Crabs, it seems, have a timetable all their own


My body clock needs adjusting. I am not talking about the mental timing mechanism that tells you when to grow up, settle down and spawn. I am talking about the internal urge that tells you when it is time to sit down and eat steamed blue crabs.

Every year around Memorial Day I get a hankering to hammer the hard-shells. Something inside me says a Memorial Day crab feast is the first taste of summer.

But lately this early-season urge to eat pepper-covered crustaceans has gotten me in trouble. I may be ready for the season to start, but the hard crabs aren't. It is too soon. This spring, for example, has been wet and cool, and the East Coast crab harvest seems to be about a month behind schedule. The supplies of hard crabs, blue crabs steamed in their shells, are scarce. Their price is high.

Moreover, May's steamed crabs often don't come from Maryland. They ride in from out of state. A meal that was supposed to have been a celebration of the good fortune of living near that prime crab pond known as Chesapeake Bay ends up paying tribute to the refrigerated trucks that bring crabs here from the Carolina and Gulf coasts.

Earlier this week folks in the Maryland seafood business told me that so far this year's crab season was looking like last year's, when Memorial Day crabs started off selling for as high as $150 a bushel. Later in the summer, when the catch increased, retail prices for a bushel of steamed crabs dropped down to the $80- $90 range.

"The supply of crabs has been pretty tight, . . . a little worse than last year," said Joe Zacharski, owner of the Carney Crab House )) at Joppa and Satyr Hill roads. In normal times, Zacharski said, he would complain when a seller delivered crabs whose size wasn't up to his standards. But this season the short supply has kept him holding his tongue. If you criticize a seller's crabs, "He just goes down the road to the next place," Zacharski said.

The inconsistent supply has kept Obrycki's from opening the carryout side of its steamed crab business, said Rob Cernak, manager of his family's restaurant. "There has been barely anything coming out of Maryland, and almost nothing coming out of North Carolina," Cernak said.

Sit-down diners in the East Baltimore crab house pay between $20 and $46 a dozen for crabs, depending on the size of the crabs, Cernak said. The restaurant charges the same prices throughout the season, he said. Like several others in business, Cernak said he was rooting for more warm weather. A warm spell about two weeks ago raised water temperatures and got crabs moving, and increased the crab catch, he said.

Across the Bay Bridge in Queenstown, Joe Bernard, president of Wye River Inc., said he had to look south, to North Carolina, to find claw meat he needed for the crab soup his company makes. The price of the Carolina claw meat was about 70 cents a pound higher than he usually paid, he said.

Bernard was the only person I spoke with who found Maryland crabs. He said he paid $105 for a bushel of live crabs. Live crabs are less expensive than steamed, seasoned versions.

It seemed to me that crabs are always more plentiful and cheaper on the Eastern Shore. I figured that was because virtually everybody living east of the Bay Bridge either owns several crab pots or is related to someone who does.

I am not in that situation, so instead of chasing after hard crabs this Memorial Day, I'm pursuing soft crabs. These crabs, which of course are hard crabs that have been caught shedding their shells, are in good supply. Soft crabs are so rich that it takes fewer of them to fill you up. Like most eaters, I can eat hard crabs by the dozen, but I can polish off no more then two soft crabs at one sitting.

Until the other day I didn't know that Mother Nature had been giving me a clue, telling me that now was the ideal time to feast on soft crabs.

When the locust trees bloom, the soft crabs are shedding their shells, said J. C. Tolley, president of Meredith & Meredith, a crab-packing operation in Toddville. He said this was Eastern Shore wisdom. Sure enough, Tolley said locust trees bloomed a few weeks ago, and plump soft crabs are now arriving local markets.

The hard crab harvest will come later, he said, when water temperatures rise. Or as the folks on the Shore say, "when the honeysuckle blooms."

So I am adjusting my body clock. I'm eating soft crabs, and when I smell honeysuckle, the alarm will sound and I will crave steamed crabs.

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