Beautiful swimmer – that’s the translation of the scientific name for the Delaware Blue Crab – callinectes sapidus. In high summer, catching, cooking and picking these feisty creatures is a fine art practiced along bays and inlets up and down the Delmarva Peninsula.
Thirty minutes after sunrise. With the water still like glass it’s time to head out. Approaching the shallow crabbing boat, something splashes at the edge of low tide and scrambling sand crabs brandish their claws.
Having divined where the crabs are hiding in the murky water we drop our lines laden with chicken necks. Waves hypnotically lap against the boat. Time and distractions do not exist. The sun beats down mercilessly. We wait, a wooden basket and long handled net at the ready. A book in hand, we catnap. Crabing is easy. Our arms are our fishing poles. The bait is the chicken neck, cast out gently. We relax while anticipating that exhilarating tug on the line and the excitement that ensues. Some days the tug doesn’t come but it can be a successful day anyway. The freedom of being out on the water with the quiet camaraderie of a fishing buddy can be enough.
On days when the crabs are biting, snaring them can be an adventure. It takes practice. They are smart, so we have to be fast. Sometimes we miss, accidentally dropping a crab into the boat, next to barefoot toes. Then someone must be brave enough to pick up the crab by its back feelers while it is pinching away. Finally we fill the basket and head to shore, crabs stowed away under layers of damp seaweed.
The art of preparing crabs is a diverse as the people who catch them. Most drop them into a pot of boiling water. Some spear them and remove the hard back shell before cooking. Everyone uses some variation of Old Bay Seasoning, which smells like the sea. The spice blend originated in nearby Baltimore in the 1930’s, developed by a German immigrant named Gustov Brunn. In those days crabs were so plentiful that taverns served them for free, liberally sprinkled with Old Bay to encourage beer consumption. The mix features hot pepper flakes, paprika, dry mustard, salt, black pepper, cloves, allspice, nutmeg, cardoman and ginger. The distinctive bright yellow cans grace many a kitchen shelf in the summer months.
Once cooked, the crabs’ brilliant blue claws turn bright orange and we eagerly take our seats at tables spread with old newspapers. There is no definitive method for eating crabs, but the universal rule is that every last morsel must be consumed, from the premium back claws, extracted like lollypops, to the tiny bits sucked out from swimmer claws.
Wooden hammers at the ready and a roll of paper towels nearby, we begin. Some eat through their pile of crabs one at a time, devouring the delicate white flesh. Others, more patient, clean five or six at time before feasting, assembling a towering mound of crabmeat to savor.
Crabbing is the foundation of many a family tradition in Delaware. Of course, we could get them already cooked from roadside stands, but these never taste as good or fresh as the ones we catch ourselves.
Crab Dipping Sauce
1/3 cup vinegar
¾ cup beer
½ tbs Old Bay Seasoning
1 tbs sugar
Bring ingredients to a boil for 5 minutes. Turn down and simmer for 10 minutes. Cool and refrigerate in a glass container. Dip crab meat into the sauce while eating.