I didn’t grow up eating Maryland crabs. This was very obvious to people who did.
Early in my career, I worked for an association. One of our members, Mary, invited me to speak at a chapter event. Since it was at the beach I said, “Yes!”
Ocean City, Md., has a boardwalk with a big ferris wheel that reveals then hides the shore as it circles. It has cotton candy and beach fries and whack-a-mole and t-shirts that say, “Don’t Bother Me, I’m Crabby.” But you don’t get crabs on the boardwalk.
Mary and her husband Chester were from Baltimore. They had a daughter my age, a son a few years older and two grandchildren, so far. They loved the beach and the Eastern Shore where the watermen delivered rockfish and oysters and crabs. There’s also amazing Eastern Shore chicken you can get at a fire house on the way to the ocean. But this isn’t about chicken.
My hosts spent many summers picking crabs (picking is how you eat crabs). They made no assumptions about me, though, and politely asked if I ate crabs. I thought I did, and it seemed like fun. They took me to a favorite spot. It was back over the bridge, heading away from the ocean across some marshy land. It was a crab house.
I knew how to order a beer, and Charlie asked how many crabs I could eat. I didn’t know. And, I really didn’t know. When the waitress brought the platter piled high with steaming crabs unevenly seasoned with red powder, I realized just how over my head I was. This wasn’t lobster. No. It was not lobster at all.
Charlie grabbed two of the crustaceans and dropped them next to his beer. He started pulling one apart and banging a piece with a hammer. I swigged my beer and, following Mary’s lead, I took a crab off the plate and placed it in front of me, on my newspaper tablecloth. I snuck a look at Mary and mimicked her by pulling off an appendage. I used a nutcracker to open it. The use of the tool on the oddly shaped claw did not come natural to me. I did, however, get some meat. And a little shell. The meat was quite good. The shell, not so much, but it did have the flavor of salt, celery, mustard, cayenne, and whatever seventy-three other spices are in the yellow can of Old Bay. Fortified, I repeated on the other side of my crab. Then, I was stuck.
I turned the body of the crab around. It was looking at me. I spun it away, but I couldn’t find a way in. Chester was on his fourth. Mary kindly asked if I had picked crabs before. She didn’t want to embarrass me, but I was obviously incompetent. Or, in her mind, untrained. I looked up, wide-eyed, and she schooched closer to me. Chester knocked back another crab. I could tell because the empty carcasses were piling up on his side of the table. He paused to eat his ear of corn. I think he powdered it with Old Bay before he ate it.
Mary showed me where I had missed some meat on the hinge part of the claw. She pointed at the legs and demonstrated where to pull them off and how to suck out the strings of meat. These were very big crabs, so it was worth the effort. She expertly flipped the crab on his back and lifted the tab on its belly as if she were unlocking a round red box. This exposed an opening at the top for her thumb to wrest it’s body apart.
I clumsily followed her demonstration and attempted on my own crab. I couldn’t get a good feel to separate the “lid” from the body. She helped me. I was now faced with the insides of an arachnid. That I was supposed to eat. But first I had to brush away the grayish gills. Not to be eaten. At this point I was starting to wonder what I could eat. It’s been all prep except for those claws I ate twenty minutes ago. Meanwhile, Chester ordered a second beer and was on his eighth crab. He was licking the salty seasoning off his very messy fingers. I think he smirked at me. Maybe it was a look of pity.
Now, I was supposed to take the body and crack it in half. The body was like a big honeycomb, only thin and fragile. Mary was eating from hers. Mine collapsed in my hands and I learned why it was called picking as I picked hunks and scraps of crab meat out of the debris of cartilage. There was one piece, though, that slid out intact from it’s chamber. It was moist and sweet and significant enough that it was more than one bite and more than two chews for each bite. And I knew, in that moment, that was why we were doing this.
Chester ordered another plate of crabs.
I struggled through another crab, but by the time I got to my third, all the lessons escaped from my head. I couldn’t find the tab. I ate my corn. I successfully extricated meat from the claws. I was dirtied by splashes of crab juice from my forehead through my elbows and, of course my hands. The backs as well as the front. There was blood coming from my thumb where I cut it on the shell as I was trying to find something to eat. I ate my coleslaw. It was good. It was cool. My beer was warm.
I pushed my crab around on my newspaper a bit. Mary started feeding me meat that she had picked, but after a few bites I decided that she should feed herself. I said that I was full. Chester lifted his eyebrows at Mary as he sucked the meat out of his twelfth crab.
Once I had declared my “fullness,” I could better enjoy my dinner companions. They teased each other with the bite of a long marriage but without bitterness. They finished each other’s sentences and interrupted when the one told the story wrong. I had an iced tea to round out my dinner. Chester ate the last of the crabs. He drove us back over the bay and back to our conference hotel. I did have a fun time and thanked them for the adventure.
The hotel was a step or two above a touristy, “family” oceanside motel from the 70s. The towels were very thin, but were more than sufficient to wash off the crab juice. When I had cleaned up and changed my shirt, I thought the coast was clear. I surreptitiously crossed the small lobby–it was more like a vestibule–and walked to my car. Up the strip was a drive through. I got the Number 1 hamburger meal. With a shake. I knew how to eat that.
After that lesson, when we’d eat crabs I’d sit next to somebody who liked picking crabs and let them feed me. Sometimes it was The Spouse. Many times it was someone else’s spouse. I wasn’t proud. Occasionally someone would give me a refresher lesson. I liked crab, just not enough to pick them. In other good news, crabs were usually part of a summer party with an accompanying barbecue. I could always have a hotdog after mooching crab.
One year, the Spouse was away for the neighborhood crab feast. He had the role of walking the boys through their crab consumption. This time, it was on me. But, I knew exactly what to do. I taught them where the meat was in the claws, to open and eat from the hinge side, to suck the juices from the legs, to pull the tab and separate the top, to remove the gills and crack the body. They were much better students than me, but over years of observation I had became a crab picker. So much that people started to think I grew up eating Maryland crabs.
Callinectes sapidus, the Maryland blue crab. It’s part of my language. Hey hon, Chester wouldn’t get all the crabs now.