“A crab provides little food, so he is not easy to eat. But the little he does offer is the best food under the sky. To eat crab you must work, which makes you appreciate him more. He is the blessing, the remembrance. And no man or woman ever ate enough.” James A. Michener’s Chesapeake
Growing up in New Jersey I am a Jersey girl by birth where blue crabs do scavenge the floors of the Atlantic. A good portion of my life, however, was spent visiting my grandparents along the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Here is where salt water and all the fine creatures that inhabit these waters cultivated my eternal love for crabs and the art of eating them. I grew up on Trippe Creek; heaven on earth if ever there was.
If I were a wet rag you could squeeze me and out would fall droplets of Old Bay. Crabs and the murky waters of the Chesapeake are forever in my blood. August is the best time to harvest this crustacean. Of course you could crab all summer long, but any local would inform you that August is the best month along the Eastern Shore and Labor Day is the grand finale of the season.
We often visited my grandparents throughout the year, each season a unique and treasured experience. Traveling down Harleigh Lane, we turned towards their red brick Cape Cod style house facing west, with near panoramic views of Trippe Creek. During summertime, all of us cousins, aunts and uncles would spend a good portion of our time and energy crabbing. We used crab traps strung along the dock from the pilings. The trap was about a 2 foot x 2 foot metal netted cube with cylinder shaped nets in the center where the bait would rest.
Back in the day we used cut up eel as bait. It was smelly and stinky. Left to soak in the salty waters, the decomposing gray flesh of the eel faded to an almost white, with bone and mangled flesh eking out from the sides. The crabs really gravitated towards the eel, but as eel became more of a delicacy, and scarcer to find, eel was quickly replaced by chicken necks. Not as traditional but seemingly effective and just as stinky and nasty to the senses. I could argue the efficacy of eel vs. chicken necks countered with the decline in the blue crab population, but that is for another diction. Eel was better though…anyway.
Throughout the day my brothers, cousins and I would make many trips down to the dock. “Look out for the loose board at the top of the dock. Make sure you wear shoes or you’ll get splinters. No going on the dock unless you wear your life jacket!” were some of the orders barked by our parents. We would shimmy the trap to the deck of the dock and count the crabs. We would pick out the keepers and release the babies to grow for next year.
Around mid-afternoon with an adult or two to supervise, we would hop aboard the little outboard, lovingly named the Crab Alley after my cousin Alison, who incidentally is not crabby at all. Using a trot line we would motor up and down Trippe Creek, each taking turns catching the assembly line of crabs.
Using a rope about 100 or so yards long, anchored by floaters (usually empty plastic milk bottles), weighted down to the creek floor by anchors, the trot line is basically an assembly line of bait spread about every couple of feet.
Slowing approaching the first buoy, a net (with metal netting so as not to tangle the crabs), is carefully dipped into the water, under the rope, then lifted and strategically placed on a roller. As the outboard creeps along, the roller moves the rope and bait. We were extremely silent during this phase so as not to scare off the crabs. With net discreetly in position, just barely under the water, a slight and steady hand would scoop the feeding crab into a rubber bucket filled with an inch or two of water.
When one of us missed our opportunity to net the crab silence would be broken as the rest of us would holler at the netter, “How could you miss that! Oh you blew it! Oh well it was too small anyway. That was the biggest crab of the day!” But with another crab waiting, we quickly enacted the "no speak zone" and silence resumed.
Sometimes one of us would net the crab but miss the bucket allowing a crab to escape and scurry free on the little Crab Ally. Such an event sent all toes on board mid-air. With benches on board that were hollowed underneath, the deceptive crab ran for cover. The net served not only to catch the crab but also to nudge and lure it into captivity. Toes safe with the rogue crab captured and resting in the bucket we went back to the business of crabbing.
Oh the excitement and adventure of catching crabs! The pinnacle of the catch, when we knew our day was done and nothing could top our work, was when someone hollered a phrase coined by my cousin David. In reference to the giant fish named Moby Dick by Herman Melville, we knew this crab could not be topped. To be such a large crab, so old and wise, experienced to the prowess of the trot line, yet so engrossed in its feeding, you could hear a pin drop, steady was everyone on deck, and then SNATCH! Echoing all over the creek could be heard, “It’s a Moby!”
With the harvest of the day coming to an end we would hand over our catch to our grandmother Gammie who would steam the crabs in a big, black pot speckled with white, reserved especially for crabs. Gammie, a Baltimore native, raised Quaker during the Depression era, saw her share of death and misery. As a result she was cold to the business of steaming crabs. She would pile in Old Bay and a can of beer. Outboards weren’t the only place a crab went rogue. Kitchen counters and floors gave one or two a glimpse of hope at escape but good ole’ Gammie quickly threw the crabby into her pot.
Every now and then there was a crab that fell through the cracks, not quite meeting keeper requirements. As she tonged the crab into the pot, she’d pick up the baby crab, pause for a moment then say, “Well babies die all the time” and in plopped the crab.
With the screen porch overlooking the creek as the venue, long tables covered in newspaper were set with instruments for cracking: wooden hammers, metal crackers, and knives made especially for digging out vestiges of crab meat. The chefs at the grill brought in barbeque chicken breasts, local Maryland corn and sliced tomatoes as the rest of us anxiously awaiting the tray full of crabs.
Inevitably there were a few squabbles placing claim over who caught what crab, but nobody argued with the catcher of the Moby! Moby was theirs to covet. A big chunk of meat would warrant the champion crabber to dangle their prize in front of whomever was sitting next to them, and while unappreciated, perfectly fair game.
With our family huddled on the porch, the sun setting over Trippe Creek, the scent of salt water wafting through the screen, the sounds of the end of the day settling in, we sat diligently picking crabs. Knowing another summer had come to an end, and that the next time we would all gather would be Thanksgiving, we cherished our time, our moment, and the remembrance of such a blessing.