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How Dungeness Crab Brings Bay Area Communities Together

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Three cooked Dungeness crabs in their shell, arranged to form the shape of a blossoming flower.
Bay Area crab enthusiasts enjoy their Dungeness steamed, stir-fried, roasted in butter or — as pictured here — arranged into the shape of a beautiful flower. (Cary Weigle)

After several delays, Dungeness crab season is finally upon us. That’s a big deal in the Bay Area: Whether the crabs are caught on a boat or off a pier, served in cioppino or over garlic noodles, a shared love for the ingredient has long brought together folks from all different cultural backgrounds.

“It always is just a ritual of togetherness, of hoping that you get more than what you got,” journalist, emcee, author and activist Rocky Rivera said of her own crab fishing experiences in a recent episode of All You Can Eat, KQED Forum’s biweekly exploration of Bay Area food cultures. “[You’re] having a good time and spending that time together with your family, with your friends, and of course, feasting afterward. That’s a memory that everybody associated with the Bay Area.”

Rivera wrote about how integral Dungeness crab was to her San Francisco childhood in a recent essay for KQED, describing late nights spent fishing and cooking with friends and family in the Filipino American community. The biggest response to the article, she said, is that people from all over shared their own personal stories about Dungeness crab — the kinds of stories that formed the basis of the Forum episode.

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 a crab net during a fishing trip on Pacifica Municipal Pier. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

One caller, Maury from Berkeley, said that the show gave her a sense of nostalgia for her 90s childhood, when she would travel to San Francisco from Modesto to catch crabs. “I remember — whether it be with a bunch of homies or family — we would make an adventure out to Frisco, off of the Fort Mason Pier, and just throw a few nets and play dominoes or play cards and just picnic as we waited to catch crabs,” she said. “It is such a vibe to be able to go out there, put on our favorite Bay rap music as we were journeying out there from Modesto, and then coming back, excited about eating the crabs.”

Other callers described Cambodian-style stir fry dishes, steamed crab paired with latkes and even a seasonal crab burrito. Indeed, it seems like everyone in the Bay Area has a Dungeness crab story.

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Part of the reason why Dungeness crab lends itself to so many different regional cuisines is because of the characteristics of the ingredient itself. “It’s a very luxurious crab,” said KQED food editor Luke Tsai, pointing out that it’s both sweeter and meatier than most other crabs. Charlie Chang, owner of PPQ Dungeness Island, agreed: “The sweetness of the crab — I mean, you just can’t beat that.” Chang had come on the show to talk about his own restaurant’s contribution to the Bay Area Dungeness crab scene: Vietnamese-style butter-roasted crabs and peppercorn crabs, served with garlic noodles.

Edward Wooley of Chef Smelly’s in Oakland, on the other hand, said he ate so much crab as a child that he no longer enjoys the taste. ““My mother went to an all-you-can-eat crab fest,” the chef recalled. “I just ate so much crab when I got home that I was done with crab.” That hasn’t prevented Wooley’s Oakland restaurant from becoming one of the most well known crab restaurants in the East Bay. The most popular dishes? Wooley’s garlic-butter crab with Creole lemon pepper sauce and his crab gumbo.

Despite Dungeness crab’s iconic status in the Bay Area food scene, the West Coast crab industry has faced its share of challenges in recent years. Climate change, dangerous weather conditions and competition from big business all impact the haul brought in by local fishermen. “We’ve seen the season just get postponed later and later each year,” Tsai added, noting that the commercial crab season didn’t start until Dec. 31 this past year — more than six weeks later than usual. He explained that these delays are usually caused by toxic domoic acid levels driven by climate change and warmer water, as well as difficult negotiations between fishermen and penny-pinching seafood distributors.

One local fisherman, Matt Juanes, called in to explain that the delays have been especially hard on his business. Here in the Bay Area, he said, it’s traditional to celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas with Dungeness crab. But for the past few years the crab season has only just barely arrived in time for New Year’s.

A crab fisherman in a trucker hat smiles as he holds up a live Dungeness crab from the deck of his fishing boat.
For crab fisherman Matt Juanes, the Dungeness crab season delays of the past few years have been hard on his business. (Azul Dahlstrom-Eckman)

“Oh, it’s definitely very difficult for all of us,” Juanes said. “But we’re just trying to work together with nature and do the best we can.”

For Rivera, this year’s delay was especially frustrating. “Having a birthday in between Thanksgiving and Christmas, there usually was a guarantee that I would have crab there as my birthday cake,” she said. This was one of the first years that didn’t happen.

Rivera’s KQED essay series, Frisco Foodies, uses nostalgic food memories as a way to explore all of the ways the Bay Area is changing — all of the traditions that are in danger of being lost.

“Like many San Francisco families, especially immigrant families, we’ve incorporated traditions like cioppino and Dungeness and all types of seafood dishes into our celebrations,” Rivera said. “And to not have that for Christmas is really just an indicator of things changing deeply across the Bay Area.”

Overhead view of a plate of garlic noodles and roast crab.
One of Chef Smelly’s legendary seafood plates, piled high with garlic noodles, shrimp and, of course, Dungeness crab. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

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