I have always loved crabbing. Even way back in the barefoot days when we went to Pawleys Island, I was the one who would anxiously await the up tide so that I could go out on the dock in the creek behind Newcastle and spend the day catching crabs. I don’t know what my older brother and sister did to fill the time, but I was happy having them help me or just being out there by myself –– pulling the string with my left hand and scooping the net with my right.
In my experience, crabbing always had more action than surf fishing. Plus, the marsh seemed more scenic with the tidal flats, marsh grasses, marsh hens cackling, and herons and egrets feeding along the banks. The sight of black skimmers provided a special treat as they swept down the creek and skimmed the water with their lower bills in search of food. One could do worse than to sit on a dock or relax in a boat along the creeks on a pretty day with the end result being a tasty shellfish dinner.
It was a much simpler time then. We did not have organized activities scheduled during our summer weeks or early fall weekends at the beach. Except for the possibility of a trip to Brookgreen Gardens, we spent our time either crabbing or on the beach. We swam, body surfed, and walked along the beach looking for wing shells. There were no video games or TVs, no trip to the shops, no golf or tennis –– just beach time. We did not even have a refrigerator, just an old ice box with a large block of ice and an ice pick if you wanted ice chips in your drink. Those old ice picks always looked a little scary to me as a child, and they even look a little scary now as an adult.
We are so lucky to have the many natural treasures that South Carolina offers. How could anyone want to live anywhere else? Callinectes sapidus, the scientific name for blue crabs, describes perfectly South Carolina’s tasty crustacean. Callinectes means beautiful swimmer, and sapidus means savory. Blue crabs are still plentiful along our coast and range from Cape Cod to Argentina and into the Gulf of Mexico. They spend most of their lives in the brackish water in estuaries and move out to saltier water just for breeding. Females mate only once but can brood repeatedly, producing two million eggs per brood. Initially, crabs were not part of a large fishery because they spoiled easily; consequently, the industry did not grow until the time of refrigeration. The largest blue crab fishery is now in Louisiana, where a majority of the crabs are shipped to Maryland and sold as Chesapeake Bay crabs.
Blue crabs can grow up to 9 inches across the carapace, with males growing larger and having more meat than females. Males have blue claws with red tips, while females have an orange coloration with purple tips. However, the easiest way to tell males, or “Jimmie” crabs, from females is to simply turn them over. No need for a class in sex-ed to figure out which is which. The male abdomen, or apron, is long and slender, while the female apron is wide and rounded, and it opens up to carry the eggs.
In contrast to the bells and whistles of off-shore boating, crabbing is such an easy and inexpensive outing. Just grab a bucket, some string, a dip net, weights, and a pack or two of chicken necks. The dip net is $7.99, string and weights are $2.59 for each set, the chicken necks are around a dollar a pack, and a deep bucket is easy to find at a construction site, or just use an empty pickle container from a deli. The only other items needed are sunscreen, a hat, and sunglasses. An old straw hat with a wide brim is the best for crabbing as it blocks sun, plus, it lets you look the part of a native crabber. Throw everything in the bucket, grab the net, and head off to the marsh.
Crabbing can be accomplished alone, but company is always more fun. Besides, it helps to have a “string man” and a “net man.” The string man must patiently ease the bait and crab up from the bottom, and the net man must not be too slow –– and certainly not jerky –– but confident, controlled, and deliberate in his sweep with the net to bring the crab in. You only get one chance at netting crabs as they will disappear for the rest of the day if you miss.
I have always had a healthy respect for crabs and their ability to “get you” with their claws. Georgia Herbert, my grandmother, had a scar on her pinkie finger from her youth that she carried her whole life from a crab. If looking at the scar and hearing the story were not enough, she told us kids that if a crab “got you,” it would not let go until it thundered. To a little boy that sounded like a really long time.
Mess with a small crab in a net to learn first-hand how aggressive it can be. When you catch tiny crabs in the process of catching larger ones, try to untangle a silver-dollar-sized crab from the net with bare hands and see what happens if it latches on. The experience will be like sticking a finger in a light socket. No matter how small you were, you know that you will never do that again.
Part of the experience of crabbing included walking down the wooden boardwalk from our cottage, feeling the rough boards under our feet, and hoping not to hit a wayward nail or a splinter. We then crossed the parking lot of shell sand, kicking up the dust and getting it between our toes. Crossing the asphalt road, both coarse and hot, made us jump quickly to another old wooden boardwalk on the other side of the dock. Would we remember our youth so fondly if we had had shoes on?
