Crab Season

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.

17 thoughts on “Crab Season

  1. Yum! What a wonderful memory. Should you ever be so inclined, a really great ride on a motorcycle is along Hood Canal in Washington State, and if you do it during Dungeness season, you can buy crab fresh along the road (as well as smoked salmon, oysters, etc.). Bring the rustic bread and the butter (though sometimes when it’s that fresh, it almost tastes like it’s buttered). Thanks for this great blog – takes me out of the snow and ice….

  2. What a great story. Reminds me of summers at my grandmother’s, out on Long Island when it was still sparsely populated. We would go out in a rowboat at the local marina and set crab traps and days later, return to get them, filled with blue claw crabs. When we returned to the house, they would be cooked in the kitchen in the garage (too messy for her super immaculate house) and made into the most delicious spicy sauce to eat with spaghetti. I was a city kid, do I thought this was the most wonderful exotic thing in the world! And in retrospect, all these years later, I still do.

  3. I love this story, love how other people have tactile memories involving San Francisco and things their parents did that made everything more exotic, more meaningful, than if I did them now myself. Makes me wonder what memories like this my son will have in the years ahead… Thanks for your excellent story-telling, MC. Love you even more.

  4. The green stuff isn’t roe, and it is illegal to take females, at least in Washington State, so we never get crab roe. The green or yellow stuff is the green glands, somewhat similar in function to our kidneys. Do I have to spell it out?

    My Korean/Japanese wife, Irene Namkung, mixes the crab green glands with mayonnaise and uses it as a sauce. I use chili sauce with horseradish as a sauce. I’m not partial to the crab green gland sauce, but I do use lobster green glands to bind the breadcrumb stuffing for broiled lobsters.


  5. Makes me want to get myself some Dungeness crab! Your story really brought to life the whole delicious, gritty, but wonderful experience. Great piece of writing! When it comes down to it, we are just animals eating animals. But that isn’t the whole story. When I was a kid, crabs were scary. I was sure I’d get pinched.

  6. Wonderful descriptive writing, I am hungry for crabs just from reading it, thank you. If you ever want to ride your 1966 Honda 305 Dream in a cool place that has wonderful seafood,
    please come to the Lone Star Rally in Galveston, Tx next Fall.
    All the best,

  7. I always thought the whole extraction process of crabmeat was a fool’s game when I was younger. All that work for tiny pockets of meat, however sweet they were, just was not a good value prop. Even when I re-visited crabbery while in Baltimore, the Bay Seasoning wasn’t enough to satiate my needs. Anyway, lobster is king & queen in New England!

    But dear Allah, the way my parents eat that crab roe, you’d think it was crack.

  8. Awesome story. As much as I love crab legs, I’m the exact opposite when it comes to shelling. It’s always a gory mess with bits of everything flying everywhere lol

  9. I remember being in a restaurant in Miami once and asking what kind of crab they were featuring. They said “delicious Dungeness crab!” and I laughed and laughed and laughed and laughed and ordered a grilled cheese. Dungeness crabs are bad mammajammas and all, but I’d rather not have West Coast crab on the East Coast. (REPRESENT) (kidding)

  10. This post totally reminds me of our family crabbing outings! It could be a written account from my own life. Only difference was we used Chinese newspapers instead of Korean ones. I’m also super talented at getting perfect, intact pieces of crab meat from the shell – a skill I still have 🙂 My parents would brag about this talent to relatives & their friends, also adding that I was the neatest crab eater ever – I only ate them using my two thumbs & index fingers.
    I can relate to the nightmares of crab guts. My parents, especially my Dad loved to eat those parts. Grossed me out as much then as it does now.
    I still love going crabbing, remained one of my simple pleasures. Enjoy introducing friends who’ve never gone crabbing before to the hobby.

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