Nothing screams summer in Maryland like a bushel of steamed blue crabs, strewn across newspaper on an outdoor table, and with a mallet and a can of Old Bay at the ready.
Crab prices have been a little hefty of late, however.
“Crabs are still scarce and very expensive,” said Fran Sciulla, owner of Schula’s Grill & Crab House in Hagerstown.
Nevertheless, “we can only hope we can provide the customer with a good crab-picking experience as the weather gets warmer,” she said. “We know our customers enjoy sitting for hours with brown paper and mallets, savoring the morsels of the sweet Maryland crabs.”
To newbies and transplants, picking crabs might seem like a lot of work for your dinner — especially if you’re already hungry.
But there’s an art to it, and learning it is a rite of passage for natives … and a sign of true acclimation for everybody else.
And now that the summer season is upon us, there’s no better time to learn than the present.
The Chesapeake Bay Program, whose mission is to restore the basin that is the habitat of these crucial crustaceans, outlines a step-by-step process on its website.
It begins with collecting the necessary materials (steamed blue crabs, knife, crab mallet, old newspapers, seafood cracker, paper towels, beer … oddly the Old Bay has been left out, but there’s a link to the corporate website’s recipe for Old Bay Steamed Blue Crabs) and ends with “eat!”
First thing, cover the table with those old newspapers. Then grab a crab and remove the legs.
Or start with the back.
Chic’s Seafood owner Rick Herzog, who knows a thing or two about crabs, starts there.
Take it from a pro
“Just take the shell off the back. Cut the legs off…crack the claws,” he advised. “You know we used to use a back end of a butter knife years ago — back in the 60s — and it still works good.”
But he doesn’t even use that anymore. He just rips the back off with his bare hands.
“If you like the fat in the crab — I love the fat — it’s in the corners of the shell,” he noted, then “scrape the lungs off.”
Next up, “however you open the shell, you split it down from the inside; you split it towards the legs and fillet it open,” he said. “It’s so easy to get the meat out like that.”
He certainly makes it look easy. No tools, no mallet, just bare hands. Picked and consumed in minutes.
“You’ll crack some cartilage,” he said, “but it’s not really gonna get broken up. It’ll stay in its own place.”
He gets a little meat out of the “little legs,” too.
And you can’t really add too much Old Bay, depending on one’s taste, of course.
“Oh, no, no,” Herzog said. “We get customers, they’ll ask for Old Bay and they’ll dip it…some of them really, really like seasoning a lot.
“Everybody likes their own thing; some people like butter. Some people like vinegar.” Chic’s has its own seasoning as well.
Some customers ask for all of them.
“And they’ll dip ’em in there; it just makes the whole experience, I think, so much tastier,” Herzog said. “They might get a little seasoning, and then the next one they’ll want a little vinegar.
“And then they’ll take that bite. Then they’ll say ‘oh my goodness, I want a little bit of butter on this.'”
Well. variety is the spice of life.
Chic’s reaches a milestone
Chic’s Seafood, the Summit Avenue landmark with the distinctive crab crawling across the roof, is marking its 40th anniversary this year.
Herzog’s stepfather started selling seafood in West Baltimore in 1965, then came to Hagerstown in the early 1980s and opened Chic’s. Herzog said he worked with his stepfather in the restaurant for 36 years.
“This is just, you know, a little bit extra special for us,” he said.
He estimates the restaurant sells more than 2,000 bushels of crabs a year.
That comes to about 10 bushels a week in winter, but maybe 10 times that number in summer and over the holidays.
According to the Chesapeake Bay Program, a pound of crabmeat requires the meat from 18 to 20 crabs.
And you can do a lot with a pound of crabmeat—crab soup, crab dip, crab cakes—assuming you don’t just gobble it up.
Once you’ve finished picking crabs and your crab feed is complete, clean-up is easy. Just roll up the remains in the paper and toss it away.