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7.1.08

Going Crabbin’

Waging battle with this feisty crustacean along the quiet shoreline of an Island pond is as much fun as its sweet, tender meat is prized.

An eye-to-eye confrontation with an eight-inch blue crab, pincers held high and open, ready to battle to the death with the outsize monster that has all the advantages, becomes an experience for child or adult to store away with other treasured souvenirs of a Vineyard summer.
   – The Martha’s Vineyard Cookbook by Louise Tate King and Jean Stewart Wexler

Vineyard fisherman Donnie Benefit and his wife, Jennifer, hold an outdoor bash each August at their Edgartown home, where guests are treated to a real seafood feast. It takes a number of days to prepare, with at least three of them devoted to securing the food: Day one is spent out on the water, fishing for tuna and striped bass; day two is designated for quahaugging and clamming; and a third day is set aside for blue-claw crabbing. “Everything is caught from the Vineyard,” says Donnie.

Even with all these choices, Donnie says the party’s main attraction is always the cooked crabs. The bright red shells, steaming hot, are spread out onto a covered plywood table, along with bowls of melted butter and picking utensils.

“Once people get to the crab table, they usually don’t leave,” he says, unless it’s to get an ice-cold beer to wash the crabs down. Leftovers from last year’s party included some fresh-caught yellowfin and bluefin tuna. All that was left of the crabs was a pile of empty shells.

When you think of enjoying fresh crab, you usually don’t think of Martha’s Vineyard. That’s the domain typically of Maryland or Virginia in the Chesapeake Bay area in the mid-Atlantic, which has one of the largest crab fisheries in the world and where this popular seafood delicacy is the dish to experience.

But the crabs you see along Vineyard pond shores are the very same blue crab, and the ones described as “the gold standard for crab cocktail” by Jasper White, author of The Summer Shack Cookbook: The Complete Guide to Shore Food (W.W. Norton, 2007). The Vineyard is on the northern edge of the crab’s native range, which stretches down the Atlantic coast from Cape Cod to as far as South America, and the habitat here includes many of the Island’s coastal ponds, including Edgartown and Tisbury great ponds and Chilmark Pond, all on the south shore. There’s an ongoing Vineyard culture of hunting for – and savoring – blue crabs, so called because of the sapphire-tipped claws.

Historian Sandra Oliver, a Maine resident who has written extensively about New Englanders and their favorite shore foods, suggests that in the land of lobster, New England never became a crab fishery to rival that of the mid-Atlantic. Picking crabs was probably too much work compared to lobster, she says, and it wasn’t until canning arrived mid-nineteenth century that crabs even became a popular food to be enjoyed.

“Crabs are a lot more work to get the meat out,” agrees Peter Huntington, who has been catching crabs most of his life. But when he compares the two, he prefers crab. “I think they’re better than lobster – no two ways about it.”

Peter lives off the road to Quansoo Beach in West Tisbury and has been crabbing in Tisbury Great Pond for more than forty-five years. “And I’m not that old,” he adds. “That’s a part of childhood here, either fishing or crabbing.” He recalls a floating dock where kids would throw out bait on a string to attract crabs, or else wander along the shore with nets.

He still wades along the shore – now with his kids, Aidan, eleven, and Shaelah, sixteen – and nets crabs from many areas around the pond. If you cross the small bridge that leads from the parking lot to Quansoo Beach, you can often see the crabs scurrying in the creek below – aptly named Crab Creek. “I don’t remember when that nickname came along,” says Peter.

“As a kid, we never had a crab boil, cooking and eating them like you would lobster. We always cooked them, left them overnight, and cleaned them the next day.” The pristine crabmeat then went into a delicious crab salad or crab cakes. Now, he says, he and his kids eat them like lobster too.

Blue crabs live on clams and oysters as well as vegetable or animal matter, and some people, like Donnie Benefit, appreciate this fact. “I’d eat a blue claw before I’d eat a lobster, not because I think it tastes better but because I know what they eat,” he says. (It was once thought that lobsters were scavengers and ate primarily dead things. However, lobsters are really more opportunists, catching mainly fresh food, which includes fish, crabs, clams, mussels, and sea urchins. Lobsters are also cannibalistic and sometimes will eat other lobsters.)

The hunt

Crab fishing doesn’t require a boat, expensive equipment, or much skill – it’s a family-oriented, relatively cheap way to enjoy the outdoors and catch a meal. But it does take some practice. When a crab sees movement, it can shoot away like a rocket. Each encounter may seem like a blur of action: The crab accelerates, the net crashes, and – in the swirl of stirred-up sand and water – you’re not quite sure if you’ve ended up with a crab. My initial odds were about one in four; that is, one crab for every four or five attempts. I got a little better with practice.

There isn’t any commercial crabbing on Martha’s Vineyard. Most of the catch is taken for recreational purposes – and the hunt, under blue sky, wading along the quiet shores of an Island pond, waging battle with this feisty crustacean, is considered as much fun as the sweet, tender meat is prized.

