Early this week, I received a rather frantic phone call from a friend of mine.
"Hi, I know I only call you when I need a favor...", she said, which is entirely untrue.
"Do you know anyone who'd want a case of live crabs? Like, right now?" I was hoping she meant food-grade crabs. Not pthius pubis.
"I was going to send a case of Dungeness crabs to the East Coast, but that's not happening anymore and I'm... well... I'm not going to touch them."
I told her I didn't know anyone off hand who would want them, but that I would post an alert on my Facebook page, since I've got at least a good 50 food freaks on my friends list who always seem to be online.
I hung up the phone.
And then I thought about it for a moment. Why would a food person (me) who loves crab, turn down a free case of them? Oh, because he's a fool. And he was in the middle of enjoying a week-long battle with a stomach virus that had limited his food intake to baby food: bananas, crackers, rice, and Pedialyte.
I called her back about 90 seconds later to tell her I would be happy to take them off her hands, virus be damned. Besides, I had never experienced a crab boil. I thought it might be interesting.
When I lugged the case up the two flights of stairs to my apartment, I placed the box on my counter and stared at it for a long while before doing anything. How many crabs were there? How big were they? Would they be angry with me? Were they still alive?
I cut open the straps with the same scissors I would eventually use to cut open the crabs' bodies and, feeling somewhat self-conscious of that fact, I quietly hid them out of sight before confronting the crabs themselves. Inside the box, I found a wriggling mass of wet newspaper and Koolit refrigerant packages, not, as I had hoped, a nest of local seaweed, which I would have considered much more appealing to the poor creatures.
I counted them as I peeled away the newspaper. Eight. Eight really large Dungeness crabs. Upon further examination, I noted that two were missing their front claws, another two had a broken, dangling hind leg, and one poor fellow had had his eye poked out. These were not A-list crustaceans. I re-covered them, placed them in the refrigerator, and said, almost inaudibly, "Goodnight, crabs. Sleep well, for I shall most likely kill you in the morning."
And Then There Were Seven
When I woke the next morning, I pulled the box out of the fridge, set a large pot of salted water to boil, and examined my soon-to-be-cooked-alive friends. They barely stirred. My refrigerator, I thought, was too cold. I pulled them all out of the box and took a closer look. The littlest one which had, either by chance of packing or crab-imposed hierarchy, been found at the bottom of the pile, dead. I gave it a little nod and gently placed it in the garbage.
While waiting for the water to come to a rolling boil, I watched the seven surviving crabs slowly come to life, which seemed a waste of energy, given the fact that I was about to kill them in a matter of minutes. Still, it provided a bit of mild entertainment.
When the time came to boil the crabs, I realized it had been a very long time since I'd actively killed another living creature larger than an insect. I consoled myself with the realization that crabs are, in fact, tenuously related to insects. The classes Insecta and Crustacea are both members of Phylum Arthropoda, right? Armed with the theory that I was merely killing giant sea bugs, I set to work with an eased conscience. I very much doubt the crabs shared my opinion.
The killing was swift, but not the process. Two crabs per pot, boiling for approximately 10 minutes. One pot + seven crabs = forty minutes of standing around by myself, trying not to think about what I was doing.
My mind wandered to the other, far less pleasant to have, yet likely much-more-enjoyable-to-get, crabs.
A Brief Aside
When travelling the world in his younger days, a good friend of mine picked up a case of pthius pubis somewhere in Germany, which is, if you weren't aware, a country in Europe that is, ironically, noted for its cleanliness. Not speaking the language, but in great discomfort, my friend marched into a chemist's shop, took out a pen and paper, and proceeded to create a delightfully simple pictogram-- something very similar to this:
He pointed to the drawing of the crab, then pointed to himself. He was immediately given the necessary materials for proper treatment.
I have always admired my friend's straightforward communication skills. He has since come to make a good living off them.
When the slaughter was over, I was faced with seven big, orange-red, steaming crab carcasses. Now what? Now nothing. I placed the crabs on a tray and shoved them back into the refrigerator, where they would no longer complain about the temperature. I had work to do. I had a therapy appointment at which I proceeded to discuss the fact that I had just taken the lives of seven fellow creatures.
Upon my return, I set to work upon the crabs. Slowly at first, being rather inexperienced in the exercise of extricating edible meat from crustaceans. The scissors came out of hiding, as did a pair of pliers, and a hammer. The hammer made a splattering mess when used, the pliers suffered from a chronic case of lockjaw, and I was remarkably, irritatingly frustrated.
What the hell was I doing? Standing alone in my kitchen, I felt absurd cleaning the meat out of these damned crabs, but I was committed. I had a certain obligation to these creatures to see that their flesh was put to good use.
I have always thought that a crab boil was a social event, not one designed for a single man with a stomach virus standing alone over his sink. No beer, no butter, or Thai seafood sauce. Just a guy in an apron and a pair of cargo shorts with crab matter all over his hands, forearms, and apron front.
I was determined that, when I felt better, I would go to town with the two pounds of crab meat I now had before me. Crab cakes, crab and corn chowder, crab salad, crab ice cream. Whatever it took to use it all up. It needed to be shared, not consumed in solitude.
I placed the crab in a gallon-sized Ziploc bag, removed as much air as possible, double-wrapped the bag in heavy duty aluminum foil, and placed it gently in my freezer, where it sits awaiting better times.
I look forward to a day in the near future when I can share it with my friends. But how? In my little apartment, a full-fledged dinner party is out of the question. But small gatherings with cocktails and nibbles are ideal. Shall I make tiki drinks to serve with a Crab Rangoon? Deviled Crab with dainty glasses of fino? Or a much more plebeian and fitting-for-the-times crab cakes and ice cold beer?
Whatever I decide, one thing is for certain. I'm going to share my crabs, and share them with people I love. They'll thank me for it, I just know they will.