Before reality television, I was aware of Dungeness crab season. The catches then didn’t seem so deadly (although I am sure they were – they just didn’t have cameras to document it) unless you accidently caught your finger in a set of snapping claws, but this thankfully never happened. When it would get really cold and foggy in San Francisco, my mother and I would go to the piers.
Back in the 70s, people went to Fisherman’s Wharf to actually get fish, crab in particular. We would go down to the slippery outdoor markets and my mother would buy a solid dozen writhingly alive deep blue Dungeness crabs, angry to be out of the water and cutting up the air with their scissor claws. They didn’t band them like lobster claws so if you got close enough you could get cut, but the danger of the Dungeness was part of the magic of them. I must have been about 7 or 8 years old but I felt ancient and alive and adult as I helped my mother pick out which crustaceans were going to die for my dinner.
I selected the ones with the fringiest legs, the featherlike hair that grew in whispery lines along the articulated limbs of the crab. To my young mind, this would indicate virility and strength, bigger meat from bigger muscles. My dad told me to get the ones that looked the maddest. I searched their stalk eyes for anger. They all seemed equally pissed off to me. I love the way that crabs look prehistoric and futuristically robotic at the same time. They are armored and they are packing and they need this because they are so sumptuous and delectable inside. The violent world that requires the hard shell and the weapon hands serves forth a delicious meal. Most things from the killing fields of the sea, the brutal ocean floor, taste really fucking good.
The live crabs would be paid for and then plunged into a rusty metal garbage can filled with boiling seawater for mere seconds. When they emerged from the cans, their color had changed to a deep orange red and they were wrapped steaming hot into white paper parcels. I would hold the parcels close to me and feel the warmth from the steam escaping from the crabs insides. I wondered if they were still somehow alive in there, as I let the fishy steam scent my small body in the car on the way home.
The kitchen table would be covered with Korean newspapers and my father laid out several hard rounds of sourdough bread with a refrigerator cold butter stick. The bread and the butter was almost as integral to the meal as the crab itself. You couldn’t have one without the other. The sourness of the bread and the mellow fat of the butter was the perfect compliment to the sweet nut taste of the crab. There was white wine too but I wasn’t interested in that. I am still not. I don’t like white wine, and my dislike is incongruous to my ladylike persona, I know.
There were instruments of extraction lined up next to the bread, surgery style. Nutcrackers stolen from the big bowl of walnuts that lived on the low table in front of the tv, kitchen scissors, a small fork with 3 tines instead of 4, fondue forks finding new life in the fish game, a chopstick here and there just for pushing out – now I forget what else, but I really think but there might have been tweezers in there. I don’t know if this is true, but I wouldn’t put it past my family. We didn’t have a lot of anything, so it was all about getting the most out of what we did have.
My parents would leave the legs and claws to me and I would pick out perfect pieces of crab meat, absolutely intact. This is just one of my strange and obtuse talents, shelling shellfish without flaws. I am so good at this, with my meticulous steady hand and coulda-been-born-swiss-precision – I have supreme concentration and I am in it to win it like I am cracking a safe. I should have a stethoscope, but I wouldn’t need it. I am that good. I showed this off once fairly recently at a fancy seafood bistro in Montreal where the pricey shellfish and champagne came on a tower of ice and polished silver. The other diners around me were breathless as I slipped the shell off of a stone crab claw with the ease of a showgirl stripping off an opera glove. I laid it in the middle of the table like a housecat setting down an offering. The meat was so shiny and red and the act was so impressive no one wanted to eat it so I had to.
My parents didn’t stop at the claws. They would break open the big hard crab body shells, opening the backs underneath the legs like they were changing the crab’s batteries. Brown green crab roe would spurt rudely from the cracks and my parents would suddenly turn primitive and start slurping the roe from out of the shells and I would get scared and stop eating. I still have nightmares about this. My parents then, really just young people, much younger than I am now, cracking crabs with superhuman immigrant strength to suck up the fishy gritty guts of the thing. Sometimes they would cut their mouths on the sharp shards of crab shell, the crustaceans small revenge, and the blood would mix with the roe and they would leave miniature red brown smiles of the mixture on their wineglasses. This is probably why I don’t like white wine, and I never developed a taste for that part of the crab. I leave that to the strong.