SF Bay Area
Food and drink that has us seeing gold
As far as edible emblems go, Maryland blue crabs are one of the most recognizable, and most delicious. Baltimore, where I grew up, and the state of Maryland in general, is justly famous for them. Newspaper- or butcher paper-covered tables heaped with bright-red, Old Bay-encrusted steamed crabs are a sure sign of summer in the mid-Atlantic too, and something I miss just as much as thunderstorms and lightning bugs during June, July, and August out west, where I ended up.
The Chesapeake blue crab is a smallish species of crustacean, vaguely wedge- or anvil-shaped, with 10 long, segmented legs, 6 of which are scrawny, pointy little things of middling consequence; of the other 4 legs, 2 are flat, paddle-shaped “swimmers” (in the back) that propel the crabs through the brackish water in which they live, and 2 are larger pincer-like claws (in front). The legs sprout from their hard, hinged carapace, which is mostly smooth on the upper side, while the belly is ridged, with an “apron” that allows access to their meat once they’re steamed (see an illustrated guide to dismantling them here).
Viewed from above, the upper shell is saw-toothed on top and smooth on the bottom; right where it transitions from straight-edged to sharp and spiny, the shell flares out into wide points, and it’s from tip to tip of each of these points that crabs are measured. They’re harvested when they’re at least 5 inches across. Premium jumbo specimens can be over 7 inches long, but they don’t usually get much bigger than that. Exceptions occur, but as a rule, you can’t buy bushels of 8-inch crabs. (Pro tip, though: rather than automatically go with the largest crabs, ask which ones are heaviest, and hope the person selling them answers honestly.) In their natural/living state, blue crabs have a white underbelly and are a mottled shade of dull green reminiscent of a river pebble up top, but their legs and claws are a brilliant blue, hence their common name (if the claws have red tips, that’s a mark of mature female crabs). Their Latin name, Callinectes sapidus, is also apt: it means “savory beautiful swimmer.”
Savory they are, and also sweet. They’re often steamed in beer with a heavy-handed application of piquant Old Bay seasoning, but they’re popular turned into crab cakes too, or eaten in soup, or as soft-shell crab sandwiches—more on those later.
You can catch blue crabs from any dock or bridge-side over Chesapeake Bay waters; just bait one or two netted crab pots with chicken necks (the most common form of non-commercial bait, although we’d use any raw chicken we had on hand, or if there was none, anything else, really, including hot dogs—these crabs are scavengers, and not terribly picky). Drop the baited pots into the water, and wait a while. When you think about it, draw the pots back up to see what’s swum inside the one-way entry; sometimes there are seahorses, sometimes starfish, sometimes odd little needle-nosed fish, once even what I’d always thought was a conch, but now realize must have been a large knobbed whelk. In addition to the surprise assortments of random bay critters and expected blue crabs, we’d regularly pull up fat, brown, spindly-legged, algae-dotted spider crabs, or much smaller (and cuter) mud crabs. Hauling up the trap was always fascinating if it wasn’t empty, and it usually wasn’t.
But to catch enough blue crabs to eat for dinner with a single pot would take quite a while, and we never bothered; by the time I came along, we just crabbed for fun and always released our catch, left the large-scale harvesting and cooking to professionals.
In Maryland, the blue crab business is a big money-maker; lots of crabs are eaten locally, but they’re also shipped elsewhere. Blue crabs are harvested in Florida and Louisiana too, but those aren’t considered as desirable as Chesapeake blues, and of the total U.S. blue crab harvest, Maryland supplies over 50 percent. However, blue crab populations face considerable threats, including development along the shoreline, general pollution, and attendant loss of habitat. There’s also now a shortage of workers in the state’s seafood industry. Still, the blue crab is an enduring symbol of the region.
When I was a kid, I even owned a few locally published children’s books starring a Chesapeake blue crab named Chadwick, and still think of them fondly. We currently have a crab-shaped Christmas ornament blown from thin cerulean glass that we hang on the tree every year.
