Seafood aficionados through the ages express a debt of gratitude to the first person who cracked open a crab.
Thursday, January 31, 2002
Photo by: Randy Tunnell
No one knows how the first crab appetizer became the first crab appetizer. Probably some hungry, adven- turesome soul who lived by the sea happened upon one of these armor-plated, multi-legged and clawed beasts, maybe beat it with a stone or club. He noticed the tender meat and voilà! (or ugáh!...or something), crab as food was born.
Maybe humans instinctively know which foods to eat--liver, TV dinners, most candy and other modern foodstuffs notwithstanding. Whatever the reason, whoever ate the first crab could never have imagined the widespread crab consumption currently occurring across the globe.
In North America alone, hundreds of crab shacks, houses, barns, bars, restaurants and shanties dot the land and seascape from Austin, Texas to Dungeness, Washington...where the species got its name.
Perhaps I''m the only one who thought that the crab was actually Dungeoness, due to its proclivity for hanging around in the dungeons of the deep. (So I''m not the craftiest crab in the catch.) The truth is that people in the Dungeness Bay area named the little creatures and captured all the concomitant glory.
Not to be outdone, Oregon, by decree of the state legislature in 1977, created The Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission. Its mission: to enhance the image of the Dungeness crab industry and increase opportunities for profitability through promotion, education and research. How''s that.
Here on the Monterey Peninsula, Dungeness crab is part of the culture. Restaurants on Fisherman''s Wharf sell them like mad to visitors from all over the world, and this cute little crustacean appears on more menus than Ian Holm appears in films. And, like Ian Holm, crab in general and Dungeness in particular, adds just the right flavor to a creative project.
Mostly, the preferred cooking method seems to be simply boiling them. However, as Chef and KQED television show host Michael Chiarello indicates, the cooking and cleaning of Dungeness crab is almost a ritual. Here''s what he writes about the beginning stages of the process. After you''ve brought your properly seasoned water to a boil, "Pick up a live crab by its last two hind legs. Hold them together tightly and stroke the top of the head just behind the mouth until the crab falls asleep. Lower into the pot slowly..." (Michael, you''ve gotta get out of the kitchen more, dude.)
Apparently folks feel fervently when it comes to crab. I asked a few local yokels about what crab means to them.
Chuck Hunsaker, a semi-retired chef who went from buying crabs to cook to selling crabs to cooks, longingly recounted a story about an enormous crab cookout with which he and Mark Couts of Moss Landing Cafe were involved. There were six humans and somewhere between 30 and 50 pounds of crabs invited to the party. They (the humans) moved the picnic table into the house, spread out a ream of newspaper atop it, then proceeded to boil up a whole case of crabs. While top-notch wine from Mark''s personal collection flowed, the six crustaceanally insatiable crabavores commenced to crackin'' and crunchin'' the whole lot.
Chuck also points to the annual crab and shrimp cioppino fest at the Portuguese Hall in Monterey. Ole Chuck, eyes ablaze with excitement, told me about the time they served 1,500 people endless pots of cioppino, and how he couldn''t stop eating the stuff, chompin'' away well beyond the point that everyone else had stopped. That''s crabbiness, baby.
Of course, the lucky people get the double treat--actually the triple treat--of catching, cooking and eating them. Tony Di Girolamo, from the Salinas Valley Fish House, told me about when he was a kid and he''d be out with his dad fishing, and the crabs would get caught in the gill nets they used. One day, his young cousin was along and decided that he wanted to grab one of the crabs. What Tony''s little cousin didn''t realize is that the way to grab a crab is to get hold of both its claws, then twist ''em off so the crab doesn''t bite you. Luckily, Tony was able to reach down and snap off the claw just as it was about to sample the flesh on the young lad''s finger.
Ted Walter from Passionfish is another guy who gets passionate when the topic is crab. He gets positively giddy talking about the great Vietnamese and Chinese restaurants of San Francisco, and the fabulous preparations they use for crab. He also got jazzed about the crab custard with mussels and a garlic tomato sauce he''s been serving in his restaurant lately.
My man Kerry Loutas, from Loutas on Mission in Carmel, free-associated feelings about traditional Christmas Eve beautiful sweet Dungeness crab dinners, just lemon and butter and sourdough bread. He also spoke about how you have to work to get the best part, how the sweetest meat is closer to the body, in the hard-to-get-at places.
But I think Vince, from Liberty Fish Market, simply and eloquently said it best when he called crabs the "fantastic delicacy of the Northwest. There is nothing like a fresh Dungeness crab."
Right on, Vince.