The hunt for Atlantic blue crabs (whose scientific name, Callinectes sapidus, translates to savory, beautiful swimmer) is an adrenaline adventure when the scapping method is used. Wade into certain Cape Cod and southeastern Massachusetts coves and estuaries with a long-poled net, either during the day or night, and you’ll find these fierce fighters themselves actively searching for food.
When you spot one you close in with all the atavistic stealth you can muster. Despite your cautious approach, the crab, whose compound eyes that allow it to see in nearly every direction at once, and an acute sense of chemoreception, has noticed you as well. It stands erect on five pairs of legs and stretches its powerful, serrated claws wide in a defensive stance. You’ve got to be careful and precise in your movements, for the blue crab exists in a state of perpetual bad mood. If it gets you before you get it, you are going to get sliced open and it will hurt.
Now it’s man vs. crab and the fastest will win. You lunge behind the beast and downward with your dip net, trying to scoop it up before it sideways swims away. The water roils and the scene is momentarily furious. Raising your net through the swirling cloud of stirred-up mud you look and hope and yes! You’ve caught a delicacy of the sea. The culinarily versatile and delicious blue crab can be taken home and eaten.
Blue crabs range from Nova Scotia down the east coast of North America. They can also be found in Chesapeake Bay, throughout the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean and South America. They are present on many parts of Cape Cod, along the southeastern Massachusetts coastline into Rhode Island and beyond. Recreational crabbers can legally extract up to 25 of them per day (this number may vary according to local regulations) without permit, providing the crabs have reached the minimum five-inch carapace width and are not egg-bearing females.
“Yummy,” my mother, Barbara, used to say after she had caught several jimmy (male) and sally (female) crabs in Wareham waters and brought them home to steam. She could walk from home to a Swifts Neck cove that, at low tide, fairly teemed with blue crabs. She did this often and I remember clearly some fifty years ago the pleasure she took from catching these crabs. Dipping the white claw and lump meat into drawn butter and eating the briny sea scavengers with her fingers, she’d declare that there was nothing else like it and it was even better than lobster.
My mother was a master crabber and it was from her that I acquired both the thrill of the hunt and the taste for crab. One of her favorite pastimes was to head to a local pier with her best friend Lucia and there, overlooking Crab Cove (what else would it be called?), the two would chicken-neck for them. That is to say, they’d drop a fishing line baited with raw chicken parts into the water at low tide, and with a bottle of Zinfandel at their side, they’d wait until one of the tenacious feeders took hold. Reeling in the line with a surgeon’s smoothness, the crab would be raised gently, close enough to the surface so that it could be netted from underneath. Provided it was big enough and not a pregnant female (a sponge crab), they’d forcefully shake the angry crab into a plastic bucket and begin anew.
If you came to my house and saw a note on the kitchen counter that read “Crabbin’ with Lucia”, all sorts of relevant information could be gleaned. You knew where my mother was and approximately when she’d be back. Fresh crab would be available that night. And surely she was having herself one fine fall day.
Blue crab males are named for the bluish color on their claw tips. Females have red-tipped claws. Right side up, the portion of the carapace you see is a mottled brownish color, and upside-down the crabs are white. Part of the beauty of a blue crab is the overall sapphire tint to it, like a metallic paint job on a teenager’s car. Architecturally they appear Mad-Maxian, with spines and razor-like pincers and antennae…suits of armor with externally-mounted weapons of defense and destruction.
They have a life expectancy of three to four years. They use three pairs of legs to walk sideways on the ocean bottom and a pair of swimmerets, paddle-shaped fins, for swimming. A powerful pair of claws is used to eat, among other things, clams, oysters, mussels, worms, leeches, crayfish and members of their peer group. Thirteen percent of their total diet, in fact, is comprised of the consumption of other blue crabs. Given the chance, they might even like to eat you. They are predators but also prey; fish, birds, fellow crabs, turtles, even raccoons may eat them. And us. Lots of people catch and eat blue crabs with voracity.
