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Friday, June 3, 2016

The Zen of Cleaning Crabs

  Since I was a young girl growing up on Saint Simons Island, I’ve been catching and picking blue crabs, the tasty crustaceans with bright blue claws and olive green shells that are plentiful in these waters. Before I was old enough to cook and clean them, my mama taught my three brothers and me how to catch them using a stick and a line. For the uninitiated, you’ll need a “stick” about three feet long. It can be a broom handle sawed in half or a slender board—whatever you have on hand to which you can tie a length of heavy twine. You’ll also need some raw chicken necks or backs. It’s an old wives’ tale that you should let them sit in the sun until they’re smelly. Would YOU like to eat a crab that just ingested spoiled chicken? 
To finish out the equipment list, get ourself a five gallon bucket and a dip net. Tie a piece of chicken to the loose end of the line and, at low tide, find yourself a spot on the beach near a inlet where you can wade out knee deep and stick your pole in the sand. Throw the chicken out into the water—and wait. You may even want to walk back to your chair and pull a cold one out of the cooler. If the crabs are active, you won’t have to wait long. Gently pull the line toward you until you can see the chicken. It there are crabs greedily attacking it, continue to pull it until you can scoop them up in your net. Go slow and you won’t scare them away. They're greedy little monsters, and they'll follow that chicken practically to your feet. 
        There is no greater thrill than watching children catching crabs. Their squeals of feigned fear and pure delight will stay with you forever. Imagine your children or grandchildren, brown as berries from the sun, taking turns wielding the net, scooping up the crabs and running to shore with their catch. And yes, there were the arguments about just whose turn it was to hold the net and just who let a big one get away, but they were happy, so very happy. 
        We had a Boxer named Toma who would wade out, sit down in the water up to her chest, and watch over the kids. Once, when out of the innocent curiosity only a Boxer can have, she stuck her muzzle into a jelly fish and her whole face swelled up like a manatee. I had to take her home and dose her with Benadryl, but she was okay. We were all okay. We were all happy. 
        I got off on a little tangent there, didn't I? So, here's the story I intended to tell in the beginning.
  On Monday of this week, Crab Man called from The Village Pier, where he puts in traps nearly every day. (You can’t crab with a stick and a line at the pier.) He wanted to know if I were interested in buying his catch, and I thought about it for a moment and said I did. I refused a bucket about a week before because I didn’t have time to process them, and I’d had a taste for them ever since. It’s a lengthy operation, getting blue crabs from the ocean into a crab cake or some other delicacy, but nothing makes for better eating.
  I parked my truck and, flip-flops slapping at my heels, walked out onto the pier swinging a bright orange Home Depot bucket. I found Crab Man half way down the dock, and when I peered into his catch, I smiled. There, waving their claws and bubbling at their mouths, were 15 big blue beauties. I paid him ten dollars, we exchanged buckets, and I drove home with the air conditioner blowing full blast to keep the crabs cool and alive. I don’t cook dead crabs, and neither should you. 
  I stowed the bucket in a cool corner of the kitchen and hauled out my biggest boiler and set it on the stovetop. When the water was rolling, I sprinkled it liberally with Tony Chachere’s seafood seasoning. (There is no other.) And then I emptied the bucket of crabs into the pot and covered it with the lid. I know, I know. Where’s the Zen in that? It’s not the most pleasant part of the job. They struggle for a few seconds, but I rationalize away any guilt by telling myself death is almost instantaneous. And then there’s the end product—succulent, sweet deliciousness.
  Twenty minutes later, the crabs had turned bright orange and were floating in the water, a sure sign they were done. I dumped them in the sink to cool and cleaned up the splatters of crab water that inevitably spew out of the pot onto the ceramic cooktop. I hate that thing. It’s a pain in my ass every time I have to clean it, and the only reason I have one is that that there’s no gas line on our street, and I’m unwilling to have a tank buried in my back yard. Learning to live without a gas range is the biggest challenge I faced when I bought this wonderful house.
  When the crabs were cool enough to handle, I set about pulling off the claws and depositing them in a bowl. Then I tugged off the backs and broke the skeletons in half in order to clean out the innards. 
  This is when the Zen kicks in. While performing this chore, I can’t think of anything else. I am completely in the moment, concentrating only on removing the long fingerlike gills and rinsing out the spongy goo that is the stomach. I give them a final rinse with the kitchen sprayer and put them in the bowl with the claws. Some people experience a sense of fulfillment when ironing or mowing the grass or shelling a basket of butter beans. For me, there is great satisfaction in the sight of a bowl full of crabs, clean and ready to pick.
        Since the trash man wouldn't be coming for a week, I bagged up all the shells and body parts and stowed them in the freezer until Sunday night. You ain't lived until you've let crab sit in your garbage bin for a week in hot weather. If I were the trash guy, I wouldn't go near it.

  Traditionally in our family, picking crabs has been a joint effort. Everyone gathered around the old card table that Harry almost blew up with his chemistry set. We spread newspaper over it and, and using nut crackers and picks, we all worked together. When we were older, there was beer involved. After Clint and I married, his children and grandchildren became part of the process. Bowls filled with crabmeat quickly, and to a person, everybody in my family has fond memories of those times. No, we were not a family who ate as we picked, dipping the crab in melted butter. Hell, if we had done that, the slow pickers would have been out of luck.
  There’s an art to extracting the meat from a crab carcass, and not everyone is gifted in that way. When my brother John was alive, he sucked at it. Even after he was a grown man, someone always had to pick over his bowl for bits of shell. His wife Lisa, on the other hand, is one of the best pickers I’ve ever known. I’m pretty good at it, too. Once I picked out 36 crabs by myself because everyone else was out fishing with Clint. Then, as now, I didn’t mind and in fact enjoyed the solitude and the Zen of it all. 
  When the picking was over, Mama would make a big dish of crab au gratin or a pot of crab soup—whatever we had enough crab to make. Sometimes we had both.

