A first-rate mess
My mother was in town for the long weekend. She’s a champion crab-leg sucker, so to celebrate her visit, we bought three large crabs, cracked and cleaned, and Ben came over, and Brandon put some Django Reinhardt on the stereo, and after a few minutes, the wine bottle was covered with smears of crab and bits of shell, and it was such a good night that, looking at this picture and knowing that the scene is over, balled up and packed into the trash can outside, I feel sort of on the verge of a sob. I also feel immensely relieved that my mother is now back in Oklahoma, where I can’t see her frown when she finds out that I have outed her as a crab-leg sucker.
If I didn’t have relatives in San Francisco, I might never have learned about Dungeness crab. In Oklahoma, we certainly didn’t have any. But in San Francisco, at my mother’s twin sister’s house, we sometimes ate it on Christmas Eve, with sourdough, green beans, white wine, and a roll of paper towels for napkins. When I was eighteen, I decided to go to college there, and though I wasn’t thinking specifically of improving my access to fresh Dungeness crab, the prospect didn’t hurt. Every now and then, I would go to see my aunt over weekends and holidays, and in the winter and early spring, when Dungeness crabs are in season, we would sometimes splurge on a couple for dinner. I liked the whole idea of them: their sweetly saline meat, the ritual of the newspaper on the table and the paper towels in our laps, the casual slurping and the communal mess, the way it all felt so California. I liked to think that, in eating them, I too was California, in a sense. Whatever I was, I wasn’t Oklahoma City anymore. Every time I would drive across the Golden Gate Bridge, I would feel close to squealing, thinking, I LIVE HERE! I never got tired of it.
But eventually I finished college, and I went back to Oklahoma. My father made the drive with me a few days after graduation, and I was so terrified by the thought of leaving San Francisco that I had heartburn for the entire trip. One afternoon, I remember, we pulled over at a rest stop in New Mexico and shared a slice of blackberry pie that we had bought earlier in the day, in Albuquerque. The wind was whipping my t-shirt around like mad, and my chest felt so tight and painful that I was sure, absolutely sure, that I was dying. Once we got to Oklahoma City, I knew, I would be diagnosed with some sort of rare, fatal condition and given only a few months to live, and everyone would take pity on me and send me back to San Francisco, where I would live out my final days in a Victorian with a view of the bay. It would be beautiful and tragic, not only because I was only 22 and had never had a real boyfriend, but also because I would probably die in the summertime, when Dungeness crabs are hard to come by.
But instead, the heartburn went away, and I didn’t die. I had a great summer. My hair was short and spiky, and I had a pink halter top. I met a guy in a grocery store and fell in love, and he made my chest feel tight in a much better way. That fall, I applied to graduate school. I wanted to go to UC Berkeley, but the only school that wanted me was the University of Washington. So I moved to Seattle, and it was here that, shortly after, I learned that Dungeness crabs were named for a town on the coast of Washington State, which is where they were first commercially harvested. Which means, I think, that I was actually supposed to be here, not in San Francisco, all along.
Now when I eat Dungeness crab, I feel very Seattle. Somehow, I never get tired of that either.
Dungeness crab doesn’t need much in the way of a recipe, but I can tell you that it, served with the roasted broccoli from this recipe (minus the shrimp, and use kosher salt, not regular, and don’t forget the finishing squeeze of lemon), a loaf of sourdough, and a bottle of some sort of crisp white wine, makes a dreamy mid-February meal. Just be sure to have a few layers of newspaper on the table, and some lobster picks and nutcrackers, for getting at the meat. If you want, you can also melt some butter - clarified, if you’re fancy - and set that out as a dip. Most importantly, don’t forget to put a couple of paper towels in your lap, or else you’ll have rivulets of crab juice running down your forearms and onto your pants. Actually, that’ll happen no matter what you do, but it’s nice to be able to sop it up occasionally. Otherwise, it gets sort of sticky. If you’re Ben, you’ll also spray crab juice all over the front of your shirt, but that’s a special case.
After dinner, after you’ve rolled up the newspaper and the crab shells inside it and wiped down the table, a batch of chocolate chip cookies becomes important, as does some port or Scotch. And after that, a good, long sleep.
About Dungeness crab
- The season for Dungeness crab runs from November or December through late spring. Many people say that the sweetest crabs are the ones available at the very beginning of the season, but the ones we ate last weekend were pretty delicious too.
- Buy your crab from a vendor you trust, and unless you’re going to go out on a boat and catch it yourself, it’s probably easiest to buy it cooked. (Some markets sell live crabs, but buying a live one is not a guarantee of quality.) Your fishmonger should be happy to clean and crack it for you, so when you get home, you only have to do a little work with a nutcracker to access the meat.
- