It seems fitting that the first local ingredient featured on this blog is the “beautiful savory swimmer,” callinectes sapidus. Common name: the Maryland blue crab. Some of my fondest memories are of summer backyards filled with brown-paper covered tables, mallets and claw crackers or heavy knives at the ready, bright red crabs covered in Old Bay piled in the center of the table. A grill warming up for burgers and hot dogs. Cold beer, sometimes a pool, and family and friends sitting down to hours of intensive labor for a few piles of sweet, delicious crabmeat. My uncle Ben (for real) used to pick crabs for hours without eating them, amassing an enviable pile of sweetly spicy crabmeat that he would eat with a fork at the end of the day as we all looked on. My dad once stole a forkful of that pile, and fisticuffs were definitely imminent. Only the presence of children prevented that, I believe. I, myself, was a crabber in my youth. A length of string and a chicken neck, the older the better, tied to a dock and soaked for just a little bit, could make anyone a crabber. I spent many happy hours, sitting on a dock of the Bay (for real), patiently pulling up the string, hand over hand, looking for the moving shadow that meant a blue crab had hitched a ride. Blue crabs range from Nova Scotia to Argentina in the western Atlantic Ocean, hibernating in the colder months in the muddy bed of the Atlantic. Jimmies, male crabs, are easily identified by their Washington Monument-shaped apron, the flap on their bellies, while sooks, the females, have a wider apron.
Identifying males and females is important for the protection of the species. While sooks are sold for eating, jimmies tend to be larger, meatier, and more delicious.
I may have lied just then. I eat the boys only because the girls make more crabs. Boys are necessary in the process, which includes a jimmy gently cradling a molting female until she completes her molt, impregnating her, then cradling her again as her shell hardens before he swims off in search of another girlfriend, but let’s face it: one boy can make a lot of baby crabs.
A mama, also called a “sponge crab.” That orange “sponge” is unhatched babies.
In 2014, the commercial blue crab harvest was 35 million pounds, an amount considered “sustainable” by the Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee. Even though this is considered a safe amount of crab to harvest (with smaller crab fishermen and weekend warriors only bringing in a negligible amount), the blue crab is highly susceptible to pollutants and chemicals in their habitat.
They are bottom-dwellers, bottom-feeders, corpse pickers: they like dead, rotting stuff for dinner, and they don’t really care what killed it. They remind me of a former bad boss, plus a few people I used to know.
In short, they are nothing like what I normally eat, but SO DELICIOUS.
It is important to note that while 50% of the country’s blue crabs come from the Chesapeake Bay, not all blue crab on offer is from Maryland. Cheaper crab can be had from Asian waters, and many restaurants will substitute that for more expensive crab from Maryland. And others who don’t know any better may prefer the lazy man’s crabs (Dungeness and Alaskan King) over the hard-won rewards of a Maryland blue crab’s labrynthian interior.
But why mess with perfection?
The hibernation period of the blue crab (roughly from November to March) allows it to build up its fat stores, which results in a delicate, buttery flavor, unmatched by its larger crustacean cousins. Save those for things like quiche and crabcakes.
The most authentic way to enjoy a Maryland blue crab is straight from the pot with a Natty Boh.
Purchasing notes: fresh crabs are best purchased right off the dock. Look for jimmies that are 6″ or larger from point to point. Don’t waste your time with smaller crab or sooks.
Cooking them is easy, and although some people fuss with fancy gadgets and the like, all you really need is a big pot with a lid, a Natty Boh, vinegar, Old Bay, and some aluminum foil. Thusly:
1. Use the aluminum foil to create a rope-like structure that you will curl and place at the bottom of the pot. You can buy a pot with a rack for this purpose, but unless you will also use the pot for canning, aluminum foil works just fine. You are steaming the crabs, not boiling them, and the aluminum foil curl lets them rest just above the liquid.
2. Crack open a Natty Boh (or a Pabst Blue Ribbon. No hipster, quadruple-hopped bullshit here) and pour it and an equivalent amount of water (or just below the aluminum coil). Add a splash of vinegar (white or cider), and bring to a boil.
3. Add crabs. Add a layer of crab, sprinkle liberally with Old Bay, layer of crab, Old Bay, layer of crab, etc.
Side note: You could use something other than Old Bay, but A) then you would be a moron, and B) that would be a ridiculous thing to do. So stick with Old Bay.
4. Place lid on the pot, then crack a beer for yourself and wait. Crabs are done when they are bright red, about ten or 15 minutes, or the time it takes for you to drink your beer. Which since Natty Boh is like barley flavored water, is about ten or 15 minutes.
Once they are done, what the hell do you do with them?
Maryland State Senator John Astle, a West Virginia native, knows how it’s done.
Side note: the “inside stuff” is also known as “mustard.” Some locals eat the mustard, but I am not even remotely interested in this. Some people believe it is fat, but it is actually the crab’s hepatopancreas which filters impurities from the crab’s blood. So you would then be eating the impurities. #HardPass
Some people dip the crab in apple cider vinegar. Some ignorant people ask for butter. #Unnecessary #WeAreOutOfButter This year I cracked crabs on the front porch of Redwing Farm in Sinks Grove, WV. My uncle Steve and I drove down to the water that morning to pick up a half bushel, covered them with ice in a cooler (drain open; crabs will drown in fresh water), and eight hours later pulled them out of the pot to eat as the sun set over the ridge.
It’s not too late to enjoy these beautiful swimmers, even if you don’t want to cook them yourself. As summer winds down and we look forward to the autumnal equinox, small boats are still out on the Bay, fishing for crab. The end of summer is the best time for crab; prices are down, sizes are up, and traffic on crab decks is light.
Maryland blue crab is a true local ingredient and my penultimate summer food; what’s yours?