  Back to Monday. I spread newspaper on the coffee table and gathered my equipment. Vodka was involved. Using the same nut crackers and picks Mama bought half a century ago to shell pecans, I got down to work. I picked out the bodies first, because they’re the hardest. The cartilage that separates the compartments of white lumps of meat is tricky to negotiate. Over time, I’ve developed a feel for them, which is a good thing because these 68 year old eyes ain’t so sharp any more. Some would call it tedious work, but as I’ve already explained, I get lost in it. It takes me completely outside myself.
  If you’re picking crabs by yourself, frequent breaks are necessary. Your fingers get shriveled and a little numb, which can result in sloppy work. Can’t have that. Coincidentally, breaks were necessary about the same time my drink needed a patch. Funny how that works.
  Bodies out of the way, I attacked the claws. Child’s play. Using a dish rag to protect my fingers, I pried them apart. In most cases, the cartilage that separates the big side into two hunks of dark meat came out in one piece. Yes! Then all I had to do was crack the hard shells and remove the contents. 
  Once I was finished and my fingers came back to life, I made two passes at the bowl of sweet goodness to check for shells. Hey, I never said I was perfect. It’s almost impossible to find every tiny piece of shell and cartilage, but it’s important to try, a matter of pride, really. Sloppy picking makes for less than appealing crab cakes.

  A dozen large crabs will render about a pound of meat. If you pack it into a two-cup measure, you can be certain it’s a pound. Good to know because many recipes call for crab by weight. I had a little over a pound, so there was enough to make crab cakes for dinner with enough left over for crab au gratin appetizers (recipe from Bennie’s Red Barn) for the next night. 
  I used a recipe for crab cakes I’d never tried, and to be honest, it wasn’t my best work. Next time I’ll fall back on the tried and true recipe that’s served me well over the years: a pound of crab, a finely chopped onion and a couple of sticks of minced celery, two eggs, a little chopped parsley and some Lea and Perrins (no substitute). After it’s all mixed together, form into small patties and sauté them in a little butter and olive oil over medium heat. Crab is rich, so don’t make them too big. Be patient and don’t try to cook them too fast or turn them too soon. The bottom needs to be brown, not burned, and holding together when you turn them, or you’ll have a mess on your hands. Besides, the onion and celery need time to cook. 

        I hope everyone who reads this post will have a chance to go crabbing the old fashioned way, then get the family together for cooking, cleaning and picking. You'll make wonderful and lasting memories. It makes me feel good in my feelings just thinking about it.

© 2016 cj Schlottman




Anonymous said...

Oh, how I wish I could have been there. We are a great team on those crabs! Love you! Lisa

Judie said...

I have crab baskets and go to Clam Creek on Jekyll. I went to Poteet's last week to get some fresh shrimp. They had some picked crab and I wanted it, but had to ask if it was fresh Georgia crab. No, of course it wasn't--it came from Indonesia!! A pound of fresh picked crab from our waters costs $38 a pound, and they don't supply the vodka!! Bummer! Guess I'll drag out my baskets and buy some chicken wings.

Charlotte said...

I love this story, Claudia. I have crabbed with children, all the way through the whole process. These were the children from Chrysalis, and in my case, it was whatever bunch from the nine of them I worked with over time. Chrysalis was a program we gave in the summer at Selden Park, almost day-long, with lunch provided (bologna and cheese sandwiches with Kool Aid) The ones who came back and called me to take them crabbing and or to the beach were from Harrington neighborhood on SSI. We had a great time--they were expert pickers of crabs, and set to work on my back patio, while I got out Rich's frozen parkerhouse rolls, and set them to rising to be ready when we had all the crabmeat picked out, refrigerated for crab salad--and were ready to head to the beach for a great swim, as the long summer day wound to a close. We'd go back to my house, and they would ceremoniously seat everyone, including my two younger boys, and say the blessing, and we would all have a wonderful supper together.

Ujjvala Rahn said...

Oh my gosh, I LOVE this piece Claudia! Prose written by a poet.

Claudia Schlottman said...

Thanks, all, for reading and taking time to comment.Feedback is a nourishing gift for my writing soil. ❤️

BeverlyWillett said...

Yum! I'm a Maryland girl and I could taste my way through your story! For us it was the joy of picking for hours and finally having a heaping bowl to eat just like that with a dash of vinegar. My dad had even more patience because my mom didn't get into picking the crabs. So he'd pick enough for a bowl for her first before making himself one. Never thought of my daddy as practicing Zen, but I guess he did!

Claudia Schlottman said...

I'm thrilled you could taste your way through the event, Beverly. Isn't that what every writer wants, to engage the reader in a concrete way? Your father sounds like a kind and generous soul. Thanks for reading!

KeLLy aNN said...

Well, not crabbing but snapping beans with my grandmother....

Susan Anderson said...

Wonderful. And so beautifully written, too.


Christine Poythress said...

Yes, beautifully written. Now I WANT crab.