Icky or delicious? Maryland's complicated relationship with soft-shell crabs

June 04, 2013|For The Baltimore Sun

Third in a three-part series.

There's no denying that soft-shell crabs are a little weird.

They're slimy and slippery when raw. Cooked in a sandwich, their spindly legs and grabby claws poke out from the slices of bread and make some people wonder, "Do you seriously think I'm going to eat that?"

And although even some lifelong crab-loving Marylanders believe soft-shell crabs to be a different species than the well-known blue crab, they are in fact the same creature. Soft crabs are simply blue crabs that have recently molted, shedding their hard shells to reveal a paper-thin exoskeleton that hardens within hours.

Cooked during that brief and precious time, soft crabs are eaten whole (minus the lungs and eyes) and are prized by some for their tender texture and sweet meat.

"They only come for six to eight weeks out of the year," says Chris Becker, the executive chef of Bagby Restaurant Group, which includes the popular Harbor East spots Ten Ten and Fleet Street Kitchen. "And they're delicious!"

And although there was a recent push to make the soft-shell crab the state's official sandwich, even many die-hard Maryland crab fans are not fond of the shell-free variety.

"Of the true hard-crab eaters, only about 50 percent are also soft-crab eaters," says Tony Conrad, owner of Conrad's Crabs in Parkville. "The other half can't grasp the idea or don't know what they are."

Locals who dislike soft shells often admit they have never tried the crabs, using words like "ick" and "gross" to describe the prospect of eating the whole crab.

"The texture grosses me out," says Timonium resident Karen Cirrincione. "Let alone the little legs sticking out of a sandwich! Blech!"

Baltimore resident Jennifer Fordham agrees. "You can't pay me to eat a soft-shell," she says. "But I'll pick and eat cooked hard-shell crabs all day."

But once people get past their psychological blocks, they often find they love the delicacy.

"I didn't try my first soft-shell until 2006," says Kathy Patterson, of Baltimore. "Now I love them. Before, I was afraid of them."

Chef Jason Dyke of J. Paul's in Harborplace encourages his staff and customers to give soft-shells a shot. "You can't say you don't like it if you don't try it," he says with a laugh.

Judy Brunk, an artist, author and sometimes commercial crabber from Cape Charles on Virginia's Eastern Shore, can back that up. Originally from Indiana, she didn't start eating seafood until well after she married her husband, Dave, a native of Anne Arundel County. Her first experience with a soft-shell was a bad one — it wasn't cleaned properly — but she persevered, and now she's a fan.

"It does look like a big bug," she says. "But they're so nice and tender. We'd eat a lot of things if we shut our eyes and tried them."

For those who want to catch or serve soft crabs, it's a matter of being in the right place at the right time.

Tommy Sheldon, who crabs the bay from his family's house on Gibson Island, stumbles upon them occasionally.

"I'm fortunate that I'm able to catch them myself from time to time," he said. "If I get lucky and find one in a trap, I cook it up that day."

But that kind of luck is rare; catching a steady stream of soft-shells requires focus, experience and special equipment. That's why local restaurateurs develop close relationships with crabbers who own the devices necessary to gather soft-shells.

"I have really good sources," says Brian McComas, owner of Ryleigh's Oyster in Federal Hill. "We contract our own 'swamp boxes' on the water, so we get anywhere from three dozen to 150 a day. We sell them right away; they don't hold."

Catching soft-shells, McComas says, first involves catching "peelers," or crabs that are about to molt. Expert crabbers separate those crabs from the rest of their hauls, placing them in a separate tank — or "swamp box" — so they are easy to grab once they shed their shells. The tank's circulating water, he says, helps the crabs slough off their shells.

"You have to constantly watch them because once they [molt], they harden up," says McComas. "As soon as they bust, you want to eat them within a few hours, when they're sticky, tacky and fresh."

Brunk, the crabber from Cape Charles, has spent hours observing crabs during the molting process.

"The soft-shell is an interesting critter," she says. "They help each other out of their shells sometimes, getting behind and under each other to give a little lift. It's fun to watch."

A group of Baltimore restaurants recently wrapped up a weeklong soft-shell "celebration," during which chefs experimented with a variety of soft-shell preparations, from a yuzu-spiked tempura-fried entrée at Ten Ten to a soft-shell-topped eggs Benedict at Miss Shirley's.

Despite the allure of high-end dishes, chefs acknowledge that their soft crabs are often seasoned with simple nostalgia.

"Just pan-fried with a little paprika, mustard powder and flour," says Becker of Ten Ten. "I love my mom's."

McComas agrees.

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