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Consider the Crab

I can unequivocally state that my favorite seafood, by far, is blue crab. I’ve always thought it quite logical that it required so much time and effort to extract the delicacy recessed inside such a formidable, almost alien-looking body. It looks more like some rare creature from outer space than a common animal which ranges from New England to the Gulf of Mexico. It’s spiked shell, its formidable claws, its many legs, eyes on stalks and flapping mandibles… it’s all so weird! But contrary to all that weirdness, the blue crab’s scientific name, Callinectes sapidus, translates to “savory beautiful swimmer.” It won’t be long now before the waters start warming and you can start catching crabs again.
Although commonly associated with salt water, the blue crab requires both inshore brackish waters and high salinity ocean waters to complete its life cycle. In late autumn when the water temperature begins to fall and the days start getting shorter, the blue crab retreats to deep water and burrows into the muddy or sandy bottom to spend the winter. In just a few minutes the crab is resting at a 45-degree angle in the bottom with only antennae, the tips of its eye stalks and small breathing channels visible in the mud. Crabs do not hibernate, rather, they simply lie dormant for the winter.
Growth and development of the blue crab, as in other crustaceans, consist of a series of larval, juvenile, and adult stages during which a variety of morphological, behavioral and physiological changes occur. These changes are most dramatic when the animal molts (sheds its rigid shell), permitting growth and changes in body shape. Before molting, a new shell is formed underneath the old exoskeleton, which then loosens and is cast off. The new shell is initially soft, but it expands and hardens in a few hours. As far as longevity, crabs may live for three years but most live for less than a year. State laws vary as to the size of crabs (always measured by the width of the shell at the points) you may legally harvest.
On a personal note, although many folks consider the soft shell crab to be a delicacy when properly prepared and fried, I refuse to eat them. Although some crabs are “farmed” into the molting stage, in the wild a soft shell crab literally represents the next generation of crabs and to kill off the breeding stock strikes me as beyond stupid and destructive. Talk to a commercial crabber and they’ll tell you the same thing.
Mating generally occurs in brackish water and although fearsome looking, the mating ritual of the blue crab is quite gentle in nature. Male blue crabs release chemical signals called pheromones that attract their mates. Two to three days prior to mating, the male will cradle the soon-to-shed female after a rather elaborate courtship ritual (with lots of waving claws). These crabs are called doublers and the male protects the soft female when she is vulnerable to predators. After mating, he will continue to carry her until her shell hardens. After mating, females migrate to higher salinity water in the lower reaches of the estuary or in the ocean. (For the best literary description of this mating process, I refer you to that great American novel, Chesapeake, by James A. Mitchener, specifically, Voyage 11: The Watermen.)
Females produce up to two million eggs, but only about one egg per million will survive to become an adult. Eggs are carried under the abdomen until they hatch. The egg mass is bright orange at first and becomes darker as the embryos mature and consume the egg yolk. Females carrying an egg mass are called sponge crabs and are protected by law. If captured, they must be returned to the water immediately. Sponge crabs usually first appear in early April and are common until August or September.
As far as the blue crab’s diet goes they’re bottom scavengers and will eat just about anything, plant or animal, even each other. They find food both by walking and swimming. Walking is accomplished with the three pairs of thin walking legs and the crabs almost always walk sideways, clearing a path with their sharp lateral spikes. Swimming is accomplished by sculling the oar-like fifth pair of legs. These paddles usually rotate at 20 to 40 revolutions per minute but quickly disappear into a blur as the animal darts away.
It’s relatively easy to determine the sex of a blue crab. Male crabs (“Jimmies”) can be distinguished from females by the shape of the abdomen. The male has a T-shaped abdomen that is held tightly against the body until maturity when it becomes somewhat free. The immature female (“Sally”) has a triangle-shaped abdomen that is tightly sealed against the body. The mature female’s (“Sookie or Sooks”) abdomen becomes rounded and can be easily pulled away from the body after the final molt. Jimmies usually have brilliant blue claws and legs while sooks can be distinguished by the bright orange tips on their claws. Males typically grow larger than females, sometimes reaching 7 or 8 inches across.
