Cracking into Crabs

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I don't think I can claim to be "semi-vegetarian" anymore. Sure, my veggie bin is always well-stocked, I never buy red meat, and I love tempeh and tofu. But last Saturday, my dinner was downright barbaric: I literally tore a creature apart with my bare hands and a mallet. I got guts on my fingers and left a pile of broken limbs in my wake.

And you know what? It was fun.

When my friend Abby heard that I'd never eaten a crab (or in fact any kind of crustacean) straight from the shell, she swiftly took action. She called up her friend Steve, a Baltimore native with years of crab-cracking experience, and we agreed to meet up at LP Steamers, an unassuming place in the Locust Point neighborhood. Fresh Maryland blue crabs, I was assured, were well worth the hour's drive from D.C.

We sat on the roof deck, where the ambience was ultra-simple: a sheet of brown paper laid across a picnic table. After anchoring the tablecloth with a pitcher of beer, we checked out the crab "menu"—a receipt slip printed with the day's inventory. Sizes ranged from small to extra large (and beyond that to jumbo, huge and extra huge, but they were out of those), so we ordered a dozen of their largest. My husband, who has a shellfish allergy, opted for fish and chips instead (the verdict: good, but it was better in Ireland).

When the crabs arrived, the waiter simply slid them off a tray straight onto our table, and handed us wooden mallets and knifes. I was fascinated at first, having never gotten such an up-close look at an intact sea creature.

"Wow, look at these claws!" I said, gingerly poking at one. "And the legs, I never knew they had these delicate hairs on them! They must be for sensing, or maybe they help them swim..."

"Yes, now just rip those legs right off," Steve said, calmly dismembering his crab. "Careful not to cut yourself, they can be sharp."

It only got messier from there: Sticking a knife through the carapace to pry the halves apart, discarding the guts and peeling away the petal-like gray gills (this made me squeamish; such a visceral reminder that this was once a living, breathing creature)... and there, beneath the gooey yellow "mustard," was dinner. A few bites of sweet, succulent white meat, infused with the salty tang of seawater and Old Bay seasoning.

The mallet was for cracking the claws open, which I found impossible until Abby showed me how to use the knife as a chisel. This was the messiest step; bits of shell and spice went flying across the table as we labored for a few morsels of meat. (My poor husband should have worn a biohazard suit. Don't worry, he survived!) We agreed that whoever came up with the idea of eating crustaceans must have been really, really hungry.

"The joke around here is that you could starve eating crabs; you have to burn more calories getting into them than you'll get out of them," Steve said.

That's semi-true; there are only about 87 calories in the meat of one large blue crab. But those few ounces pack nearly one-third of the recommended daily allowance for protein; more than a fast-food fish sandwich that has quadruple the calories!

I felt reasonably full (and tired!) after working my way through three crabs. I also felt proud of myself for eating locally, within view of the waters where my dinner grew, saving carbon miles and all that... at least until we started chatting with the waiter.

"Maryland crab fishermen are really hurting right now. The catch just isn't what it used to be," he explained, referring to the strict harvesting restrictions the state has imposed as the crab population has crashed in recent years.

"So we actually fly in our crabs from Louisiana."


Well, they were still delicious.

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