A pile of big crabs sat on the backyard table. I tried to convince myself I could quickly separate meat from shell, and present my family with a couple of pounds of hand-picked crab meat.
Crabs put on weight in the fall, and these were so meaty that my family had not been able to polish them off the night before when they arrived, hot and steaming from a Baltimore crab house. Not wanting such prized meat to go to waste, I had put the leftover crabs in the refrigerator and promised I was going to pick them clean.
I had backed out of such promises before. I may have lived in Maryland almost 20 years, but every time I see a stack of crabs that needs picking, I am reminded of my Kansas roots. In order to psych myself up for the task, I tried to remember a few instances of crab-picking glory. I recalled that once in a not-so-serious crab-picking contest held in a now-defunct restaurant, I had finished ahead of Brooks "Mr. Orioles" Robinson. I tried to forget that Brooks wasn't really trying. I recalled that a few years later I finished first in a crab-picking contest set up for media types. I tried to forget that I had subsequently been scared off, by a girl, from competing in the contest. That happened when Lisa Willis, co-anchor of Channel 45 news, clobbered me and all comers. On TV, Ms. Willis may look as sweet as the-girl-next-door, but in a crab-picking contest she is all business and karate chops.
Out in the back yard I began picking the crabs. It was slow going. Rather than zipping along, I was plodding. The crabs were cold and their meat was clinging to their shells. After about half an hour of work I had picked only enough meat to make three small crab cakes.
Soon my wife took pity on me and ventured outside to help. We divided up the task, she picked the meat from the body of the crab. I picked the meat from the claws.
I vaguely recalled that during a trip to Tilghman Island I had seen a man crack open crab claws with a knife. He had tapped his knife on the crab claw and quickly, quietly, almost miraculously the shell had fallen off. I decided to try that technique.
I got an old steak knife and started tapping my way up and down a claw. I was trying to find that "magic spot," the one the Tilghman Islander had hit with his knife. The one that made the claw meat "jump" out of the shell. I tapped and tapped and tapped. The only thing that jumped was the steak knife, as it bounced off the shell.
I went in the kitchen and got some help from "Mrs. Kitching's Smith Island Cookbook," (Tidewater, $10.50) This book, published in 1981 and written by Frances Kitching and Susan Stiles Dowell, is a collection of recipes and lore from an island in the Chesapeake Bay that a few hundred people and several thousand crabs call home.
The book had a series of photographs showing how to use a knife to crack crab claws. Following the book's instructions, I placed my knife on the claw just below the crab's pinchers and tapped. The blow was supposed to crack the shell, but my steak knife wasn't up to the task. So I helped it along by tapping the blade with a wooden crab mallet.
The combined force of the mallet and knife cracked the shell. Holding the pinchers in one hand and the rest of the claw in another, I pulled my hands apart. A hunk of crab meat that looked just like the pincher came out.
I was delighted, I had found a magic spot. I tapped away at claw after claw. I pulled out pincher after pincher of meat. This, I told myself, would impress visitors from Kansas.
But I had a problem. There was some meat left in the part of the shell that ran from the crab's "elbow" to its body. I figured there must be a "magic spot" for this part of the shell as well. Mrs. Kitching's book didn't mention such a spot.
I explored, I began tapping away with my knife and mallet. I must have tapped 50 claws. I never found the spot.
Later I called Betty Tall who picks crab claws for a living at Meredith & Meredith Inc. in Toddville. She told me the spot was located just short of the crab's elbow. She also told me to tap it with a heavy knife, not a steak knife.
Once the shell is broken, she said, you pull the cracked shell apart with your fingers, and a nice hunk of claw meat falls out.
I will have to take her word for it. By the time my wife and I had finished, the sun was setting, and I was getting cramps in my hands. We had picked three pounds of crab meat in about three hours. We had crab cakes for supper. And while they were wonderful, I have retired from crab picking, and my search for
the magic spots -- at least until next spring.