Crabs are caught in a variety of ways, the most common being in a commercial crab pot. Invented by Benjamine F. Lewis in the 1920’s, patented in 1928 and perfected 10 years later, the crab pot revolutionized crabbing. The crab pot is a large square trap constructed out of galvanized chicken wire. The trap has two internal chambers. The bottom chamber, or “downstairs”, consists of two or four entrance funnels, known as “throats”, which allow the crab to easily enter but not exit. In the center of the bottom chamber is the “bait box” which is constructed of fine-mesh galvanized wire so that the crab cannot get to the bait. The top chamber is the holding area, known as the “parlor” or “upstairs.” After sensing the bait, crabs enter the parlor through oblong, funnel-shaped holes cut into the floor of the parlor making it difficult for the crab to swim back downstairs. Crab pots are ingenious contraptions in that they utilize the crab’s very own escape instincts in order to trap them.
Crabs smell the bait and circle the pot, entering through one of the throats. Once inside and unable to reach the bait, the crab feels trapped and threatened. When threatened, a crab instinctively swims up towards the surface to escape, where it winds up inside the parlor. It remains in the parlor until removed through a special opening along one of the top edges. Most crab pots have two small exit holes up high in the parlor called “cull rings.” These rings are big enough to let small crabs escape yet small enough to trap the larger keepers.
Recreational crabbing is accomplished via several methods employing various types of traps and nets, but the most common (and I think most fun) is good old “chicken neck crabbing.” You simply tie a nicely ripened chunk of chicken to a handline and drop it to the bottom. You can either hold onto the line to feel when a crab takes the bait or watch it until you see the line being pulled away. Then, ever so slowly and patiently, you start retrieving the line until the crab becomes visible at which time you scoop it up in a long handled net.
When it comes to eating crabs there’s really only one way for me and that’s a crab cake. Some people revel in boiling whole crabs then sitting down for a “crab cracking” session, but I don’t like all that guts and goo on my fingers and table. Once I’ve rustled up a nice bunch of crabs, while still at the dock and equipped with heavy gloves, I go into a sort of assembly-line cleaning method. Wearing the heavy gloves I’ll first twist off all the claws to render the crabs harmless. Next, with the gloves off, I grasp the crab in both hands, my left cradling the body upright and my right on the top of the shell. In one motion I “pop and twist” the top section from the bottom and discard the top. After I’ve gone through the whole batch I then use a hose to simply blast out all the entrails so all I’m taking home is a clean shell, meat and claws.
With nothing more than Old Bay seasoning in the water I boil or steam the whole batch for several minutes and when done throw it all into iced water to draw the meat away from the shell, making the meat easier to pick out. After I have my pile of crab meat I whip up a very simple “glue” of mayonnaise, eggs and some simple seasoning which I combine with crushed up Goldfish crackers (the plain flavor). I gently fold it all with the meat using just enough of the mix to hold the meat together, mold some cakes and fry them in my cast iron skillet with just enough vegetable oil to rise about one-third up the side of the cakes. On occasion I’ll put the pan of crab cakes under the oven broilers until the op turns a crispy golden brown.
As far as a condiment dip, I prefer sweet red pepper jelly instead of cocktail sauce. I know everyone has their own particular methods and recipes but I want to give a plug to renowned chef, Tom Douglas, for his great book “I Love Crab Cakes: 50 Recipes for an American Classic.” Its chock full of interesting variations for a wide variety of crabs.
One last thing you may encounter is what’s known as “Pepper spot,” very small black spots resembling ground pepper in the meat. This is common, affecting more than 30 percent of crabs from some locations and appears to be related to water salinity. The disease is spread by any of four species of snails that are found in shallow low-salinity estuaries. The infected snails release the infective free-swimming fluke larva which penetrates the crab. Although not dangerous to eat, pepper spot greatly detracts from the presentation of fine crab meat.
And lastly, never eat a dead crab. Unlike most other seafood they spoil almost immediately and it can be dangerous to consume them.
In closing, I wish to thank the SC Department of Natural Resources for some “crabby” information, as well as the most comprehensive Web site on blue crabs I’ve ever encountered,, compiled by blue crab enthusiast, Steve Zinsk.