Larger crabs can reach a nine-inch spine-to-spine measurement on their carapace, and bigger is better when it comes to picking the crab at mealtime. Since the average crab contains only about two ounces of edible meat (representing fourteen percent of the whole crab), the bigger it is, the easier to justify the tedious and messy work of picking it apart.
Crab picking is a skill honed with practice, and Barbara and Lucia could dismantle with the best of them. First killing the live crabs by plunging an ice pick through their brains or anesthetizing them by dropping them in ice water, they’d cook, then crack the hard shells and pick through them in a flurry of gills, mustard and organs. Their well-executed moves resulted in a pile of savory meat.
The taste of blue crab is sweet and ocean succulent. The texture is lobster-like and meets teeth and tongue with a silky smoothness. Recipes abound with the likes of crab cakes, dips, salads, bisques, casseroles, even egg dishes, replete with heavy cream, Worcestershire, garlic, pepper, onion, sherry and more. All of these offer rich and pleasant fine dining experiences. But keeping things simple works just as well or better. A blue crab steamed in vinegar or beer for twenty minutes, laced with Old Bay seasoning then dipped in butter in classic Chesapeake Bay fashion can make even the most blasé gourmand smile. My mother only began to give credit to this singular crustacean when she described it as “yummy”.
Marc Swierkowski is the owner and head chef at Ella’s Wood Burning Oven restaurant in Wareham, and has been in the food industry for the past twenty years. For him, Mother’s Day signals the start date of his use of blue crab at the restaurant. “I’ll get three dozen, ordering them from Maryland where they’re shipped live, packed in sea grass. We’ll put them on our menu as a special and I don’t worry about selling them because the demand is there. They can be used in multiple ways. For example, I might stuff and season a crab and grill it. But I also love to fry it in tempura batter, a light, crispy batter using flour, soda water, egg and corn starch. I like blue crab better than lobster,” he says. “The flavor is sweeter and doesn’t have the iodine leftover taste you get from lobster.”
Swierkowski gets peelers for his restaurant. These are crabs that harvesters have identified as being in the molting stage. They’re collected and stored in shedding tanks for a short time until they molt, are soft, and are 100% edible. The staff at Ella’s, however, does slice off the head, and extracts its gills and mustard before cooking. But the majority of the crab remains for the diner to enjoy.
Chef Swierkowski’s view of blue crabs extends beyond his popular restaurant. “What’s better than a backyard picnic table piled with steamed blue crabs and beer on a Sunday afternoon?” he muses.
But why take the trouble to ship crabs in from Maryland when they live right here? Maryland diners need not wander far in search of blue crab. Crab shacks can be found around every corner. The Chesapeake Bay is the epicenter of the crab industry, generating hundreds of millions of dollars annually for that state. Here, however, the relatively low number of crabs has not lent well to commercial viability for this industry since the 1930s. You’d be hard-pressed to find live, native blue crabs at the local fish market, if at all. The fact is, if you want them you’ve got to work. Head to Wareham, Yarmouth, Falmouth or Westport to scap or chicken-neck for them.
Or you can pay the online price. Fresh Maryland crabmeat hermetically sealed and shipped in plastic containers gets you a pound of jumbo lump meat, a pound of backfin meat and a pound of claw meat for $94.99
The reproduction of blue crabs starts with (like their human predators) attraction. Females release a pheromone in their urine which males find interesting. Males, on the other hand, are much less subtle and more animated, staging precopulatory dances where they stand high up on their legs, wave their claws around, spin their paddles and kick up sand. If the attraction is mutual, the female turns backward and wedges herself under the male. They rub and tap their claws for a bit, at which point the male clasps and carries her in what is known as the buck and rider or doubler position. Crabbers sometimes are fortunate enough to find crabs in this precopulatory embrace and make no bones about interrupting them to catch two at once.
