(This piece is the second part of the soft-shell crab chapter in the upcoming Hugging The Coast book. Part One, “Rusters, Busters, & Angry White Males”, will be published in an upcoming blog post.)
With his broad, friendly smile and easy laugh, Gerald Smalls just doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who could cut the face off a live crab without a second thought. He’s just too pleasant, too modest, too, well, self-effacing. But I guess ten years behind the scenes at a seafood shop can do that to a man – make him into a face-snipping, gill-slicing, shell-cracking Terminator.
But, you know, a nice one.
Gerald slid back the door to the heavily padlocked shedding room, where long, low-sided, aerated holding tanks were stacked the full length and height of the room.
Bright lights and space heaters kept the room at ideal molting temperature.
“There ain’t too many left. I hope I can find you some that’s ready.” He poked around in the nearly empty tanks, looking for the recently rubbery. Judging from the numbers that remained of the thousands that had been in residence just a week or so earlier, I had almost waited too long. Even at three bucks apiece wholesale, those teeming, peeling masses had literally flown out of this room, off to restaurants and suppliers in many states and several countries. Gerald climbed up to the last tank in the far left corner, stuck his hand in, and grinned.
“I found two for you. One of em’s nice and big, too.”
Oh goodie. A nice big one.
I should have been thrilled, but I was, as usual, somewhat ambivalent about the whole thing. To further my seafood education (and to find out what the yearly hoopla is all about), it was important that I try soft-shell crabs, and the circumstance here were ideal, since I knew exactly where these came from and that they would be prepared within minutes of leaving the water.
But there was a significant existential issue to deal with. Eating a crab whole seemed pretty barbaric. We Americans don’t eat many animals whole. The French eat little songbirds whole, but they at least have the decency to hide their shameful act behind a large napkin draped over their faces. Eating something in its entirety, without leaving bone or skin or viscera behind, was too all-consuming – literally.
What would remain of its passage on earth after I had sated my base hunger? It felt like, somehow, somewhere in the process, I would be eating its soul. Deep fried, no less.
I followed Gerald across the lot, through the back door of the seafood shop, and into a smallish room with gleaming stainless steel counters. The killing floor, I thought with a small shiver. I noticed a huge plastic bin next to Gerald’s counter with mysterious elongated creatures curled inside — headless, skinless things with flesh that was disturbingly flesh tone. My flesh tone, actually. It was like looking into a washtub full of boneless arms.
“What are those things?” I asked, trying not to sound totally creeped out.
“Sharks. Came in live this morning.”
Note to self: Don’t mess with Gerald. Gerald skins and eviscerates barrels of live sharks before most people have their second cup of coffee.
Soft-shell crabs, though, don’t pose much of a threat. The shedding process leaves them utterly docile, which is probably just as well: they may indeed look exactly like a regular crab, but they’re about as fearsome as a rubber chicken.
The limp crabs sat patiently on their bright red cafeteria tray while Gerald dug around in his knife box and pulled out a pair of red-handled scissors, just normal scissors like you would use to cut fabric. Then he picked up a crab and, with his perfectly normal red-handled scissors, snipped off its face.
“Ouch!” I said, wincing, “That can’t feel too good.”
“That crab didn’t feel a thing,” he said quietly.
I’m guessing here, of course, but Gerald is probably right. That crab stopped twitching instantly. It may have looked brutal and a touch bizarre, but the scissor method was swift and certain. Hard shell crabs should be so lucky.
He flipped up the left side of the upper shell and snipped out the gills (or lungs, or “dead man’s fingers’, as they are charmingly known), did the same for the right side, then flipped the crab over and pulled back the lower hinged part of the shell (from the pointy part down) and snipped it off. He repeated the process for the other crab, and that was that: soft-shell crabs, ready for the freezer or the fryer. Everything that was left – inside and out – was (at least theoretically) edible.
I followed Gerald past the scaling station, where Gerald’s brother, a large, soft-spoken fellow, was whizzing through a pile of sea trout with a scaling device that looked exactly like one of Doc Ock’s metal cyborg arms. It snaked down menacingly from a cylindrical motor mounted to the ceiling, and though Gerald’s brother wielded it with masterful control, I strongly suspected that if he let go even for a moment, the thing would whip around the room – blind, wild and hungry – until it found something (or someone) to scale.
I sidestepped quickly into the back entrance to the kitchen, where Gerald had deposited my dressed soft-shells at the fry cook’s station. Marvin’s Seafood not only does wholesale and retail sales, they also do a banging lunch business. From their bubbling fryers, impeccably fresh and insanely delicious-looking seafood emerges. As I entered, I spotted a basket of perfectly golden whiting fillets rising from the depths and instinctively whipped out my Canon.
“You gettin’ ready to take my picture behind the fryers?” Miss Mary said, spotting my camera. “I know you ain’t gettin’ ready to do that.”
“I, uh…well, I uh,…I was gonna ask first…”
“Oh Lord…” Miss Mary implored the heavens for patience with the peculiar. With the hint of a mischievous smile, she furrowed her brow at me with mock suspicion. “What you gonna do with the pictures?”
“They’re just for me, really. I take pictures to remind myself of things, you know, stuff I might forget.”
“Alright, then…just don’t go putting my picture in your book now.”
“Okay, I won’t. I promise. But I can write about your awesome skills, can’t I?”
She chuckled, “Well, I guess I can let you do that.”
With that settled, Miss Mary began to show me the process. She dredged the crabs in a large shallow pan of what looked like seasoned cornmeal.
“What have we got there?” I asked.
