It was a perfect day on July 18th, 2010, the kind of day on which the Manifest Destiny that led us to Southern California seemed determined to fulfill its promise, unfurling a crisp blue sky unmarred by cloud or haze. There was heat, sure, from the brilliant sun lighting every corner of the sprawling pitch, fresh and newly restored green after an early-summer blight brought on by prolonged dog-sitting, but it was tempered by a cool breeze bearing that distinctively salty sea air.
It was a day made for joy, for leisure, for flying a kite or laying out on a brightly-colored towel along with that Victorian-era novel you always meant to read but for which you could never quite find the time until now. But today was not a day for joy. It was a day for battle.
On one side: us, twenty-something twentysomethings celebrating (for some reason) the birth of a narcissistic and overbearing writer. On the other side: them, seven dozen steamed Chesapeake Blue Crabs, flown in from Maryland the night before.
We were confident in our moral superiority. Like any unlikely group of heroes we were a motley crew made up of men and women, tall and short, fit and also fit, beautiful and also beautiful, from all walks of life that included upper-middle class suburbia. We were a United Colors of Benetton ad of warriors: united in our quest (to eat), colored in our hue (ranging (mostly) from Betty Draper to that one time Icarus forgot his sunscreen), Benetton in our apparel (probably more like H&M).
There were a handful of us from Maryland – veterans as seasoned as the crabs we now faced. We had known victory in Bethesda, Gaithersburg, Baltimore and Easton but were now far from home, on unfamiliar ground. Â And while we had seen our share of battles many of us – too many – had seen too few or none at all. Â How could we expect to fare when we were but twenty and counted amongst our ranks those who were vegan, kosher and just plain cowardly?
And our enemy”¦does a more perfect foot soldier exist in nature than the crab? Armed with dual pincers and quick to use them, too. A solid exoskeleton lined with fearsome spikes to cover the soft flesh within. Alien eyes peeking out from the shell, surveying the enemy with black dispassion. The crab is mindless, aggressive, marching inexorably forward (well, sideways). Their bright red shells invoking the indestructible British infantry at the height of its power. All this and they outnumbered us more than 4 to 1. What were we to do? But then there was no time, the clock struck one, the masses assembled and the battle was under way.
In the end it was no contest as we were humans, righteous and ravenous and armed with mallets while they were just crabs – and dead ones at that. And so, unopposed, we ravaged their corpses, rending them limb from limb, dunking their white flesh in vinegar and butter, and piling the discarded detritus high upon the benewspapered table.
How Does One Destroy a Crab?
Assassinating a crab is a difficult process, and not for the faint of heart. Here is a quick primer.
Step 1: Combine vinegar, water and beer in a steamer pot. Use a cup each or enough to cover the bottom by about an inch.
Step 2: Bring the mixture to a boil then fill the steamer pot with live crabs. This is important. The meat of dead, uncooked crabs spoils incredibly quickly and is not safe to consume. Cover and boil for about 20 minutes or until bright red.
NB: During cooking it’s likely you will hear a high-pitched wail emanating from within your steamer. This is merely gas being forced from the crabs’ shell as the steaming increases their internal pressure, but if you want to pretend it’s the shrieks and cries of your enemy as they boil alive, feel free to do so.
Step 3: Place crabs in a large bowl, douse with Old Bay* and toss until well coated.
Now comes the most fun – and difficult – part of eating a crab. This is a beautiful and labor-intensive process. You will get dirty. You will get messy. You will probably be grossed out. Your reward for this will be about two tablespoons of meat if lucky. You will never have worked so hard for so little in your life (gastronomically, of course; our paychecks are certainly reminders of that) and you will be overjoyed with the results.
Step 1: Tear off all appendages. Set these aside for later.
Step 2: Find the apron on the belly of the crab that looks like a penis (note: it isn’t). Pry it up using your fingernail and rip it from the main body. This should result in a large hole at the bottom of the crab.
Step 3: Stick your thumb in the crab’s anus and tear it in half, separating the shell from the belly.
Step 4: Clear off everything that is grey and yellow (brains, lungs, general gunk etc.).
Step 5: Crack the body in half again to get at the pure white lump meat on the inside. A pick can be helpful but most can be reached with just your fingers. Dip in either vinegar or melted butter to your preference (I, for one, think that vinegar has a nice tang to go with the salty Old Bay flavor whereas butter complements the richer (both in taste and price) lobster).
Step 6: Snap the legs and claws at the joints to get as much meat as possible. Use your trusty mallet to get the rest.
Sides and Dessert
Crab must be served with beer, and in our case we went for the old standby of MGD augmented with a few variety packs of Flying Dog, the award winning microbrew from Maryland. For those wishing for something a bit stronger there was also a Pikesville Rye and ginger ale mix that is wonderfully sweet on a hot summer’s day.
This being Unvegan I don’t wish to waste any more space on fruits and vegetables than I have to but needless to say, grilled corn and watermelon both fresh from the farmer’s market are excellent palette cleansers between rounds of crab. Another must-have side is either homemade fries coated in Old Bay, or Utz potato chips. There’s no bad choice here, and we opted for the latter offering a selection of plain, BBQ, salt & vinegar and crab. If you’ve never had crab chips, order some online NOW. You won’t regret it.
Finally, to top off the meal, a farmer’s market strawberry-rhubarb crumble with whipped cream, a Baskin Robbin’s mint chocolate ice cream cake and some homemade peanut butter balls dipped in dark chocolate that put anything Reese ever did to shame.
With the sun dipping behind the lemon tree as we entered the six o’clock hour, the survivors surveyed the battlefield and the carnage we’d wrought. Victory! But at what cost? Priests administered water and antacids to the fallen among us. Of the desserts, corn, chips and watermelon, none remained. The crabs had fared little better. A few staunch warriors performed clean-up duty, finishing off the hold-outs, forcing themselves into double digits for the good of the whole. There would be no prisoners taken today.
The proprietor of this blog turned towards the writer, weary with the weight of the day’s struggle and the lives lost. He opened his mouth and a low, grim voice emerged: “Happy birthday, man.” Happy birthday, indeed. It had been, in spite of all the death and dismemberment, a day of joy.
*For those of you who are unfamiliar, Old Bay is the essence of all that defines humanity, what separates us from the beasts and creatures with which we wearily roam this planet. It is the lifeblood of the Chesapeake, of Maryland and of the world beyond. It is Birth and Love and yes, it is Death, too. Old Bay rises from its roots in the sea, the offspring of Gaia, Mother Earth, Tiamat. It blends the power and fury of the Old Testament with the redemptive and purifying spirit of the New. It is the balance and calm of the Bodhisattva, the illogic of Scientology. Old Bay is Truth. Old Bay is All. (The atheistic among you may point out that Old Bay is, in fact, seasoning salt – a blend of mustard, paprika, celery seed, bay leaf, both black and red pepper, cinnamon, cloves, allspice, nutmeg, cardamom, salt and ginger. Those of you who say this have clearly never experienced the miracle that is homemade French fries with Old Bay and so you are wrong.)
Thanks to Dave Koll for the guest post. You can follow him @davekoll on Twitter.