I predominantly crabbed from the creek dock, but since I enjoyed the activity so much, my parents arranged a crabbing outing with Luther, an old man native to Pawleys Island who crabbed from his small wooden boat, barely covered with peeling green paint. He wore a wide straw hat and had leathery skin from his years in the sun. After cranking his 9 horsepower motor, we puttered into the marsh, anchored, and dropped chicken necks over the boat’s edge. The unsettling thing was that as we caught the crabs, Luther dropped them from the net into the boat bottom among our bare feet. I never did say anything to him about my fear of getting pinched, but I spent the whole day wondering when a big crab was going to latch onto my toe.
When catching crabs, adhere to a size minimum of 5 inches across the carapace from point to point. Not only is keeping them against the law, but small crabs do not have enough meat to warrant picking. Personally, I always throw back the females. The female crab does not carry the volume of meat a male does, and she can produce two million eggs per brood. That is a lot of future crabs for our children and grandchildren to catch!
There are proper ways to handle caught crabs. Since they spoil quickly, most people keep them alive until cooking. I have found that putting live crabs on ice works best for my conscience; I clean them once the crabs are lethargic from the cold. I also clean them on site because little fish nibble on bits thrown back into the water. After cleaning, keep crabs on ice until cooking.
If you are determined to throw live crabs into boiling water, know what you are getting into. The idea is to let the water boil, grab each crab with tongs, and drop the crabs into the water in quick succession to ensure equal cooking time. What actually happens is that the first crab grabs the tongs and holds on for dear life while the other crabs grab him and each other. As the crabs are lifted out of the bucket, they let go, fall onto the kitchen counter, run for their lives, and disappear. Pandemonium ensues as children scream, dogs bark, and control is lost. Once the crabs are miraculously in the pot with “crab boil” for flavoring, leave them at a brisk boil for 5 minutes. Then pour the crabs into a colander, put ice on top for cooling, and let the picking begin! Get out your small metal crab picks and an old fashioned wooden mallet and get to work.
One option is to enjoy a crab boil meal sitting around the table on the porch with everyone picking and eating their own crabs as they go. Be sure to spread out a thick layer of newspaper and pour the crabs in a pile in the middle of the table. Have plenty of serrated knives for cutting off the knuckles and crackers for eating the claws. If you are picking the crabs for another dish or to eat later, try to pick with company as it eases the work, provides a social time, and spreads the blame if stray shells are found while eating. There is a point in picking when you wonder if the labor is worth your efforts, but when the eating begins, all thought of the tedious picking is easily forgotten.
There are many ways to prepare crab meat, but an old-fashioned crab cake is hard to beat. When you need help with cooking, go to an authority. I called my gourmet friend, Howard Stravitz, and he consulted with Blake Faires, executive chef at 116 Espresso and Wine Bar in West Columbia. The pair generously provided the crab cake recipe as well as wine suggestions. So chill a bottle or two of Meursault, Chassagne –– Montrachet, Chablis, or Muscadet, and start preparing what should be a wonderful dinner.
One last tip. When making crab cakes, be sure to prepare one extra per person to be served for lunch the next day. Work in the yard and come in all hot and sweaty. Then sit down to a crab cake sandwich on a hamburger bun with mayonnaise, lettuce, a vine-ripe South Carolina tomato, and a really good, cold beer. My mouth is watering as I write this.
Look at the amount of pleasure this whole process entails –– fun and excitement in the catching, company in the picking, and as good as it gets in the eating. Yes, Robert Frost, one could do worse than be a swinger of birches. Or in our case, a catcher of blue crabs.
2 pounds jumbo lump crab meat
3 ounces Dukes mayonnaise
3 ounces whole grain mustard
1 1/2 ounces Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon chives
1 tablespoon thyme, chopped
1 tablespoon parsley
2 tablespoons smoked paprika
2 ounces Panko bread crumbs
Juice of one lemon
Combine all wet ingredients in a bowl and mix. Gently fold wet ingredients into crab meat. Taste the crab mix. Gently fold Panko crumbs into crab mix. Portion crab cakes to any size. Lightly dredge the outside in Panko crumbs. Cook in preheated sauté pan until brown on both sides. Serves four.