“This is our breader. Our seafood breader,” she said, pointing to a large sack of House-Autry brand (”The Choice of Southern Cooks Since 1812″) on a low shelf under the prep table. In the South, ‘breader’ is what is known elsewhere as ‘breading mix’ and is used to deep-fry chicken, shrimp, pork chops, oysters, gator tail – just about anything that’ll hold still long enough.
I bent down for a shot of the cool logo, but froze when I heard a sharp voice right behind me.
“What you doing with that camera? Why you want to know what we’re using?”
I stood up too quickly and clanged my shoulder painfully against the stainless steel tabletop. Sympathy, however, was not forthcoming. Instead, Miss Denise gave me a look that could curdle CoffeeMate.
“I, uh… I’m just…”
“He’s a writer,” Miss Mary said in my defense.
“You’re a writer?”
“Yes, ma’am. I’m not stealing secrets or anything, I swear.”
“Oh…” Miss Denise said, “Well, I guess that’s alright.”
Satisfied, if still a bit puzzled, Miss Denise went back to filling styrofoam containers with crispy fish, shrimp, hushpuppies, and french fries for the early lunch crowd. Miss Mary continued her demonstration.
“We shake them off. Then we put them in the oil. Then we do this.” She snugged a second fry basket inside the first one, sandwiching the crabs between. “That keeps them from splashing, ’cause they still got water in them.”
As my lunch-in-the-making sizzled in the deep golden oil, I pondered the circularity of their path: when the crabs first arrived at Marvin’s, they were still ‘crunchy’, since they hadn’t yet shed their old shells; when they came out of the shedding tank, they were soft. Now, coated in breader, they had gone into the fryer soft, and would come out crunchy again.
About eight minutes later they emerged, their tops a deep crimson under the appealingly irregular crust. They looked strange, like nothing I’d ever seen. But, I had to admit, they were also strangely beautiful.
“You know, Miss Mary, I’ve never had one of these.”
“Well, you’re about to now.”
“What would you put on it?” I asked.
“Nothing. I’d just eat it between the bread. Why don’t you try a piece now? Just take one of them claws.”
I hesitated for half a beat, then surprised myself by pulling off one of the larger claws and popping it into my mouth. Hot, salty, yielding – a crunch – then silky crabmeat and a burst of pure, sweet crab essence. Miss Mary watched me, expectant.
“Oh my God. Wow.”
She beamed. “They’re good, right? They don’t get fresher than that.”
Miss Denise, (who is really a sweetheart, if a bit of a pitbull to nosy strangers with cameras), packed up my crabs with four slices of white bread and a handful of mayo, tartar, and catsup packets. For my wife, I ordered some of those gorgeous whiting fillets with hushpuppies. Miss Denise filled the container with enough deep-fried goodies to feed a small Southern town. She even let me take her picture.
After Miss Denise rang me out at the register, I called out to the back of the kitchen.
“Thank you, Miss Mary.”
“You’re very welcome. Come back and see us. And, young man..?”
Miss Mary exchanged a glance with Miss Denise, as if she were about to deliver the punch line of a private joke. “I think I’ll let you put my picture in your book, if you want to.”
Back home, I lifted the lid and stared into the face of my destiny. Or, at least, into the crunchy coating where the face of my destiny used to be. But the moment had arrived; I put the “nice, big one” between two slices of the now-steamy/soft bread, sans condiment, and took a big, brave bite.
Chewing a torn-off claw was one thing; biting into the body of the thing was another. Soft-shell crabs are very meaty and almost too sweet. The texture of the carapace seems, paradoxically, alien yet overly ‘real’. There is nothing quite like it in commonplace culinary experience, but after your teeth tear through it some deep, vestigial memory sparks and you suddenly, with a shudder, recognize what you’re eating:
A very big bug, plain and simple. Sure, it’s salty, crunchy, breaded, and deep-fried — which is certainly a mitigating circumstance since real Southern-style “breader” would make a deep-fried bowling shoe look tasty — but it’s still a bug. And if by some chance that delightful epiphany had escaped me, I was lucky enough to have an astute observer on hand.
“It looks like you’re eating a tarantula sandwich,” my wife said, between bites of a “really, really good” hushpuppy.
“Yep, sure does,” I agreed, not looking down.
“Are you enjoying it?”
She studied me while I ate. “It really does look like a spider with those legs sticking out of the sides.”
“I was trying not to think about that.”
“Oh… sorry. Would you like some of this whiting? It’s still got the skin on but it’s really good.”
“Ah, no… fish skin is just a little too real for me right now. I think I’ve had all the reality I can handle for one day.”
“Alright, well, how about one of these hushpuppies? I don’t think there’s any actual puppy in them. Or not enough to notice, at any rate.”
“No, thank you,” I sniffed, reaching for my old, reliable Balm of Gilead: Crystal hot pepper sauce,”I’ve got another tarantula to eat.”
The verdict: I can kind of understand why folks anticipate the brief soft-shell season. The purity and intensity of crab flavor is unparalleled, but for me it was a bit overwhelming. If I’m ever offered another soft-shell crab, I’ll eat it, but I’m not sure I’ll be going out of my way to have one again. Still, you never know. Memory is a funny thing, and I might develop a yearly craving for tarantula sandwiches. But I doubt it.
The upside: if I’m ever offered one of those crispy garlic & chili-flavored fried giant spiders in Malaysia , I might just go for it. But then again, in Malaysia I’d probably try a crispy garlic & chili-flavored fried bowling shoe.
Please join us tomorrow when we’ll share our recipe for Sausage and Cheese Ouroboros.
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