He's no great shakes when it comes to shaking crabs

July 29, 1998|By ROB KASPER

I SHOOK A CRAB in Portland, Ore. That is how the residents of the Pacific Northwest handle their Dungeness crabs. They "shake" them, a process that involves separating the crab's body into pieces, then pounding the shell of each piece against the edge of a bowl with straight sides.

When this procedure is performed correctly, the crab meat easily falls from the shell into the bottom of the bowl. That is what happened when Pansy Bray, a resident of Hoquiam, Wash., and a former fish-house worker, shook a crab. Bray gave her crab-cleaning demonstration during a meeting of the Association of Food Journalists, whose members had gathered in Portland for an annual conference. After Bray had shaken one crab, she invited members of the group to try the technique. Several crab-shaker wannabes, myself among them, came forward.

When I shook a Dungeness, the crab seemed less willing to let go of its meat. Some meat dropped into the bowl, but some stayed in the shell. This West Coast crab knew that it was in "foreign," East-Coast, hands.

My attempts at dismembering the crab were part of a continuing examination of the similarities and differences between the blue crab of the East Coast and the Dungeness crab of the West Coast.

As I have done in previous visits to Portland, I met a Dungeness crab for lunch. The crab salad -- made with Dungeness crab meat, capers, red and yellow peppers, celery and onions -- that I ate at the Red Star tavern in downtown Portland, was crisp, sweet and delicious. The dish confirmed my view that the Dungeness crab has the second-best crab meat in the world, trailing only the delicate meat of the blue crab, especially those pulled from the Chesapeake Bay. When it comes to evaluating crab meat, I tend to be loyal to my local crustaceans, my "homeboys."

But I have to give the Dungeness its due. It is one big fella, with a very tough shell. The boiled Dungeness crabs that Bray "shook" were easily three times bigger than the steamed blue crabs that show up at most Maryland crab feasts. A 2-pound Dungeness is a nice crab, Bray told me.

As soon as I started shaking, I made a mistake. I pulled a leg off the Dungeness. Bray grimaced. I used the freed leg as a crowbar to lift up the flap on the belly of the crab's shell. That is what I do when I clean blue crabs. This belly flap -- which on males resembles the Washington Monument, on females the Capitol Dome -- can be easily lifted up with a leg.

Using a crab leg as a crowbar might be clever in Baltimore, but it is a crime in Portland. The leg meat is regarded as the prime part of the Dungeness crab, Bray told me. The body meat is less preferred, she said. In blue crabs, of course, it is just the opposite. "Oh, no!" Bray said, as she saw me attack the crab. "Don't pull off a leg!"

After removing the belly portion of the crab's shell -- only male, or Washington Monument, Dungeness crabs were used -- I flipped the crab over to work on removing the top of the shell. I tried to pop off the top shell using just my thumb. This thumb maneuver usually works well on the shell of a blue crab, but it wouldn't budge the Dungeness. The Dungeness shell was too big to be moved by a mere thumb. Instead, following Bray's instructions, I used my entire hand, grabbed the left side of the shell, and attempted to remove it by yanking it, in a left to right motion. When Bray did this, she had removed the shell with one yank. It took me several yanks to get my top shell off.

Once the top shell was off, I removed the gills and the crab fat, which Bray called "crab butter." In Maryland we call it "mustard." I broke the crab in half and crushed each body of the crab with my hand, then, holding the crab by its legs, "shook" each body portion of the crab by hitting it on the top of a bowl. Meat tumbled into the bowl. The Dungeness has longer legs than the blue crab. I worked on the leg, one section at a time. In Baltimore, some folks use a wooden mallet to crack crab legs. In Portland, Bray used a no-nonsense metal mallet and pounded the crab on an anvil-shaped piece of metal called a crab block. The metal mallet and the anvil convinced me that the Dungeness has a very tough shell. If I attempted to "shake" a blue crab, the shell would probably break. So "shaking a crab" is, I think, a Dungeness thing.

After I finished I asked Bray to evaluate my work. After a long pause, she told me I should not consider a career in crab shaking. West Coast crab shakers, she said, are paid for each pound of meat they clean. Years ago, when she was a kid working in her father's seafood-processing plant, she was paid 10 cents a pound for clean crab meat, Bray said.

Wages have risen since then, she said. Even so, someone displaying my crab-shaking skills, she said, would probably have to take several other jobs to make ends meet.

Pub Date: 7/29/98

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