I probably have to officially forfeit my tattered old Native Marylander card for admitting this, but I never liked soft-shell blue crabs. In fact, I never even ate one until a couple years ago, when I saw them on ice at a Portland, Ore. Whole Foods and felt such an electric shock of nostalgia I had to buy one. These are tender crabs that have just molted; since their new, larger exoskeletons have not yet hardened, you can eat them without removing any parts of their papery shells. It’s gruesome, but you do have to snip off their faces, and clean out the guts and the gills, but otherwise just dredge the nearly-intact crabs in cornmeal or flour and pan-fry. My grandparents ate them in sandwiches; it always creeped me out to see legs sprouting from the sides of the bread. It creeped me out when I finally made my own soft-shell sandwich too, but it did smell good, and was a lovely golden shade, and I was eager to finally try the delicacy that seemed like a birthright I’d foolishly eschewed all my life. But it was just okay. I have no desire to eat another.
I don’t actively miss spicy, tomato-based Maryland crab soup either, and even the rare perfectly-made crab cake was never my favorite way to eat Chesapeake Bay blues. I have always wanted them steamed, with liberal amounts of Old Bay blanketing them, and nothing else on the side except tons of paper towels for vainly attempting to keep my hands and face clean, a sturdy wooden mallet, and a butter knife to help wangle my way under the apron and wrench the top and bottom shells apart. No corn, no butter, no distractions.
It’s a pretty violent business, eating steamed crabs. You boil them alive, usually, or pay someone else to do it. Then you twist and yank the legs off, crack them open, rip apart the bottom shell, tear off the top one, break the bodies in half. You use your fingers and your teeth to coax out the meat, like the animals you descended from. You get spattered with aromatic crab juices and flecked with seasoning and bits of shell, and your fingertips are wrinkled by the end of the feast, from the aforementioned juices and from licking all the spicy Old Bay off in between bites of sweet crab meat. My boyfriend can’t do it, and I get it, how it could be off-putting, especially for someone who wasn’t exposed to them during childhood.
On the West Coast, we do have Dungeness crabs, which were a great surprise to me the first time I encountered them at 19—fairly monstrous compared to the smaller blue crabs (even the jumbo blues), and absolutely packed with huge lumps of sweet, gently saline meat, similar to but maybe (just light my Marylander card on fire and dump the ashes in the Bay) even better than milder blue crab. You could make a meal out of a single Dungeness, and in almost no time flat, and they taste just as great with Old Bay, though sprinkling it on a Dungeness giantess feels a bit like cheating. The hours-long struggle to extract every infinitesimal shred of meat from the skinny legs and relatively narrow carapaces of blue crabs is part of the appeal, or at least part of the tradition. That’s what you sign up for if you eat blue crabs, and if you were born and raised in Baltimore, you probably do. But there’s always a moment, usually about an hour and a half into the ritual/ordeal, with plenty of crabs still on the table, where I question why exactly I put myself through it anymore.
The reason, of course, is that blue crabs are delicious, and for me, it’s also because eating them is a core part of my identity. If I never ate them again, I believe I might lose a little piece of myself that I want to hold on to. Luckily for me, unlike reliably impressive thunderstorms and ever-enchanting fireflies, blue crabs can be delivered to Oregon, where I’ve lived for over a decade now. It’s expensive, yes (really expensive), but that’s okay, because if and when I get them shipped across the country, it’s only once a year, on the occasion of my mid-July birthday.
I sit at a paper-covered table with a dozen crabs and the requisite tools and towels, and maybe a beer or two (or a light, fizzy, refreshing cider, which seems so wrong, but tastes so right). There are no side dishes; there’s no time for side dishes, and no point, to my mind. The crabs are the prime objective, the drink’s just for washing them down. I also arm myself with kitchen shears now, to slit through thinner segments of shells—and create lots of tight, sharp edges that invariably pinch my fingers, like the crab is still fighting back from the other side, though I’ve already won (or so I think at the time, with a fresh bushel of steamed-red beauties beckoning)—and then I start in.
