Bob Kovach is a Coverage Manager in CNN's Washington, DC bureau
The trucks arrive in the morning and unload bushel basket after bushel basket to vendors at the markets and restaurants all along the mid-Atlantic coast. The baskets have come from docks along the Chesapeake Bay where boats have spent hours bobbing from one colored buoy to the next gathering the key ingredient in a generations-old rite: eating blue crabs.
Summer afternoons or evenings spent cracking and eating blue crabs can be some of the most enjoyable of the summer. When days get longer, throngs of people in the Chesapeake region flock to local crab houses to enjoy this crustacean delight. Whole families and groups of friends gather around picnic tables piled high with red-orange, spice-caked steamed crabs, pitchers of cold beer and sweet tea. The air is filled with the sound of wooden mallets pounding and cracking crab shells as diners dig out the tender white crab meat.
If you don’t want to go to a crab house, you can catch your own using a chicken neck or fish head tied to a string. Toss it in the water, patiently wait for a crab to swim up and nibble on your bait, then dip in a net and scoop it out.
If catching them yourself is not for you, you can go to a local fish market and purchase them by the dozen. Fish markets can be a lively place with vendors hawking the day’s catch to prospective buyers from behind metal bins filled to the brim with snapping and crawling blue crabs. The bins are separated by size - medium, large and extra-large - and gender. Males, identifiable by their blue claws, are also known as Jimmies, while female Sallies' claws are tipped in red. The larger the crab, the more expensive it is - but it'll also boast more meat.
You can transport your crabs in a cooler or paper bag - just don’t submerge them in water because they will not have enough oxygen to survive. They need fresh water and you only want to steam live crabs; dead crabs could cause you to become ill. Cool crabs are more docile. Warm crabs are snappy crabs, and while their claws may be small, they are strong and can inflict quite a pinch. Wear heavy work glove or use tongs to handle them.
A large steamer pot is a must, and it should have a liner so the crabs don’t go in the boiling water. You can boil them directly, but steaming works better because the crabs won’t be as watery when they come out of the pot. Steam water flavoring is a topic of much debate. Some cooks add beer or lemon to the water and a bottle of apple cider vinegar adds a nice flavor.
Generous amounts of spice are a hallmark of this style of crabs. Old Bay is a classic, but many fish markets and restaurants sell their own secret blend of spices that they sprinkle on the crabs during steaming. The J. O. Spice Company has been supplying crab houses across the country for more than half a century.
After crabs have been in the pot for about 30 minutes, it's ready to get cracking. It’s best to eat them outside because things can get messy. Cover a table with butcher paper or newspaper, dump your now bright red-orange crabs on the table and go at it. Crack claws with a mallet to get the sweet white crab meat, but know that it takes some skill and practice to get the meat out of the shell.
Some people like to dip the meat in butter or vinegar or a sprinkle of crab seasoning mix. Four adults can easily go through two dozen crabs. Corn on the cob, cole slaw or French fries are often found right alongside.
While the season for these crabs starts in the summer, they are still available well past Labor Day and into the fall - and some people think they get better tasting as the year goes on.
Oh yeah...I remember crabbin' around Lively, Va in '68 when I was about 13. There was Charlie, my sister and me. We had this plastic toy boat we pulled around with a little water in it and a couple of crab nets. Got all the meanest blue crabs we wanted! Got a monster Jimmie out of the mouth of this little creek that dumped into the Rappahannock. Charlie jumped in and went to war with this critter and when he finally brought up the net there was the biggest, baddest crab we had ever seen. Even Monroe, who knew all about fishing 'round there thought pretty highly of our catch. We thought we were pretty cool too. Now, that little creek had a lot of crabs in it and nobody could see us or even knew where we were. We kids never did mention the water moccasins and the quicksand that was back there too.........
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