The Flavors of Summer
Memories of Tastes
I've been thinking about crabs for weeks. Could this be astrological, considering that yet another Cancerian birthday is just around the corner? Or is it that crabs, like me, never approach their goals directly, but sideways, pretending they're really headed somewhere else? Nah, I don't think so. It's about food. It's always about food. I simply love the taste of crab. Particularly in the summer, I want to eat as much as I can and in all conceivable forms -- Maryland crab cakes, soft-shelled crab po' boys, giant Dungeness crabs from the Pacific, stone crab claws from South Florida, Singapore chili crab. My first love, however, remains the small but succulent blue crabs of the Gulf Coast.
Catching Blue Crabs
My godparents had a little camp house on Galveston Bay, complete with a long pier out into the calm gray-brown waters. Less than an hour from the sweltering city, they boated and fished and swam and enjoyed the saline Gulf breezes. It was paradise for an urban kid like me, even if that vast expanse of water was definitely daunting.
In those innocent days, coast-dwellers happily consumed the bay's bounty -- fish, oysters, shrimp, crabs -- with nary a thought to the nearby oil and chemical refineries, and what they might be contributing to the underwater ecosystem.
A visit to the bay house always included crabbing from the pier, a task that even a small child could pull off with aplomb. I found it a minor miracle that such good eating could be had by merely tying smelly raw chicken parts on a long string, dangling them into the water, and netting up the greedy little crustaceans that inevitably appeared.
In short order, these curiously prehistoric-looking creatures were consigned to the boiling pot where, as they turned from bright blue to red and pink, they were transformed from a teeming roil of threatening pinchers into a heavenly, if labor-intensive, dinner. Everyone was supposed to crack and pick their own crabmeat, but as I struggled with hammer, pliers, and pick, the adults invariably took pity on my inept efforts and slipped me luscious, shell-free mouthfuls.
A few summers ago, I visited friends in a rented house in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. One, an equally passionate crab aficionado, has been known to judge a restaurant solely upon the ratio of crabmeat and breading in the crab cakes. Well, we were at the beach and of one mind; we wanted to catch crabs. After a trip to the market for a package of chicken necks and to the Wal-Mart for a ball of string, a plastic bucket, and a $3.95 crab net, we were all set.
We cruised the island until we found a likely spot -- an uninhabited pier extending far into the unruffled bay waters. No gates, no keep-off signs; it was meant to be. And, as if there had been no 30-year hiatus, my crab-catching technique resurfaced. Belly down on the pier, chicken dangling in the clear water, we were excited as any 5-year-olds, observing our lively little blue prey circling the bait -- one, two, sometimes three at once. Within an hour, we had handily scooped up 35 Chesapeake cousins of my beloved Gulf Coast crabs. Sunburned and mightily pleased, we hauled our bucket of bounty home.