In my home state of Maryland, Chesapeake blue crabs are not just an animal. They’re not just a food, not just sustenance. Our minor-league baseball team is named after them. They’re on our license plates, our bumper stickers, and even our driver’s licenses. Crabs permeate every facet of our lives. Most Marylanders embrace them completely.
I’ve never understood our outspoken affair with these creatures. The Chesapeake Bay teems with other edibles: oysters, clams, herring, shad, rockfish. They’re all perfectly fine alternatives to our official state crustacean, and personally, I’d eat any of the others before resigning myself to the crab.
It’s not that crabs don’t look appetizing. When steamed, their once-blue shells glow a radiant orange like a road sign that reads: EAT ME. And I’m not David Foster Wallace-ing you, either; I have no ethical qualms with eating crabs which, like lobsters, are cooked alive. But the obsession that most Marylanders—my family especially—have for blue crabs baffles me. If you’re not from here, it may be hard to comprehend the depth of this affection—so let me give you an example.
My Aunt Joanie’s house is clean but packed with different odds and ends, and her living room is the most obvious case of this: the entire room festers with crabs. There are crab-shaped pillows nesting on the couch, hidden beneath a microplush crab blanket with fuzzy legs. There are crab-shaped coasters on the end tables whose awkward contours can barely hold a drink. Crab snow globes filled with rust-colored glitter swirl silently on her shelves. The glitter in the snowglobes matches the sparkling red paint on the crab salt-and-pepper shakers on the windowsill, and also complements the shimmering ceramic crabs glued to a wooden sign above the doorway. The sign proclaims “WE’VE ALL GOT CRABS HERE!”.
The rest of my family shares her enthusiasm; Aunt Joanie just has a unique way of showing it. I, an anti-crabbist, am firmly in the minority.
The in-your-faceness of crab fanatics is only one reason for my aversion. Another reason is “picking”: the process of retrieving the crab meat from its shell. Crabs appear enticing when they’re cooked, but picking their meat is an unimaginably gross conundrum of shell-breaking, claw-cracking, goop-scooping, flesh-sucking, knife-stabbing, finger-licking, and mallet-mashing that resembles a surgery gone terribly wrong. Every attempt to induct myself into this hall of horrors has failed—but I truly did try.
When I was ten, Brian, a family friend, invited me to go crabbing on the Patuxent with his two sons, Evan and Logan.” I was excited at first. Crabbing is like fishing but without the pesky requirement of physical coordination. Finally, an outdoor activity for benchwarmers! I felt, for once, in my element.
We lowered our traps into the water and waited. And waited. There was absolute silence. What I didn’t realize before was that benchwarmers usually have something to watch: a game, even if they never get to play in it. Crabbing is like if Planet Earth and C-SPAN collaborated on an under-the-sea special: all of the boredom of Congress, plus water. And seaweed.
Twenty minutes in, Brian got up to check his trap: two crabs had wandered in and gotten their claws stuck. The boys checked theirs. Logan had two and Evan had three. Hopeful, I went to lift mine. The trap was surprisingly light—because it was empty. I released the trap back into the water and sank into my seat with an impatient huff. It was going to be a long afternoon.
We brought the crabs on ice to my grandmother’s house, where we hold our annual crab feast. The odd thing about these feasts is that most of the prep work has nothing to do with the crabs. They have to be steamed of course, but anyone can do that. Brian chose to do it with his shirt off, which I thought was a pointless risk. Everyone else thought it made the crabs taste better.
While the crabs were cooking, I sat in one of the low-slung pool chairs and waited for something to do. As usual, my grandmother quickly found a chore for me. She waved me inside the house.
“I’m putting you in charge of the fixings this year,” she told me. My eyes widened. Preparing the fixings meant creating pounds of homemade Old Bay (“The canned stuff tastes like metal, TC, don’t forget that!”) and the melting of nearly twenty sticks of butter. It was a daunting task for a ten-year- old, and a high-stakes one, too: blue crabs are nearly flavorless without butter and seasoning. The entire meal rests upon the fixings.
“You’ll do fine,” she told me.
I started with the Old Bay. I stared at the scroll-like list of ingredients in front of me, wondering how all these spices could possibly taste good together. I clawed at the back of the pantry, filling my arms with bottles: dry mustard, nutmeg, bay leaf powder, allspice, ginger, celery salt, mace, white pepper, black pepper, crushed red pepper, cardamom, paprika, cinnamon, and cloves. I took a serene sort of pleasure from measuring out the powders. I churned the mixture with my hands, relishing the feel of salt grains zipping along my fingertips.
I began dicing sticks of butter and melting them in the microwave. I stood, transfixed, as the pale blocks gave way to a viscous, yellow liquid. I felt every bit an alchemist, taking these base ingredients and transmuting them into the long-sought secret for life everlasting: condiments.
Evan and Logan piled the crabs into a long, trough-like channel down the middle of the picnic table, which was covered in waxy, brown paper. (Only brown paper can be used to protect the table—don’t even think of using newspaper.) I placed a small plastic cup of my seasoning at each table setting. Everyone sat.
We held hands while Brian said grace. As soon as the word “amen” had slipped from our mouths, everyone else leapt for the pile of crabs.
I sat at the end of the table, next to my grandmother. She broke off a front claw from one of her crabs and handed it to me. The claws were the only parts I could reliably open on my own. I flinched as my claw cracker splintered the bony shell. I plucked out the orange shards, and took sparing bites of the flaky, slightly sweet meat. While everyone else started on their second, third, fourth rounds of crabs, I sat and fiddled with my single claw, using the little piece of leftover cartilage to open and close the pincers as if the crab were still alive.
From the other end of the table, Brian’s voice boomed: “Who whipped up this delicious Old Bay?” I had to lean forward and peek around my grandmother so he could see me.
“Did you make this?” he asked me, holding up a Dixie cup of the orange seasoning. Lowering the claw into my lap, I nodded at him, my face carefully blank.
“Well,” Brian started, “you’re hell of a lot better with spices than crabs, that’s for sure!” He chuckled, deep and teary-eyed, and the rest of the table joined in. I might not have laughed with them, but for the first time I felt like I was allowed in on the joke.
TC Martin, sophomore English major and devoted fan of The Golden Girls, is a staff writer and columnist for The Politic. He enjoys poignant memoirs, BuzzFeed quizzes, and writing about pretty much anything. Connect with him about pop culture, food writing, or Betty White at firstname.lastname@example.org.