Crabs can be found, at various times during their life cycles, in waters with both high and low salinity. Crabs molt more than two dozen times during their lives, critical to their ability to grow and regain their protective carapaces. Females must molt to mate, so part of the process means waiting up to several days in the doubler position, allowing time for the female to shed her hard shell. Once softened, she opens up her apron on the bottom of her carapace and lays upside-down so the male can proceed.
Female crabs mate only once in their lives (a possible explanation for their, um, crabbiness), but there an upside. The act of copulation can last up to twelve hours. Once passed on, male sperm is viable to the female for the rest of her life and she may produce more than a dozen broods over the next couple of years. Pregnant crabs are known as sponge crabs, a term that describes the orange mass they carry outside their aprons. Out of one million hatched eggs, only one will survive the fungal infections, stagnant water suffocations, exposures to extreme temperatures and predations that are ominous threats. While it may appear the odds are low that larvae will mature through the juvenile to adult stage, they have found a way to endure. Blue crabs have been around for perhaps a million years.
After mating, a female crab migrates a short distance to an area of high salinity to brood and—as a stay-at-home mom—remains there for rest of her life, hoping for a someday visit from her young. The male, far less inclined to cut the mustard as a parent, has nothing to do with his offspring from this point on, not even sticking around to witness the release of larvae and their outward rides on currents to the ocean where they won’t return until they’ve grown and molted several times.
The gadabout male crab is non-directional, and while he is courteous enough to remain with the female long enough for her to regain her hardened shell, remaining in the post-copulatory embrace for protective purposes, he then moves on to other females in other estuaries. Essentially he loves and leaves. It takes the insatiable male ten to twenty days to recharge its sperm stores.
Back in the day, Barbara and Lucia would put their caught crabs into a bucket, and once the second one of the day had been dropped in, the fights would begin (applying the descriptor “crabby” to humans may have originated with blue crabs). Whether male or female, they would go at it with prickly dispositions so nasty that crabs would be killed or de-clawed by the strongest in the bucket. Crabbers in the know might place thick seaweed between caught crabs, providing the barrier needed to keep them off one another. Barbara and Lucia usually scolded the crustaceans and shook the bucket around enough to dislodge them from one another. Once in a while, fortified by the wine they had been drinking, they got brave enough to separate them with their hands. A trickle of human blood usually ensued.
In the wild, crabs might fight over food, space, mates or just because and when they do, the weaker crab can, as a last defense, self-sacrifice a limb to avoid capture. This mechanism allows a crab to release an appendage that will be regenerated later. In fact, 25% of all blue crabs are either missing or in the process of regenerating a limb.
My mother used to let me wander alone in the Swifts Neck cove in Wareham when I was boy. Net in hand, I spent hours slogging through the mud looking for blue crabs. I wasn’t interested in eating them then, with immature, unrefined tastes. But I loved getting after them. When I’d bring three or four home and drop the bucket on the kitchen counter I was a proud hunter and my mother the appreciative cook. “Very, very nice,” she’d say. “Your father and I can eat these tonight.”
All these years later just the thought of tasting blue crab stimulates my adult sense of taste and makes me hungry. I feel a pull from the ocean tide and a desire to get down there and get busy. The blue crab season is open, and lasts from May through December. I’ve noticed that the last three or four years it’s been pretty good for crabbing in Wareham, with warming ocean waters perhaps factoring in to the resurgence of the crab population.
I collect my net and bucket and pull on a pair of rubber scuba boots. At low tide, I’ll head to a cove nearby—I can’t refer to it by name, exactly, it’s our family’s top-secret spot—and see what the day might provide. “Gone crabbin’” is all I write on the note. They’ll know where I am, how long I might be gone and that most certainly there’ll be crabs on the table later. And it won’t be Crab Imperial or Crab Boule or Lime Aioli Crab Cake. Twenty minutes of steaming and we’ll be ready to go.
David Paling is a freelance writer. His work has appeared in more than 75 regional and national publications.