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©February 2000

Carol Jane Remsburg



How to Pick a Crab



Someone wrote me a little ways back about an article I'd written last summer.  Oh, it was a nice "thank you" sort of thing, but it was also a plea for help.  Her name is Kimberly.  She was asking how to 'shake' or 'shell' a bluecrab.  Well, I'll admit I don't know how to 'shake or shell' but I do know how to 'pick' one.  Her terms were more accurate although I've never called it anything else but "pickin'."  At first I thought this would be an easy thing to explain.  However without the visuals it can be difficult.  My lack of artistic skills warrants some really in-depth explanations.  So, Kimberly, if you will be patient I'll do my very best to be precise without the vocals and the mini-cam. 


First of all there are a certain set of prerequisites that I will lay down before we even address the 'steamed' crab.  Please note that I don't say 'boiled' or 'cooked' because those terms are for an even more southern way of cooking that will turn the delicate crabmeat of a Chesapeake Bay bluecrab into mush or into something tough and inedible.  Then there are the spices involved.  So I must give you some guidelines or it isn't worth picking the crab to begin with.  Of course you need a big pot to steam them, some water, not a huge amount—don't cover the crabs—an inch or two is plenty.  You need some salt, some Old Bay seasoning or some Wye Mills Crab seasoning, a pint or two of vinegar, and a can or bottle of your fav beer—you can pass on the beer if you like—it makes no real difference in the outcome, yet some folks swear by it.


This is for ½ to 1 bushel of lively crabs.  Don't put a crab into the pot that doesn't try to pinch the hell out of you.  A dead crab tastes nasty—no matter what you sprinkle on it or dip it into. 


Put them in the pot, sprinkle liberally with seasoning—as they won't let you sprinkle much, smash the lid on and weight it down.  Otherwise the feisty little buggers will scramble out of the pot.  They aren't that stupid.  Turn on the heat to full blast and steam for 15-20 minutes—not much more because if you do, they won't be worth eating.


Now dump them out upon a big back porch table covered heavily in old newspapers—it's cheaper that way.  Go into the kitchen and melt some butter.  Please notice that I didn't say margarine or oleo or any of that stupid fat-free stuff.  I did say 'butter.'  The salted kind is best.  Put the melted butter into little bowls for dipping.  You'll also need a second set of bowls for some cider vinegar.  Yes, I did say 'cider vinegar.'  This is also excellent for dipping your crabmeat into—yet most of us crack the claws and dump them in to soak up that vinegar for later consumption.  It's awesome.  My child cannot get enough.


Other accoutrements necessary for the table enabling easy consumption and full enjoyment are:  several rolls of paper towels, one or two very large trash cans in close proximity—like standing next to said table, mallets or the reverse ends of heavy table knives to use as a hammer, and for each person a very good paring knife or something approximating that size.  Oh, they have crab knives but you don't need them.  A heavy-duty paring knife with a good edge is wonderful—just don't be clumsy or you'll end up slicing your tongue when you stick the meat in your mouth.  You also need a firm hand and grip—nothing ventured, nothing gained.  Picking crabs isn't for the frail or the timid. 


Finally, do NOT forget your beverage of choice.  Somehow iced tea doesn't do it.  Even though I love iced tea, picking crabs is like playing in the mud.  You have to get down and dirty—plenty of ice cold beer is a requirement.  You will be at this table for a long time and it's not something that you sit and "go" from—at least not to anywhere else without a hot shower for the scent of crab lingers.  Having good buddies and conversation will make this a memorable occasion.  Remember this is an event—or should be if it's done properly.


Now it's time to pick your crab.  Sigh . . .!


I've done everything I can do up to this point to avoid the actual dismemberment of a blue crab.  Actually, it's very easy.  However describing it is a challenge—even to a writer.  I will take this step-by-step.  Trust me, I'll bore you, but it will be very detailed.  Guilt by not writing Kimberly back immediately is what is driving me.  Okay?


First of all, please say you are right-handed because all of these instructions are for a 'righty' and not a 'lefty.'  If you are a 'lefty' do the converse—or just bloody "go for it."  Okay?


Lay that fat warm blue crab in your right hand.  You put him in your right hand so that the thumb of your right hand rests upon the crab's left-end fin—the one that's rounded so the face of the crab faces you.  (Are we being precise enough yet?)


Then, put your left hand across its body like an evangelist saying a prayer—you cover the whole crab with your hand.  Your left thumb will instinctively loop around it's left point of the outer shell as if you want to rip it's top off.  You are there!  Press down with your right thumb and pull up with your left thumb.  You will have parted that crab from his top shell.  Now we are cookin' with gas. 


Now what you will see is an ugly piece of business; the bluecrab's innards.  Don't worry, you don't have to play with that just yet.  First, rip its legs off—all of them.  During this procedure you will likely pull out a goodly chunk of meat—dip in either the butter or vinegar and plop it into your mouth.  More work is ahead.


Once you've ripped his little legs off, then go for its face.  Take that sharp knife and cut it away.  No this isn't for the shy or the retiring—remember the little bugger is dead and won't feel a thing.  Kids are great at this, most haven't learned any compassion yet.  So think of someone you really hate and the rest will come easily.


Once you do this you are now staring at a smallish two-sided thingy with yucky stuff in the middle.  Take that knife and scrape out all the loose stuff.  Then you will notice the lungs or the "deadman's fingers" on the outer hull of those two sides.  They lay on top of that inside of the shell—this is the only part really not recommended for consumption.  Pull or scrape them off.  Then, along the outer sides, cut away those knuckle joints with the knife.  This is where most of your hand strength will come into play.  Once this is done you will be really ready to get into the heart of the crab.


You have two sides.  Go to the middle part that's empty of its innards and with your knife cut sideways to the outside.  Do the same for the other side.  You end up with three pieces.  You'll have a bottom with two sides and two small tops.  Then you take your sharp little knife and dig into the sides pulling out the delicate meat.  With this meat upon your knife you can dip it in either the vinegar or the butter or simply into your mouth.  The first few times you do this it will seem like a futile effort.  Never fear, anyone can do this, it simply takes practice.


With time it can become second nature and loads of fun.  With friends and family and a couple of beers you won't feel either inferior or inept.  You'll simply relax and figure your own way to dig out the meat of the crab.


Please enjoy your crabs for they are special and close to my heart.  The old days of plenty are gone.  The Chesapeake Bay doesn't make what she used to and even when she does, those that devour them usually don't have to work for it any more.  Wasting a crab is a crime—at least for me.  Thank you Kimberly for reminding me. 



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