I spent six hours in a 1987 Mercedes with no air conditioning on the hottest day ever recorded in the State of Maryland — but I remained in good spirits. While we baked in the car, a Maryland Blue Crab was steaming in a pot, somewhere, for me.
‘Tis the season for Maryland Blue Crab, Callinectes sapidus. According to Wikipedia, callinectes means “beautiful swimmer,” sapidus, “savory.” Avowing its deliciousness in its scientific name creates great expectations. So covetous are Marylanders of their state crustacean that the birthday party I attended was set for when crab would be at its peak — in Cancer, appropriately — disregarding the birth certificate of the Virgo honoree.
The Maryland Blue Crab ritual is mysterious to a Northerner. In my experience, round tables seating eight were covered in heavy brown paper taped to the tablecloth. There was a napkin and plastic bib decorated with tiny red crabs at each place setting, and a supplemental jumbo roll of paper towels to share. Corralled near a wall were makeshift wastebaskets, plastic grocery bags lining paper ones, to be placed on the floor between diners. All indicated this could get messy.
Two four-ounce clear plastic cups of liquids were apportioned to each diner: one clarified butter, one vinegar. There was a huge cup of Old Bay seasoning with a spoon and the birthday girl encouraged us to swirl it into the vinegar, the way some people incorporate wasabi into their soy sauce.
Finally, the tools: a sturdy plastic knife and a small wooden mallet. We became a crab cabal, bibs on, knife in one hand, mallet in the other, plotting the swift consumption of what was to come.
They came from a large cardboard box via silver tongs, fire engine red. Like lobsters, they’re only blue before cooking. The tongs bearer deposited a baker’s dozen in a mid-table heap. They were warm and already had a dusting of Old Bay on their shells.
It was every crab eater for himself. But where to begin?
“Just take yer little hammer, beat it and eat it, darlin’,” was the first piece of advice I received.
I tried. I can break down a lobster pretty well with my hands, but I soon learned not all arthropods are created equal. A basic whack-a-mole approach was good for extracting the meat from the largest legs and claws, not much else. The crab body, which holds most of the meat, remained a mystery.
The birthday girl took pity on me and offered an impromptu lesson. Crabs, which really should come with pictorial paper instructions like a bookcase, are easy to disassemble. You can start by removing the legs or not. The most important thing to do is flip the crab over, so its white underbelly is facing you. On male crabs, there’s a tab called an apron that you can’t miss.
Pry up the tab with a knife or a fingernail and pull it off. The removal of the tab creates a slot between the top and bottom of the shell. Insert your knife into the slot, turn it 45 degrees and upper shell pops open like the hood of a car. Remove it.
You’re left with a chitinous mass with soft, feathery “dead man’s fingers” on one side. Those are the lungs. Remove them. You may remove the big yellow mass, the “mustard” (digestive system) — though it is considered a delicacy. Then crack the body in two and suck out the meat.
Sweet and succulent, there is nothing like fresh Maryland crab. It tastes lighter and cleaner than lobster. It is a transcendent food.
With the amount of time and effort it takes to get at the meat (approximately 15 percent of each crab is edible), you could eat it all night and still have the room and desire for more.
That’s where Old Bay comes in to slow you down. Allspice, bay leaf, black pepper, cardamom, celery seed, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, mustard, nutmeg, paprika, red pepper and a metric ton of salt, it’s spike strips for your taste buds. The Old Bay vinegar tasted great — tangy, spicy and complex — but after four crabs dipped in it, my lips were swollen. I had to drink six glasses of lemonade.
After all that work I was told that, yes, these are the same crabs Northerners know as soft shells when they’re molting in May. After a quick cleaning by the staff at Gadaleto’s, I can eat damn near the whole crab in the comfort of my dining room, no fuss, no muss. Furthermore, why drive five hours down to Maryland for a fresh crab when you can drive five hours up to Maine for a lobster?
Because when it comes to taste, steamed Maryland Blue Crab blows the competition out of the water.++