The gender gap is real — for crabs

Taken out of context, some of my recent phone conversations might sound a bit strange.

“What’s your price today for a dozen large males?”

“Do you sell females, too?”

I was asking, of course, about crabs — possibly the only animal that requires you to specify a gender while ordering. Gearing up for Labor Day weekend, I called 34 crab houses to get an idea of the average price for steamed crabs in the Baltimore area, updating a project my predecessors on The Sun’s data team had published back in 2016.

The first question was for the project, which used large male crabs as the comparison point. The second question, I started asking of my own volition. “In the name of gender equality,” I joked to my editors — but really, it was because I think female crabs taste better, and I personally wanted to know.

“We don’t sell females,” said a grumpy-sounding (dare I say, crabby) cashier at the first place I called. Another place was nicer, but they also didn’t carry females for sale.

“We just like the males better,” they told me. “We think it’s a better crab.”

If the numbers from my not-so-scientific survey are any indication, the local market agrees.

Among the 20 places I called that sold both genders, female crabs by the dozen were priced at between 51 and 85 cents to the dollar, compared to males.

Even among our crustacean counterparts, the gender gap is real.

There are reasons for this disparity. For one, size matters. Male crabs are typically bigger and meatier than females, who stop growing after they reach maturity.

But that’s not the whole story.

“It’s all based on supply and demand,” said the owner of a crab house in Arbutus, who charges $25 more for males by the dozen.

“People don’t prefer females,” said one manager of a place in Baltimore City, who doesn’t sell females unless they’re the only crabs she can get.

Many Marylanders apparently dislike crab roe — the orange-colored eggs sometimes found inside the body of mature female crabs.

“I think they’re disgusting,” another crab house manager told me, when I asked if she had ever tried the female crabs her restaurant sells. “I can't stand having to pick off the eggs.”

The discounted price for female crabs came as a happy surprise to my parents in the early ’90s when they immigrated to the Baltimore area from China. In my birthplace of Wuhan, female crabs are more in demand than males precisely because of their roe, which is considered a delicacy. In Shanghai, the best soup dumplings are the ones with pork and crab meat inside, garnished with a dollop of crab roe on top (and, if you’re lucky, inside some of the “soup” as well). In Hong Kong, crab congee, a savory rice porridge cooked with a tablespoon or two of roe, is never the cheapest item on the menu, and often one of the most expensive.

Growing up, I almost exclusively ate female crabs. My parents and I also enjoyed the sweeter taste of the crab meat, and we weren’t too fussed about getting more meat for your money with the males. “It’s not like you were going to get full eating just steamed crabs,” my mom said.

But we’re in the minority. Only three places I called said they usually sold more females than males. One of them, in eastern Baltimore County, had even sold out of females that day.

The distaste for roe and the desirability of big, strong males easily explain the demand side of the crab price equation. But what about supply?

All other things equal, females are generally in shorter supply for crabhouses than males, since mature female crabs are subject to catch restrictions during the peak season (there is also minimum size limit, but that applies to all crabs).

“From a conservation point of view, there should be a premium price on mature female crabs,” said Tom Miller, director of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s Chesapeake Biological Laboratory. Females mate only once in their lifetimes, and they produce three or four batches of eggs over the next few years after mating. “If you eat the female, you’re losing all of that reproductive potential,” he said.

Lest you feel morally superior for only eating males, keep in mind that the crab in crab cakes, crab dips and other products containing lump crab meat usually comes from female crabs. As steamed crab season ends, now is the time for harvesting female crabs, said Maryland Waterman’s Association president Robert T. Brown — though things are uncertain this year, as the industry faces a shortage of visas for the mostly Mexican workers they rely on to pick crabs.

“Crabonomics” is complicated, but I’ll leave you with a final data point: I called two Asian supermarkets that sell live crab by the pound. One said they only had females that day (and, in general, rarely carry males); the other said they sold both, but at the same price.

In this case, it seems that the difference between the dollar value of females and males really comes down to a question of culture.

czhang@baltsun.com

twitter.com/christinezhang

An earlier version of this article incorrectly described the mating patterns of female crabs. Females mate only once in their lives.
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