The blue crab’s scientific name, Callinectes sapidus, translates into “beautiful savory swimmer.” These crabs have hind appendages shaped like paddles that act as propellants, says Donnie Benefit. In addition, the crabs’ stalked compound eyes allow them to see in almost every direction at once. You can’t outrun a crab if you’re in water above your knees, Donnie says. Rather, the best approach to catching blue crabs is to move very slowly though the water.

The blue crab has been part of the Vineyard habitat for thousands of years or more, says Bill Wilcox, water resources planner for the Martha’s Vineyard Commission. Because of their life cycle, which includes living in both fresh water and salt water, you’ll find blue crabs living in Vineyard ponds that open up to the ocean – or open at some point in the year through a man-made channel.

Female blue crabs mate with the males in fresh water over the course of the summer, and then try to get to the salt water before releasing their eggs. “They tend to spawn on an outgoing tide, to release their eggs in the saltiest water they can find,” explains Bill. In the Chesapeake area, this means moving out of the creeks toward the mouth of the bay. Here on the Vineyard, female crabs may move up and down the shores of the ponds searching for an opening to the ocean. This is why crabbers say you’ll see many crabs near pond openings or spots where the opening will be dredged.

When the tide goes out – if they’ve found their opening – the females can release up to two million eggs (though maybe only one or two crabs will survive to adulthood and live up to three years). The eggs become free-floating larvae. They don’t actively swim at this stage, but drift out in the ocean, sometimes for huge distances, for the next thirty to forty days. After that floating period, the crabs begin to develop the appendages that allow them to swim, and after a total of forty to sixty days at sea, juvenile crabs head back toward the fresh water or coastal ponds to grow up.

The number of crabs in a particular pond in a given year depends partly on how many juvenile crabs are in the ocean and how many of those make it back into the ponds during the “recruitment,” Bill explains. This can vary from year to year. “In July and August, if our ponds are open to the ocean, they can recruit a pretty good batch of crabs. If they’re closed, they may not get any new recruited crabs.” Certain ponds may go even five years without a substantial crab population.

Last year on the Vineyard, by most informal accounts, was a very good year, with plenty of available crabs all summer long. The season stretches into September and October when some of the largest (i.e., meatiest) males or “jimmies” can be found. Peter Huntington recalls heading out last September with two friends in Tisbury Great Pond and netting about twenty-five crabs in less than an hour. In the mid-Atlantic, however, where counts are taken and livelihoods affected, the crab stock has declined by 85 percent since the early nineties due to a number of reasons, which include overfishing and environmental factors. Recently, cutbacks and limits in the number of overall crabs taken and barring the catch of female crabs have been proposed in this area in an effort to save the traditional fishery from collapse.

On the Island, many longtime crabbers say they already traditionally take only the male crabs, though it’s legal, according to Massachusetts regulations, to take both male and female crabs. You can identify the sexes by the shape of the abdominal flap, or apron. On a male, it looks like an inverted T. The female has a triangular or bell-shaped apron. The female crabs also “paint their fingernails” (have red-tipped claws). It is illegal to keep a “sponge” crab, a female carrying a very visible sack of eggs on its abdomen.

One of the changes Donnie Benefit says he has seen over the years is not so much the number of crabs available, but a more limited access to the ponds to
get at the crabs because of private-property owners and barriers such as beach guards. More recently, Donnie began his own crusade to maintain the blue crab population so this “family-oriented” Vineyard recreational tradition can continue. After approval by the Edgartown selectmen, Donnie petitioned the state this past winter to put a limit on the harvesting of crabs to fifty per day. There’s currently no limit on the catch. He sought this measure after witnessing a commercial fisherman take large numbers of crabs last summer to use as conch bait. “I saw it with my own eyes,” says Donnie. “I was so upset.”

Environmental steps on the Island, such as efforts to improve the water quality of the coastal ponds, while not aimed at protecting blue crabs specifically as much as other shellfish fisheries, will have a positive impact on the overall blue crab population. Efforts to restore eelgrass in ponds also helps because eelgrass is important in the life cycle of shellfish, including the blue crab, says David Grunden, Oak Bluff’s shellfish constable. In Sengekontacket, David says, an eelgrass die-off in the nineties meant a lost habitat for blue crabs there.

A new tradition

I hope all these efforts pay off and the Vineyard doesn’t go the way of the Chesapeake, because unlike the folks I interviewed for this story with long crab-filled histories, I’ve only just begun. Last year was the first time I went crabbing.

On a mid-August day, we headed down a narrow dirt road toward Tisbury Great Pond and arrived at a fifties-style family camp that opened up to a remote, sandy, quiet, and pristine stretch of the pond. Eight kids and eleven adults headed in different directions by canoe and on foot, wearing old sneakers and polarized sunglasses, carrying drop nets both new and old. We squinted and waited, waved our nets, and watched these ten-legged creatures scurry across the sand in shallow water and sometimes into our nets.

