To eat the crab mustard, or not to eat the crab mustard, that was the question.
Recently I struggled with this uncertainty. I pondered which parts of the crab I wanted to eat, and which parts I didn't.
I didn't think about it too long. A half-dozen soft crabs, soon to be known as supper, were sitting on the kitchen counter. It was my job to clean them, to prepare them for cooking by snipping off unwanted parts.
I removed the underside of the crab called its apron. I opened it up and removed the gills or "devil's fingers." And I removed its eyes and mouth.
I found the mustard underneath the top skin or shell of the crab. While it looked like the color of its namesake, hot dog mustard, this mustard had the consistency of Jell-O. In steamed hard crabs, the mustard is firmer. I decided to keep the mustard, saute the soft crabs, and enjoy a magnificent meal.
Later I consulted with crab experts on whether I had done the right thing.
L. Eugene Cronin, former head of the University of Maryland's Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, said he, too, ate crab mustard.
Cronin said that technically the mustard is the "hepatopancreas," an organ that only crabs and lobsters possess.
On the plus side, the hepatopancreas gives the crab meat an interesting, strong flavor, Cronin said.
On the negative side, if the crab comes from serious polluted waters, toxins would accumulate in the hepatopancreas, he said.
"Crabs taken from open waters I wouldn't worry about," he said. But he added that if he regularly ate crabs caught in the harbors of Baltimore or Norfolk, he would probably pass on the mustard.
In fact, a survey of Chesapeake Bay crabs, including ones caught in the Baltimore Harbor, found them safe to eat by Food and Drug Administration standards. The survey also found that, while safe, the Baltimore harbor crabs contained more contaminants than crabs from less polluted parts of the Chesapeake Bay. The study, conducted by the state health department, analyzed crab meat, including the mustard, for seven toxic metals and 16 organic chemicals. This week a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Environment said there have been no indications of contamination since the 1986 survey.
Another fan of mustard was J. C. Tolley, president of Meredith and Meredith crab packers, on Maryland's Eastern shore.
Tolley said he has seen people outside his Dorchester County crab picking operation, rummaging through piles of shells for leftover crab mustard and fat. "Years ago we sold it in big jars for customers who requested it," Tolley said. The mustard, Tolley said, is great for crab soup.
But Bill Goldsborough, fisheries specialist of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, told me he was cutting back on his crab mustard intake.
In part, he said, he was shying away from mustard because he didn't like the idea that he might be eating toxins, however low the levels.
But Goldsborough said the main reason he was getting off the yellow stuff was that he thought the mustard "overpowered" the taste of crab meat. "I like the taste of crab meat by itself."
Another friend of the crab who can't stand the mustard was John R. McConaugha, an associate professor of oceanography at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va.
McConaugha, who studies crabs, said the creatures' mobility seems to keep them remarkably free of contamination.
His reluctance to eat the crab part did not stem from any worry about seafood safety. Rather, McConaugha said, it came from ** his exacting knowledge of crab anatomy combined with strong geographical influence.
McConaugha explained that he grew up in Ohio, outside Canton. Since moving to Virginia he has learned to enjoy eating hard crabs, but he still can't bring himself to eat the mustard.
It has nothing to do with science, he said. It has to do with eye appeal and whether you grew up near the Chesapeake Bay, an area of the country filled with hepatopancreas eaters.