mechanism, release their limbs.

Bill’s our cook, and I encourage him to euthanize the crabs on the picnic table. As he removes each crab from the basket, the cats like to keep watch on the ones that get away. If they or anybody else gets too close, the crab will rise up on its swimming legs and thrust up its pinchers like a boxer. Cats are usually smart enough to stay out of their way, but kids and dogs may not be.

Cooks can get pinched, too. Use a long tong to grab your crabs, and keep a heavy glove handy for retrieving escapees.

Add the crabs to the steamer in layers, sprinkling each layer with crab spice. Old Bay and Wye River are common crab spice standbys. Or you can make your own with roughly equal parts rock salt, coarse ground pepper and paprika or cayenne. Maybe a bit of cumin, too. Cover the steamer, set it to boil and go have a good time.

Steaming is essential. One of the reasons Chesapeake crabs are better than Atlantic blue crabs elsewhere along the Eastern Seaboard is that we steam our crabs. Head south and you’ll find people boiling their crabs, which leaves the meat water-logged.

The length of steaming depends on the size of the pot and how full you’ve stuffed it with crabs. Usually, it takes about 20 minutes, or until the crabs have turned from their natural blue to a bright red. It’s a good idea to let them steam without a lid for the last five minutes to get rid of some of the moisture.

Use clean tongs to handle cooked crabs. Crabs are very dirty and live carry countless germs. Never use tools that have touched raw crabs before washing them in hot, soapy water or in a dishwasher.

When you can’t resist the smell any longer, the cook gets the honor of testing for doneness. By now, fragrant steam will be wreathing the pot, so you’ll want to grab a potholder. With it, remove the lid, and with tongs, extract a now-brilliant red crab from the tangle. Is it done? Careful not to burn a finger, break off a leg and its accompanying chunk of meat. If the shell and meat breaks clean and crisp, the crabs are done; if it tears or stretches, the meat is under-cooked. Taste it. If it’s done, share the pleasure.

If you’re a purist, you don’t have to serve anything but crabs. Down in Louisiana, if you’re cooking up a lagniappe, you’ve got to throw sausage and shrimp and potatoes and onions into the pot with your crayfish. Up in Maine, a New England boiled dinner adds corn, potatoes and clams to the main ingredient, lobsters. Over in Door County, Wisconsin, a fish boil isn’t complete with white fish alone. But at a pure Chesapeake Bay crab feast, you feast on crabs.

Why? Atlantic blue crabs are so much work that they demand your full attention. When you love them, you don’t want anything to stand in the way of your dedication. Warm, crusty loaves of bread are a good partner, because you can use them to sop up the mustard, but anything else just isn’t necessary.

Where would you put it, anyway, since plates are a violation of crab feasting tradition?

Okay, corn on the cob. But only if you’re compulsive about balancing your meals. And maybe watermelon for dessert.

Or if you’re feeding a bunch of amateurs. Then, like Kitty, you’ll want something more, to make sure everybody gets their fill. She filled out her crab-feast menu nicely with corn on the cob and a big fruit salad plus, in honor of her Italian and German exchange student guests, both bratwurst and Italian sausage. I guess Finnish Himmi just had to make do.

Drinking is another story. 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 teetotalers and kids.

Coming to Table

Where to put your table is the first question. Set it inside only if you have no reasonable alternative. Crab feasting, like a picnic, is a way of getting back to nature. What’s more, since its de rigueur to eat with abandon, crab feasting makes a mess.

Deck, backyard, porch or patio are perfect, unless you linger into the mosquito hours. With our bad habit of getting a late start, we often finished by citronella candle light until neighbor Farley Peters opened her crab shack: a screened porch tucked beneath her house. Now that she’s remodeled, we’re back to citronella again.

Setting a crab table is a simple joy. Lay down a substantial covering of newspapers. Broadsheet is best, because it covers more surface and wraps up neater. Lay Bay Weekly right on top, to make both plate and tablecloth.

Napkins are a roll of paper towels. Utensils are a bit fancier. For each feaster, you’ll need a wooden crab mallet and a metal crab knife. They can be bought singly or in sets of six at most ships stores, or you can make your purchase an excuse to travel to the Carvel Hall factory store in Crisfield, a crabbing center. Crab forks (cocktail forks do nicely) are optional.

Bring an assortment of crab spices to the table. Individual condiment bowls of cider vinegar give crab feasting a nice kick. Ever since now-retired Fairhaven crabber Scott Smith taught us that trick, we’ve enjoyed crab even more. A few crab eaters like melted butter, but we think that’s gilding the lily.

Cracking Crabs

“They all liked the crabs, but they thought it was too much work for what you get,” explained Kitty of why, after serving two dozen crabs to a half dozen people, she had crabs left over.

That’s the most common excuse for malingering at the crab table.

From Tom O’Dowd, Kitty’s husband, also came the second most common excuse: “I don’t want to eat anything whose guts I’ve got to look at.”

When we give crab feasts, we don’t invite guests until we’ve questioned them. If they give answers like that, they get invited another day — for pasta.

The friends with whom you sit down to a crab feast should be as serious about the occasion as you are. At the best feasts, a circle of fanatics are ranged on either side of the picnic table, waiting for the cook to dump that cooker full of steaming, savory crabs into the center.

That’s the signal to dive in.

To the finicky, the feasting that follows may seem barbaric. Indeed, it must proceed with gusto and continue for hours. But there’s method to this madness.

Choose your crab. If you’ve got the biggest, you’re allowed to brag and show it off before you break into that sweet, white meat. Here’s how:

Turn the crab on its back, revealing the apron. Slide your crab knife under the apron, moving from the center of the crab to the back. Remove and discard the apron.

Flip the crab over. Working the knife from back to front, lift off the outer shell. If you like the “mustard,” cut it out of the points of the outer shell for your first bite.

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 crab debris, along with the face, which you slice off.

Some crab eaters start in the abdominal cavity, where there’s more mustard to dip out on bread. If you’re eating a sook, a female, here’s where you’ll find the eggs. Eat them, or save them for she-crab soup.

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.

Eat, dipping the bite in vinegar and extra spice, if you like.

Break off the remaining legs in the same manner and other nice bites may come free. You may also suck these legs, scraping the meat out as you pull them through your teeth. Reserve the claw.

Now slice the shell membrane off the body to open the chambers. Pick out the meat with your crab knife or fork.

You’ll eat all your crabs the way you did that first half. But for claws, you need a different approach.
Another crab-loving neighbor taught us the most efficient approach. Lay out 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.

Depending on your style, you can devour each bite as soon as you’ve freed it or hoard a mounting pile of meat as if you were planning a crabcake, then eat it all at once.

Speaking of crabcakes, here’s a trick we learned from crab-eating companion Mike Passo: for each crab you crack, sacrifice one big lump to a common bowl. At the end of the feast, you’ll have enough to make crab balls.

Cleaning Up

Crabs are good to you as schmoos, making even the clean-up a cinch. First 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

Does all this sound like too much work? Then enjoy Atlantic blue crabs at one of Chesapeake Country’s many crab houses. Whitey Schmidt counted 250 from Baltimore to Virginia Beach and Ocean City to Washington in his The Official Chesapeake Bay Crab Eaters Guide (see “Dock of the Bay”). In the bargain, most every crab house features its own nonpareil view of the Bay’s teeming crab factory.

Copyright 2000
Bay Weekly