EVERY Memorial Day weekend there is a clamor from members of our clan to buy hard crabs. I fight it.
It is too early, I tell my tribe. Most of the Chesapeake Bay crabs haven't started their beautiful swimming routine yet. Instead, they are just going through their warm-up exercises. Steamed hard-shell crabs purchased on Memorial Day weekend more than likely hail from the waters of North Carolina, Louisiana or Texas, I say.
Besides, on Memorial Day weekend, hard crabs are usually too expensive for my taste. Once steamed crabs get over $100 a bushel, I lose my appetite.
Sometimes I win the hold-off-on-the-hard-shells argument, sometimes not. My most successful tactic is to propose an attractive alternative, soft crabs.
Usually, most of the Chesapeake Bay crabs shed their winter shells around Memorial Day. This produces the first soft-crab "run" of the season. It means that the supply of soft crabs -- blue crabs that have temporarily shed their shells -- is plentiful and the price is more reasonable.
Moreover, I feel that while almost any eater can face a steamed hard crab, it takes a true devotee to take on a soft crab, dangling legs and all.
Last week, I checked the soft-crab situation with J.C. Tolley of Meredith & Meredith, a seafood packing house in Dorchester County. He said that the first run of soft crabs had started about three weeks ago, "a hair earlier than usual," and was winding up. This means there should be plenty of soft crabs in the market this weekend, Tolley said. As for hard crabs, he predicted, "they will be scarce and high, but some people want them anyway, so everybody will be happy."
Tolley also passed along some Eastern Shore insight into crab behavior. According to folk wisdom, soft crabs are plentiful when the locust trees bloom, and hard crabs are plentiful when the honeysuckle blossoms.
This gave me another argument to use this weekend against the hard-crab contingent in my family. I will tell them that the locust trees have bloomed, but the honeysuckle has not. We will see if it works.
Meanwhile, I plan to cook some "sawf crabs."
On previous Memorial Days, I have tried a variety of soft-crab treatments. I have grilled them on the barbecue. I have dipped them in flour, egg and crushed pecans and fried them in oil. I have sauteed them in olive oil, garlic, herbes de Provence and white wine.
But two simple treatments that caught my eye recently came from an old book, Frederick Philip Stieff's "Eat, Drink & Be Merry in Maryland," first published in 1932 and republished in 1998 by Johns Hopkins Paperbacks.
The first, from Mrs. R.E. Bradley Sr. of Baltimore, reads: "Twelve soft crabs, one-half pound butter, black pepper, salt, flour. See that crabs are cleaned thoroughly, wash and wipe dry, salt and season highly with black pepper, then dust with flour. Have butter at boiling point, put crabs in pan, and turn frequently until nicely browned. Serve at once."
The second recipe, attributed to W.T. Emory of the Log Inn in Annapolis, avoids pepper and fries the soft crabs in oil. It reads, in part: "Sprinkle [cleaned soft crab] very lightly with salt and then with flour. Have oil in pan moderately hot and not deep. Do not immerse. When brown on one side, turn and brown other side. Time -- about twenty minutes, or according to size of crab."