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As a Filipino American, Dungeness Crab Was Part of My OG San Francisco Childhood

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A woman prepares to toss a crab net over the edge of a pier at night.
The author (right) looks on as her cousin Nina Parks prepares to throw a crab net into the water at the Pacifica Municipal Pier. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Frisco Foodies is a recurring column in which a San Francisco local shares food memories of growing up in a now rapidly changing city.

I

never learned how to fish when I was growing up in San Francisco, but I did learn how to go crabbing. We lived on Treasure Island — or T.I., as the locals call it — back when the man-made island was still an active naval base. All through my childhood, I was surrounded by the damp, salty smell of waves crashing upon an artificial seawall — the cawing of gulls, faint tapping of metal hooks on flagpoles and ever-present foghorn in the distance.

On winter nights, when the weather permitted, my friends and I would bundle up and walk out onto the wooden pier with a crab net, a package of defrosted chicken thighs ready to be strapped into the bait cage. As a kid, it was staying up late that made it exciting — the fattest Dungeness mostly fed at night. As a teenager, it was the camaraderie of wind-whipped faces and timing our beers to when we pulled up the net to examine our haul. I learned how to pick a stray crab up off a net — from behind — before it could scuttle away on the pier, then flip it over to see if we were lucky enough to get some roe out of the catch.

When our eyes started drooping and our stomachs started growling, we’d head back to the house for a feast.

Rocky Rivera watches from a camping chair while her cousin-in-law prepares a crab net.
Rocky Rivera watches while her cousin-in-law, Alyssa Tiglao (foreground), prepares the crab net at the Pacifica Municipal Pier. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Every Filipino American knows that the first order of duty after placing the crabs in the sink is to cook the rice, which was the only other dish we’d prepare to make it a full meal. Someone would boil the water or fire up the oven, and then each household would cook the crab according to their preferred method. Most of us boiled them in seawater (or salted water) to season the meat. We learned to first freeze the crabs to make them sleepy, then throw them in a steamer pot so that they retained their natural salinity.

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My sister always took the additional step of cracking each joint and pouring melted butter with garlic, tarragon, chili flakes and lemongrass over the crabs, then placing them in a hot oven to roast. Those extra ten minutes elevated the whole experience.

When the crab was finally ready to eat, the rice pot went still steaming to the table, along with a saucer of tiltilan for each person so we could dip the crab into the mixture of cane vinegar, smashed garlic, salt and pepper before scooping up rice with our hands. Food always tasted better kamayan-style. After each delicious bite, we’d spoon crab liver and roe over the hot rice and savor the luxurious flavor that had only cost us our sleep and mild hypothermia — a cost we were always willing to pay. Each of us would eat at least three Dungeness apiece.

Hands tying the rope knots on a crab net.
Tying the rope knots on the crab net. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

For Filipinos, our connection with crabs is baked right into the culture. According to old folk tales, Tambanokano was a gigantic crab who was a child of the Sun and Moon. He lived in a hole in the bottom of the ocean and controlled the tides with his movement. He was so powerful that every time he opened and closed his eyes, a bolt of lightning would flash.

Sometimes when Tambanokano would argue with his parents, he became so upset with his mother, the Moon, that he would chase after her and try to swallow her. The villagers would come out with their drums and scare him away in order to save the Moon — an early explanation for what I assume were lunar eclipses.

I thought about those stories during the last dog days of summer this past year, on a day forecasted to be so hot that I’d schemed a coastal escape the night before. I wanted to get an early start toward Highway 1 from Oakland to beat the inland heat, so I called my cousin Nina in Pacifica, crossing my fingers that she was around for an impromptu beach day.

I parked at her place, migrating my beach bag to the backseat of her car while she recited, “Hail Mary, full of grace, let us find a parking space.” It must have worked because someone left, and Nina busted a U so fast on the 1, we got honked at. We waved them off. As locals, sometimes audacity is all we got when it comes to prime parking. By 11 a.m. the cars were so backed up along the 1 that they looked like a glittering snake on the cliffside.

One tiny crab scuttling along the edge of a crab net.
One tiny Dungeness crab — too small to keep — scuttles around the edge of the net. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

After soaking up all the rays I could get, I decided to cool off in the surf, which was when a big wave sent something tumbling onto my legs. It was a full-grown Dungeness crab, so close to me I instinctively bent down to pick it up off the sand. In that split second, I thought, “Wait…what do I look like bringing in a whole-ass crab with no cooler to put it in? With my bare hands?!” In that moment of hesitation, the ocean washed the crab away. When I looked over at Nina, I saw a crab at her feet, too, right before it was carried away by an incoming wave.

All we could do was shake our heads at the Disney Moana-like ocean experience. And to both of us?

In all the times my cousins and I played in the ocean together as kids, it had never gifted us a Dungeness to our feet. But now, thousands of miles away from our motherland, the ancestors were kind enough to show themselves through this duo of surfing crabs. Maybe the great Tambonokano was still working his magic on the tides and waves, after all.

A toddler, bundled up in warm winter clothes, eats a cracker during a family crabbing trip.
The author’s nephew, Kannon Scott-de Leon, on his first crabbing trip. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

For the past four years, our family’s crab tradition has been postponed later and later due to the spread of toxic algae in the warming western waters where the Dungeness crabs live. This year’s commercial crab season was supposed to start on Dec. 1, my birthday, before it got pushed back again to the 31st. We’ve played it safe and waited patiently, but the only redeeming quality about having a birthday in December is crab season. Real Frisco heads know this.

But with the price of everything in our city going up, and pollution pushing our annual crab feasts further back, this pastime could be soon over by the time my daughter is old enough to throw her own crab net into the Bay.

The wooden pier on Treasure Island where my family used to crab was condemned, then demolished, a couple years back, replaced by a small ferry pier. And catching Dungeness within the San Francisco Bay hasn’t been legal since the early 2000s anyway. Recently, a young architectural intern showed me a render of plans for the new T.I., in which glass-covered condo skyscrapers would replace the old aviation museum and soldier barracks. Even though those of us who grew up in the tiny island community always knew about the real estate potential and million-dollar view, it’s still strange to see the construction cranes making those changes a reality.

Maybe that’s the mark of a real San Franciscan: that you love something that no longer exists, or that’s slipping away before your very eyes.

A nighttime family portrait taken on the pier in Pacifica.
For Rocky Rivera, crab fishing has always been a family affair. Pictured from left to right: Alyssa Tiglao, Kannon Scott-de Leon, Mark Scott-de Leon, Makai Scott-de Leon, Nina Parks and Rivera. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Yet at the start of every crab season, I still splurge. On Christmas, when my sister is in town, we head over to Ranch 99 or the Pacific Supermarket on Alemany Ave. and prepare a whole platter in the way we know best, extra steps and all. We don’t forget to pick up some newspapers outside of the store — no one reads ’em anyway — and drape them over the table to absorb the butter and hold the shells.

I tell myself that with all the practice from childhood, I could have caught Tambanokano himself with my bare hands. But that magical crab wouldn’t have been pleased. Every responsible crabber knows that we only take what’s necessary and leave the rest for next year’s catch.

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Rocky Rivera is a journalist, emcee, author and activist from San Francisco. She has four musical projects out, three of those with her label Beatrock Music. She released her first book last year, entitled Snakeskin: Essays by Rocky Rivera.

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