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Gift from the sea

(article, Jes Burns)

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She loved them with a coastal passion, but Grandmama refused to cook blue crabs. Coming from a woman who liked to eat the unskinned squirrels our cats killed, this always seemed a bit incongruous.

Once I asked her why she didn’t cook live crabs. She looked at me — a 13-year-old her own height — with a direct and even stare. 

“You know they scream when they hit the boiling water?” she demanded.

I knew.

[%image feature-image float=right width=400 caption="A blue crab on a fishing dock." credit="Photo: iStockphoto/pelicankate"]

Growing up on the salt marsh near the tidal creeks of South Carolina, I often ate fish, shrimp, oysters, or crabs; they were always caught, netted, harvested, or trapped by my family. The fish was freshest in the summer: channel bass (spot tail), blackfish, King and Spanish mackerel, the occasional dolphin — and also a healthy dose of freshwater catfish and rockfish (striped bass). 

The recreational shrimp season ran from September to November, and the oysters were good to harvest in any month ending in an “R.” Once or twice a year, we’d make a pilgrimage to the Florida Keys to catch stone crab, lobster, and snapper. 

We’d eat some of the seafood fresh but, like avid gardeners, we’d put up much of the harvest to use year-round. Bringing in the catch was always a family affair.

A couple of times a month during the long Carolina summers, my dad would bait the crab trap tied to my uncle’s dock. The rule stood unspoken: If you provided the bait — ideally oily mackerel carcasses from the week’s fishing trip — you kept the crabs. In two days, the trap was ready to be checked, and as I grew older, that responsibility often fell to me. 

The trap was heavy in the swift current, and my hands would get slimy on the rope as I strained to pull it out of the creek. It was 10 feet from the pluff-mud bottom to the water’s surface, and another 15 feet swinging and banging against the pilings, until I heaved it over the edge of the dock, careful not to grab the cage near angry claws. 

Sometimes I’d find two blue-clawed crabs staring back at me, clamping the wire cage in defiance. Other times, I’d find 27, crawling and scurrying over each other like overgrown insects in a horror movie. 

Transferring the crabs from trap to five-gallon bucket required feats of strength, dexterity, and balance I never quite mastered. Inevitably, a crab or two would escape, and I’d have to pounce to step on their backs before they made their way over the dock's edge and back into the water. 

When I got home, mud-spattered and smelling of the sea, my mom would immediately put a giant black pot on to boil. The crabs blew saline bubbles in the bucket and attacked the tongs grabbing for them. When my mom finally managed to seize one, she’d flip it into the simmering water.

One by one, you’d hear them: screams. 

A screaming crab may seem like a strange nugget of coastal lore, but it’s actually scientific fact: When a live blue crab at room temperature finally lets go of the tongs and drops into angrily boiling water, the gas in its abdomen immediately expands and leaks out tiny openings in its body cavity, creating a high-pitched, far-away sounding “eeeeeeeeeeee.” 

In layman’s terms: They scream.

It’s a sound that makes you squirm, because it’s the sound of death. I listened to the crabs wailing and knew, in my own gut, why Grandmama didn't want to cook crabs. I could will myself to stay in the kitchen, but not to actually drop the crabs in the pot. 

Because the sound of death is also the sound of dinner. When you hear that scream, it means the crab is fresh. If you’ve ever had crab at a restaurant that tasted slightly of ammonia, rest assured that the crab you ate didn’t scream when it hit the bubbling water; it was probably already dead. Good blue crab hinges on the scream. No scream, no fabulous-tasting crab.

Blue crabs boiling on the stove emit a peculiar smell. It’s sharp and makes your nostrils flare; it’s not just crab, but a concentration of seawater and mud that heightens the intensity of the crab aroma. When the cooking crabs turned from bluish-gray to pinkish-orange, the uncomfortable moment had passed. Now it was Grandmama’s turn. 

Grandmama had grown up on a farm in upstate South Carolina and, at age 75, was still tickled by the sight of free fresh seafood. She practically peeped with excitement. For me, fresh blue crabs were nothing special, but Grandmama never grew complacent. She was always amazed at the bounty, and appreciative of our collective good fortune.

We’d leave the cooked crabs at her apartment overnight to be backed (the removal of the top shell) and cleaned (the removal of the fat, gills, and intestines) — smelly, gooey work that caused my stomach to turn. But Grandmama didn’t mind. It was the dying that bothered her, not the cleaning afterwards.   

When Grandmama was done cleaning the crabs, she would keep as many as she could use. No specific number was ever set, but she was always modest in her take. The next day we’d pick up the rest, a jumble of orange-and-white claws and compact bodies.

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That night, Mom, Dad, and I would sit in the den, tune the TV to a Braves baseball game, spread old newspapers over our laps, and pick clumps of crab meat out of the white angular bodies. After picking out the first few, we’d have basic crab anatomy memorized, and our motions became rote. Our cats stood vigil nearby, hoping for a stray piece of meat to fall their way.

We froze the picked-out crab meat in one- and two-cup quantites, packed in milk.  We ate it in She-Crab Soup, crab cakes, deviled crabs, and crab dip. Occasionally we mixed it with bread crumbs and stuffed it inside mushrooms or flounder. Just writing about it makes my mouth water.

We worked for our food as a family, dividing the labor among the willing and hungry. With the possible exception of my father, we were not self-reliant pioneer types. We harvested our dinner from the ocean because doing so was cheaper, fresher, tastier — and fun. We were back-to-the-oceaners, but for the most pragmatic of reasons. 

As a result, we knew our food on an intimate level. Catching, cooking, cleaning, and eating the crabs were part of the contract we had forged between ourselves and the place we lived. 

Today I live in Eugene, Oregon, about an hour inland from a coast where blue crab isn’t harvested. Dungeness crab is king here, but I haven’t yet learned how to catch my own. Nor have I tried fishing, digging clams, or collecting oysters. There’s a fresh-seafood store six blocks from my house, but smelling that heady combination of 30 different types of seafood, without the immediate undercurrent of warm, salty ocean water, is an alien experience for me.

On the rare occasions that I do buy crab now, I purchase them already cooked and cleaned. I know how to do those parts of the process, but I can’t bring myself to fill the traditional roles of my father, mother, and long-gone grandmother.

Nevertheless, reminders of my coastal heritage arrive regularly. Packages of frozen Charleston shrimp come courtesy of my parents' annual cross-country RV trip. Phone calls from my father tally how many stone-crab claws he bagged while snorkeling. When I visit them in the Keys, I tote vacuum-sealed bags of freshly caught and frozen fish back on the plane, wrapped in newspaper.

On a calm summer day, even the sound and smell of the Pacific Ocean takes me back to my crabbing days. But mostly that western ocean is cold and deep and unfamiliar. And without my family nearby to help out, the bounty of its waters will remain a mystery.  

p(bio). Jes Burns is a writer and radio producer living in Eugene, Oregon. She has a freezer full of Atlantic-caught shrimp, yellowtail, and stone crab.


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