The soft crabs are stirring and there is dancing in the kitchen. One of the major benefits of living here is feasting on the spring's first batch of Chesapeake Bay soft crabs.
Soft crabs, of course, are simply blue crabs that have temporarily shed their shells. They have busted out of their old clothes, something some of us can identify with. The crab's first big wardrobe change happens in the spring, but it continues with less intensity throughout the summer. Chesapeake Bay watermen are clever enough to spot a "peeler," a crab about to disrobe and, over the years, have devised several strategies, including keeping the naked crab out of water, to stop the critter from growing a new shell. The soft crabs are shipped live to market, and soon the waterman's handiwork is the diner's delight.
There are few foods on this earth as toe-curling delicious as soft crab. Early in the soft crab season, I like soft crab sauteed and served with a whole grain mustard sauce, a treatment chef Mark Henry perfected when he was chef at the Milton Inn in Sparks. Henry has since taken his sauteing pans across the Bay Bridge to the Chester River Inn, while the Milton Inn's kitchen, now under chef Dave Rudie, continues the mustard-sauce tradition.
I also like the cover-it-with-nuts treatment that New Orleans chef Emeril Lagasse gives the soft crab. Basically Lagasse does to soft crabs what your mama used to do to fried chicken. He dips it in seasoned flour, then in egg and milk. Lagasse's seasonings are a shade spicier than Mom's, and he adds a final dip of ground pecans mixed with flour, before the crab is sauteed in olive oil. The result is a crunchy crustacean dish so good it makes you want to kiss your mama, the chef, and a couple of soft crabs.
I also like a fried soft crab sandwich served with a slice of tomato. Such a sandwich would, I have decided, be among the foods served at my final meal. From time to time I think about what I would order if Neo-Nazi Nutritionists seized control and I was sent to the gallows for crimes committed with heavy cream.
The tomato slice on my final soft crab sandwich would have to be from a Maryland beefsteak tomato. This is among the best-tasting tomatoes on earth and I figure I could get several stays of execution by sending the sandwich back to the kitchen because it didn't come with the correct tomato.
In addition to being anticipated, the arrival of soft crabs in the waters of the Chesapeake Bay is usually widely exaggerated. A tipster called me several weeks ago, for instance, with a report that crabbers down in the lower end of the bay were giddy with delight at the large numbers of soft crabs they were catching.
The tip turned out to be premature. A few "bank trappers," watermen who catch soft crabs in fences set up near river banks, had had a few good days early in May. But after the surprising catch, the early harvest dropped off dramatically.
I had heard of people catching soft crabs with nets, and with "scrapes" that shift the crabs from underwater grasses. But this was the first time I heard of bank-trapping and was fascinated to learn how it works. A crabs hits the fence as it swims down a river headed toward the bay. The crab travels sideways along the fence, and ends up in a trap placed at the end of the fence.
Two days ago I got word that the soft crab harvest in Maryland was picking up. Carol Haltaman, president of John T. Handy Seafood Inc. in Crisfield, one of the major soft crab shippers in Maryland, said the watermen from the crab-rich waters of nearby Smith and Tangier islands had just begun to catch soft crabs. "We are not overwhelmed," Ms. Haltaman told me Monday morning. "But the harvest is looking pretty good."
Local watermen, she said, were anticipating the first soft crab "run," a sort of debutante ball for soft crabs, when large numbers of them emerge in the spring. North Carolina already had a so-so soft crab run this spring, Ms. Haltaman said. Virginia had a good run. Many of these soft crabs ended up in Baltimore-area seafood markets. But, in Maryland waters, the big run had not yet begun, she said.
A fellow I know told me he netted two soft crabs this past weekend in Irish Creek off the Choptank River. Shortly after netting the crabs, he dined on them.
That story made me jealous and hungry. Next weekend I am planning to celebrate Memorial Day by feasting on the treasure of the Chesapeake, fresh soft crabs.