DELICIOUS, BEAUTIFUL SWIMMERS

THE PEOPLE'S LOBSTER | May 14th 2008

Crabs
delgaudm/Flickr

We are lucky the Maryland blue crab lacks the prestige of the Maine lobster, as they are cheap, fun and just as delicious, writes Jon Fasman. Throw some into a huge stockpot with some beer, and get ready to offend your fussier friends ...

Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE

On April 18th, William Warner, a writer and former administrator with the Smithsonian Institution, died peacefully at his home in Washington, DC, at the enviable age of 88. Mr Warner won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction in 1977 for "Beautiful Swimmers", a beguiling, oddly beautiful work that examines the lives of the "watermen" of Maryland's Eastern Shore. He meditated on the crabbers and fishermen who work the Chesapeake Bay, many of them fifth- or sixth-generation, and the body of water that sustains them.

The book takes its title from the blue crab's Latin name: callinectus sapidus ("delicious beautiful swimmers"), as accurate as it is poetic. Though I should say up front that I'm more concerned with the crabs' sapidity than their callinectitude.

Crabs are to the Chesapeake Bay region what lobsters are to maritime New England--a source of pride, income and identity. But the Bay area lacks New England's touristic draw; it has no Maine coast ("Vacationland", as its lobster-emblazoned license plates used to brag), no Nantucket or Martha's Vineyard. And few people seem to recognise that Baltimore is an infinitely superior city to Boston--friendlier, quirkier, more manageable, with better food.

The Maryland blue consequently lacks the prestige of the Maine lobster, even though the meat is sweeter and the preparations more variable and interesting. Despite crabs' rising costs, crab-picking remains informal and down-home. Partly this may be due to the area's blue-collar identity, especially when contrasted with Boston's Brahminic pretensions. But mainly I think it's because there is no neat way to eat a crab.

Crabbing A disclaimer: a crab is not a crab is not a crab (apologies to Ms Stein). A blue crab has more meat in the carapace and narrower claws than a British brown crab; the brown crab's meat is neither as sweet nor as flaky, and has a more pronounced saline flavour. Neither is the blue like the fat-clawed, broad-bodied mud crabs that turn up in Singapore, or the enormous mutants that are all leg and claw fished out of the Pacific north-west, or the rather insipid, watery stone crabs that, for reasons more nostalgic than culinary, remain famous in Florida.

Blues live in the relatively warm waters of the American east coast. In fact, the catch has been trending downward in the Chesapeake for years, and hungry mid-Atlantic diners have increasingly had to make do with blues flown in from Texas and Louisiana. They eat pretty much everything--I have crabbed using chicken necks and bologna as bait (two separate occasions; it wasn't some sort of Steinbeckian hard-times sandwich)--and attack anything that doesn't attack them first.

I'm talking here about hard-shell crabs, not soft-shells. Soft shells are beautiful, delicious creatures, but I've never prepared them, and eating them is more straight-forward (to wit: insert in mouth, chew, swallow. Repeat as necessary).

The recipe part of cooking blues is easy: take a huge stockpot, pour in one can (yes, can) of domestic (yes, domestic) beer, about half that amount of cider or wine vinegar, and a few free-handed shakes of crab spice (Old Bay, J&O, Zatarain's--in that order of preference). Put a steamer basket on top, cover and wait for it to boil.

Now comes the hard part: when this liquid reaches a hard boil, you need to add the crabs, and you need to do it while they are still alive. You've bought the crabs earlier that day and have stored them in an ice chest (a cooler with ice on the bottom, a rack over the ice, crabs over the rack, newspaper over the lot and the lid on loosely, to let in air). You now can either pour ice directly over the crabs, which subdues them and makes them easier to handle, or, if you're feeling particularly stout of heart, use tongs to lift them from cooler to pot. They'll snap, they'll pinch, they will certainly try to escape. Place them flat in the steamer basket, about three to a layer (depending, of course, on the size of crab and pot), and shake the spices liberally over each layer. (If you have any inclinations toward vegetarianism, best to leave the room for this part.)

After about 15 minutes, the crabs will have turned a pleasant shade of scarlet. They are now ready. The eating of crabs is both time- and labour-intensive; it is nice to think we work off almost as many calories extracting the meat as we consume. It is impossible to describe without a crab in hand, but know that there's no way to make it look good, and you're not doing it wrong as long as you're getting meat. (This is as good a guide as any.)

Suffice it to say you shouldn't wear your best clothes, or eat with people who are fussy about manners or propriety. You probably should have several pitchers of beer--preferably Baltimore's own Natty Bo--on hand. The season runs from about April to November: they're considered summertime food, but late-season crabs are fatter, and they tend to be cheaper, simply because fewer people want to buy them.

(Jon Fasman is an editor for Economist.com, and the author of two novels, both published by The Penguin Press: The Geographer's Library, a New York Times bestseller that was published in 2005, and The Unpossessed City, coming out in November 2008. He profiled Dave Arnold, a culinary inventor, for the Autumn 2007 issue of Intelligent Life.)