Three hours later, we managed to accumulate two buckets of crabs that the kids found endlessly amusing – in between jumping off boats and splashing in the water on this warm summer day. While we waited for a big pot of water to boil atop an outdoor grill, we ate BLTs with great summer tomatoes. We drank wine and cold beer and sat in beach chairs, chatted, and watched the sky change colors as the sun was going down over the pond. When the crabs had steamed, along with some Island corn, we sat around the picnic table in the sand and had a lesson in opening the shells and pulling out the succulent bits of crab from a Baltimore native who happened to be on hand. Now that I have a little experience under my belt, I can’t wait for this year’s crab season to begin.

Blue crab recipes

Blue crab can be used in any recipe that calls for crabmeat. Imagine the taste of any crab recipe using the really fresh, sweet, briny meat of a just-caught crab.

This usually requires a person to pick the meat, however. In the Bacon household, this is Betsy Bacon, who was referred to me as the “queen of crabs.” A Blairstown, New Jersey, resident with a West Tisbury summer home by Tisbury Great Pond, she practically lives on crabmeat in the summer. “Half the fun in our family is catching them.” She then boils the water to cook the crabs, and gets out the newspapers and lobster picks.

She uses the fresh blue-crab meat for dips, crab salad, and crab cakes. It takes about four or five crabs to produce one cup of crabmeat. Betsy’s favorite crab cake recipe is below.

A crab dinner

Enjoying basic steamed crabs or a “crab boil” involves bringing a couple inches of water or seawater to a boil and adding a batch of rinsed crabs. (Discard any dead crabs.) You can add, as some do, Old Bay seasoning or cayenne pepper to the water, or substitute beer as the steaming liquid. Cover and steam for about 10 minutes, until the shells turn a bright red, and repeat with a second batch.

How to eat a steamed crab

1. You’ll need a knife; a butter or steak knife will do. A wooden crab mallet will be helpful for cracking the claws. (Also, be sure to have lots of beer and/or soda on hand!) Pull the big pincher claws off the crab and save for later. Pull off the legs, throw away, and move on.

2. Turn the crab over so you’re looking at the bottom. Insert the tip of your knife or your thumb into the apron (the middle part, which is a different shape depending on the crab’s sex and maturity level). Pull the apron up and back. This detaches the top shell, which you can discard.

3. On either side of the remaining shell are feathery structures, which are the gills. Never eat these; use your knife to clean them away. You’ll also see the “mustard” (the soft innards, similar to the tomalley in a lobster). You can eat this part or clean it away (the mustard is edible, but contaminants can collect in it).
4. Take the remaining crab in your hands. Snap it in two and all that luscious crabmeat will be revealed. You can use your knife to peel the shell away from the meat, or to slice each half in half again lengthwise and then use your knife to pick the meat from the shells.

5. Don’t forget the claws you set aside. Use your knife and wooden mallet to crack them open to reach the meat.

Crab cakes

Betsy Bacon adapted this recipe from one she found in Gourmet magazine.

Makes approximately fifteen crab cakes, depending on the size you like.

• 4 cups fresh crabmeat (about 18 to 20 crabs)
• 3 cups crushed potato chips (Betsy likes the reduced fat Cape Cod brand)
• 2 cups fresh bread crumbs (white bread of some sort)
• 1 or 2 fresh red or yellow peppers, chopped fine
• 1/2 cup chopped scallions
• 2 large eggs
• 2 tablespoons fresh dill, chopped
• 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
• 1 tablespoon whole grain mustard
• 1 tablespoon mayonnaise
• 2 fresh jalapeños, chopped fine (add more or less, to taste)
• Vegetable oil for cooking

1. Combine the crabmeat with 1/2 cup of the crushed potato chips and the rest of the ingredients, except the vegetable oil, until blended. Form the mixture into cakes.

2. Place the remaining crushed potato chips in a dish and press each crab cake into the chips, coating both sides.

3. Heat a fine layer of vegetable oil in a skillet over medium heat. Cook cakes about five minutes per side. Serve with sauce spooned around the crab cake.

The sauce

• 1 1/2 cups dry white wine
• 1/3 cup shallots, minced
• 1 cup heavy cream

1. Boil the wine and shallots until the mixture is reduced in half. Add the cream and simmer about 20 minutes, until it thickens to a good consistency.

Dorie’s blue crab salad

Chef and cookbook author Tina Miller shares her family recipe in Vineyard Harvest: A Year of Good Food on Martha’s Vineyard (Broadway, 2005) and recalls the Miller family tradition: One of the Miller men (her grandfather, father, brother, or uncle) would walk down to Tisbury Great Pond in mid-summer and return with a huge bucket of blue crabs. Her grandmother Dorie would steam them and spend the whole day picking the crabmeat and then make this recipe in time for evening cocktails. Tina suggests serving this salad with a light, salty, simple cracker like the saltines her grandmother always served.

• 2 cups fresh crabmeat (about 8 to 10 crabs)
• 1/4 cup mayonnaise
• 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
• Pepper

1. Combine all the ingredients and serve with crackers.