Getting Picky About Crabs

ROB KASPER'S MARYLAND

June 26, 1994|By ROB KASPER

There are two kinds of crab pickers in Maryland. Those who use wooden mallets to crack the shells of steamed blue crabs, and those who use knives.

I'm a mallet man, with aspirations to be a knife-wielder. I feel at home among the noisy, crustacean-clobbering crowds of Baltimore. But as soon as I cross the Bay Bridge, I feel inferior. On the Eastern Shore the knife-wielders work so swiftly and silently, that almost faster than you can say, "I'm not from around here," a crab has been separated from its shell.

One such knife-wielder is Betty Tall. She picks crab meat for a living, this year getting $2.25 a pound at the Meredith & Meredith Seafood packers in Toddville, Dorchester County. She is a "claw cracker," which means she specializes in removing meat from the crab claws.

Using a crab knife, a knife that resembles a short steak knife, she cracks the claw at the point where it is connected to the crab's body. Then she cracks it again near its "elbow." She removes the meat as she goes along.

Sometimes she will go after the "crab fingers," the meat at the end of the claw. But, she said, only if the crab is a "big Jimmy."

She comes from a family of claw crackers, Ms. Tall told me during a telephone conversation. When she and her sister, Audrey Murphy, were growing up on the Eastern Shore, their mother, Pauline Abbott, assigned them the duty of picking meat from the claws served at family crab feasts.

One of the reasons the girls got claw duty, Ms. Tall recalled, was that her mother didn't think they were skilled enough to pick meat from other parts of the crab's body.

She and her sister took to this task. "Back then, nobody much picked claws, so if you did pick claw meat for somebody, my Lord, they loved you to death," she said.

Now some 50 years later, Ms. Tall, who is 61 years old, still cracks claws at the seafood factory in Toddville from May until November. Her sister, a picker at a seafood house in Crapo, Dorchester County, also works on claws.

I asked Ms. Tall how she felt when she saw folks hammering away at a pile of steamed crabs.

"I just want to help them," she said.

Blondell Pritchett of Bishops Head, also in Dorchester County, told me she, too, disapproved of hammering hard-shell crabs. Ms. Pritchett, 64, has picked crabs with a knife for 48 years.

She learned from her father, Wilson Pritchett, who gave her a job at Crocheron Brothers, an old seafood factory in Crocheron, Dorchester County. Ms. Pritchett described her crab-picking technique. Holding the crab by its swimming fin, she sticks her knife under the back of the shell and, in one motion, pulls the top shell off by lifting and pushing the knife.

Next she cuts away the gills and the yellow mustard, and trims off the legs, or fins. Then, using the knife more as a pusher than a slicer, she removes the meat from the top of the crab's body. Again using the knife as a pusher, she removes the lump meat from the back of the crab, and finishes off by pushing out meat on the sides of the crab's body.

She often doesn't look at what she is doing. Instead she just "feels" what is going on, she said. She works standing up, and has picked as much as 100 pounds of crab meat a day, she said.

The knife is sharp, but she doesn't worry. "I get a little nicked up now and then," she said. "But I don't get cuts."

I told Ms. Pritchett about some of the techniques used in a picking contest I participated in at Baltimore's Harborplace during Preakness Week. I was clobbered, finishing fifth in a field of seven.

The winner was Lisa Willis of television station WBFF-Channel 45 in Baltimore. Wayne Brokke from Wayne's Barbecue in Harborplace finished second and Stouffer chef Guy Reinbold finished third. Both Brokke and Reinbold used knives to pick their crabs. Ms Willis had an unusual technique. First, she pulled the top shell off. This, Ms. Willis later told me, was a tip she had picked up from Shirley Phillips, proprietor of the Phillips seafood restaurants.

Next Ms. Willis pulled off the crab legs, and split the crab in half. Then, using the heel of her hand she smashed the body of the crab and tossed the meat, and some shell into a pile.

Ms. Willis called this her "smash and grab" maneuver and admitted that she used it only in contests that emphasized speed and didn't distinguish how much shell was in the meat. When she is picking crabs at home, Ms. Willis said she uses a knife and employs a more methodical method of removing meat from shell. When I told Ms. Pritchett about Ms. Willis' smash-and-grab crab-picking style, she laughed. On the Eastern Shore that kind of crab meat, she said, would never pass inspection.

So this summer, as the crab season begins to warm up, I am trying to improve my crab-picking technique.

I am weaning myself from the hammer. And slowly, carefully, I am wielding a knife. But for the first few crab feasts, it will be a dull knife.

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