I select a good-looking specimen, but not the best-looking one, which is always saved for last, even though by the 10th crab I’ll be fading, and will no longer view that Supreme Chosen Crab with anywhere near the same fervent lust as I first eyeballed it. There will be a mild weariness, and a sense of obligation blunting the previously enormous enjoyment and anticipation. Still, each crab is treated to the same process. I pull off the appendages first, except for the swimmers; the other legs are eaten in order from smallest to largest, the treasured, plump claws last of all. Then I open up the body from underneath, clear away the top shell, tear off the feathery, spongy gills (which are the crab’s lungs, and which we always called “the devils”), taste the mustard (the crab’s heptopancreas) if it looks especially appealing but scrape most of it away, crack what’s left of the crab in two, and start extracting the larger clumps of meat within those delicate chambers. The biggest, sweetest, most succulent pieces of meat in the body are in the cavities where the swimmers are attached; if I can get these morsels of jumbo lump crab meat out in unbroken pieces, it’s a triumph, and I savor them as a final reward. Then it’s on to the next one. If you plow through the crabs without bothering to get at most of the smaller legs’ meat, or without trying very hard to work out all the flakes and shreds left clinging to the shells inside the body, the job goes much faster, but it’s a tragic waste.
My philosophy is, you (meaning I) just have to accept that it takes forever to properly pick through a bunch of blue crabs—but even knowing this going in, at the very beginning of the endeavor, I’m never daunted. Rather, it’s exciting to finally get to taste such a long-loved treat again, and easy to get absorbed in the finely brutal and brutally fine mechanics of the work itself, and all the glorious sensations: the thwack of the wooden mallet and the brittle cracks of yielding shells; the numbing, nearly-drugging sting of spices; the cold, palate-cleansing bubbles of beer between bites; the perfect plural marriage of savory, sweet, salty, and spicy flavors, the pure oceanic sweetness of really good crab always a little astonishing and sublime.
Eventually, though, even the greatest pleasure becomes stultifying, and so it is with crabs (for me, at least). It probably has something to do with the fact that these days I only eat them alone. They’re not meant to be consumed in isolation—they’re a communal food if there ever was one, and although they’re still good when enjoyed by one’s self, the milieu is not the same, and the milieu is important. The mini mountain of shells that piles up in front of a single feaster is a little forlorn, and it seems a bit anticlimactic to roll everything up in the sodden, ripped-in-places paper littered with shell fragments and transparent slivers of cartilage and stained brick-red with spices at the end of the meal. My fingers are tingling and prune-like and Old Bay is embedded deep under my nails, I’m full and hazily happy, and the scent of crab and seasonings will linger on my hands for at least the next several hours, but I’m still alone in being so marked.
Well, not necessarily. If my mom is around, she’ll take pity on me near the end and start picking a couple of the last crabs to speed things along and ensure I’m not still sitting outside when the sun begins going down. But she doesn’t really join in. She might take a taste here and there, but she’s mostly just lending me a hand, which will only be lightly soiled by the time we’re done. I’m glad she’s there, of course, grateful for the assistance but most of all cheered by the company, the belated community of two—and yet, even though I’m not religious, it strikes me as being something like bringing an atheist to a church service that resonates bone-deeply with you must be; you appreciate their effort, and hope they found some enjoyment in it, and were glad to share the experience at least, but you know they didn’t really feel what you felt, and so there’s a twinge of disappointment that almost makes it seem like it wasn’t worth it. A fleeting sense that even true perfection, experienced alone, is as hollow as an empty crab leg. But then you remember the pure joy of sucking the sweetness out of that shell, and no matter how tired you are and how done with picking crabs for the year and maybe even forever, you suddenly want to do it all over again.
Maybe next time, though, instead of having a little bit of the East Coast packed up and delivered out west, you (meaning I) will fly back to Baltimore come summer. Take your mom and your crab-averse boyfriend along too, see a breathtakingly ferocious thunderstorm with forked lightning that illuminates the entire sky if you’re lucky, and a floating phosphorescent glitter of fireflies speckling the darkness of a hot July evening while you’re there. And of course, you’ll eat a mess of steamed blue crabs at a huge, paper-covered table with a few pitchers of beer, a full roll of paper towels, and a rowdy bunch of people you haven’t seen in far, far too long.
Header image by YaJurka/Shutterstock.