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Blue crab fan goes out West for Dungeness dining


Portland, Ore. -- During a recent eating vacation in Portland, I spent a fair amount of time comparing their local crab, the Pacific Dungeness, with ours, the Atlantic blue.

Rather than restricting my comparison to the culinary question of which crab dishes can curl my toes with delight, I also looked at crab culture. I looked at what kind of art the local crab inspires. I looked at what kind of bait and tactics crabbers use. I looked at which crab was nastier.

Shortly after I got off the plane from Baltimore, I went to a Portland seafood restaurant, McCormick & Schmick's, and ordered crab cakes made with Dungeness crab. The crab cakes were golden, warm, but somewhat shy of crab flavor. My dining companion, Janie Hibler, a Portland resident and author of "Dungeness Crab and Blackberry Cobblers," (Knopf, 1991), told me a better way to show off the flavor of Dungeness was to serve it as a crab cocktail, with a little horseradish and tomato sauce.

So the next day Ms. Hibler, her daughter, Kristin, and I sat on a sun-drenched balcony of their Portland home feasting on a crab cocktail made with fresh, boiled Dungeness. The crab meat was sweet. It was a decisive win for the West Coast crab.

On the question of how the local crab influences the local artists, I started with T-shirts. I had carried a T-shirt from Baltimore that I considered a good example of the way crabs and art can interact.

It came from Obrycki's restaurant, and showed a giant crab skewering bite-sized humans with its claw. "Revenge," read the caption on the shirt. I presented this shirt to Ms. Hibler as a gift. She was thrilled, even if she did not wear it.

Finding T-shirts decorated with images of crab is a challenge in Portland. McCormick & Schmick's restaurant did sell a T-shirt, but, instead of a crab, the shirt featured a moose.

Moreover, during my four-day stay in Portland, I did not see one person wearing a baseball cap with a crab perched on the bill. In Baltimore I see such caps frequently, especially at the seafood stands in the Lexington Market.

While I wasn't able to go crabbing in Oregon, I did question several local folks on the matter of bait.

Bill White, who rents boats and crab-catching equipment at Bay Shore R.V. Center and Marina in Nehalem Bay, about 50 miles northwest of Portland, said most of his customers use frozen fish to catch Dungeness crabs. But he said he had seen some crabbers use watermelons or cans of cat food with holes punched in them for bait.

Later, Nick Furman of the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission told me that a few years ago, a fellow tried to harvest crabs using a helicopter. The idea was that the helicopter would haul giant crab pots, 7 or 8 feet long, from the local waters.

The venture went bust shortly after a copter crashed into the water.

I had to admire the imagination, if not the common sense, of folks who try to catch crabs with cat food and helicopters.

There's a difference in the way the West Coast and the East Coast treat soft crabs, crabs that have shed their shells. Throughout Maryland and most of the East Coast, when blue crabs shed their shells, people pursue them. Chefs can't wait to saute them. Eaters line up to taste them.

In Oregon, when the Dungeness crab sheds its shell, folks lose interest in it. According to Furman, Dungeness meat loses a great deal of density when the crab molts. These lighter crabs are called "floaters," Furman said, and are usually considered unpalatable.

I tried but was unable to determine which crabs are meaner.

I know from finger-numbing experience that the blue crab is a feisty critter that can do real damage with its quick-moving claws.

The Dungeness, however, is a heavy fellow with a reputation as a big hitter. I was told by Dungeness supporters that when their crab is put in a tank with a lobster, the lobster often ends up dead.

I left Portland thinking that the blue crab has the advantage in crab-cake and soft-crab competition. And I would say the blue crab has inspired more artistic expression -- some might call it tackiness -- than the Dungeness.

But the gap is closing. I heard reports that Oregon will soon see its first giant inflatable Dungeness crab. It will appear at various civic functions wearing sunglasses.

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