how to catch a crab

Do you know about crabbing? Except for former interns’ raving about it and this post last Christmas, I didn’t. I don’t think I’d ever had crab, except in a crab cake here or there.

But we’ve been initiated.

Twice this week we were invited to go crabbing with people at the church, which allowed us to see two angles on the art of crabbing. Everyone’s routine is different. Some people drop their crab pots at night and get them in the morning. Other people drop them in the morning and pull them up later in the day. Some drop the pots, boat around for an hour or two, and then pull them up in time for dinner. For bait, people use raw chicken or clams that they’ve dug or shrimp or salmon. There are green buoys and white buoys and red buoys with white stripes and flags.

After launching the boat, you navigate to some cove or spot where you know the crabs to be especially prolific. You toss out your crab pot, which looks nothing like a pot and everything like a cage, and feed the rope, which might be as long as 100 feet, down into the water. When you run out of rope, you throw the buoy in after it. Then you remember where you left it.

Later, hoping no one has robbed your pots, you go back to where you think you dropped them, and you prepare to pull them up. You snap on the pulley system, shimmy your hands into gloves, grab a few buckets, keep your crab ruler nearby. Whoever is driving steers the boat as close as possible to the buoy so you can reach it, but there’s a chance you’ll miss and will have to circle back around and line it up again.

When you have the rope in hand, you thread it onto the pulley and start hauling up the pot. If the wind and tides and currents are in your favor, you’ll have little resistance. You peer into the water, watching as the pot emerges out of the murky depths and suddenly rises out of the water, dripping seawater and, with any luck, crawling with crabs.

After knocking open the top, you reach into the clawing mess and pull out a crab by its hind legs, which is the best way to prevent the crab from pinching your hand. If it’s a male (you can tell by its narrower pelvic bone, at least on Dungeness crab), hard-shell (there’s probably a trick to identifying this, but I don’t know it), and more than six and a quarter inches, you can keep it. The rest you toss back, their legs splayed like a sunburst, lucky for now.

Once you’ve collected the limit (5 per licensed person), you head to shore and let your hunger grow.

The methods for killing, cleaning, and cooking crab differ widely and are no less horrifying in person, although telling yourself that God made crabs for eating soothes your conscience enough to watch and maybe help.

One of our friends likes to keep the crabs whole for presentation’s sake, so he smashes the crab head first onto a brick to loosen the shell and then guts them.

Another friend pries off the shell, peels off the gills, and then whacks the crab in two with a cleaver.

His friend stopped over while we were cleaning the crab and explained his method, which involves grasping the crab’s legs with both hands and then smashing it over the edge of a bucket to break the body.

When the crabs are clean, you set a pot over a propane burner, fill it with seawater or water salted enough to mimic seawater, and bring it to a rowdy boil. Then you toss in the crabs. There’s a good chance that, dead though they are, their legs will twitch as they hit the water. Keep reminding yourself that God made crabs for eating.

For the next fifteen minutes, you sit outside, drinking coffee and eating scones and recalling the time someone robbed your pots and left you a six pack of beer in place of the crab.

Once the crab is cooked, you head inside to an array of pliers, nutcrackers, picks, bowls, and plates, and you get as much meat out of the crab as you can manage. If you’re hungry, dip the hot crab in melted butter. Or eat it straight. Or try to resist so that you can make crab cakes and open-face crab sandwiches and crab dip later.

Then thank the Lord for making crabs.

Buttermilk Scones

adapted from Simply Scones

Scones are simple and they travel well. I mixed and baked these before we left for crabbing in the morning, so they’re really no trouble. The original recipe calls for 2 cups of white flour, but I used half white, half whole wheat. I also used rapadura in place of the sugar. (I’m linking to Amazon here, but I’m sure you can get it in bulk from a local co-op or natural foods store.) It’s the first time I’ve used it—it’s a unrefined sugar, similar to sucanat except that the molasses in the cane is never separated from the sugar—and it acted just the way sugar would. For the buttermilk: as usual, I didn’t have any, so I made my own by combining 1/2 tablespoon of vinegar (lemon juice works, too) and a scant 1/2 cup of milk and letting it sit for a few minutes.

1 cup white flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
1/3 cup sugar
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
6 Tbsp. unsalted chilled butter
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 egg
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
2/3 cup golden raisins or other dried fruit

Preheat the oven to 400°F.

In a medium-large bowl, mix together the dry ingredients: flours, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt.

Cut in the butter.

In a smaller bowl, combine the buttermilk, egg, and vanilla. Stir the wet mixture into the dry. Then mix in the raisins.

On an ungreased cookie sheet or baking stone, flatten the dough into an eight-inch round about an inch thick. Keep it fairly flat, or the middle will bulge and take longer to bake.

Sprinkle a couple teaspoons of sugar over the top, and cut the circle into eight wedges. Bake for 18–20 minutes until the top is golden and the edges are crisp. Check for doneness with a knife or toothpick. If it comes out clean, you’re set!

Let the scones cool slightly, wrap them in a cloth, and eat them while you’re waiting for the crab to boil, or take them on a picnic, or just leisurely nibble them with coffee at breakfast.

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6 thoughts on “how to catch a crab

  1. I was catching up on your blog posts and thought “oooh, scones sound yummy” when I read this post so I decided to give them a try. I used calamansi (the Filipino version of lemon or lime-tiny little round green fruits, about an inch wide) with the milk to substitute for buttermilk, and added a little cinnamon. Yummy! 🙂

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  4. I seek out this recipe every time I have a carton of buttermilk waiting in the fridge. I’ve taken to dividing two smaller rounds of dough into 8 wedges each, so the goodness lasts longer. Thanks for sharing, Grace!

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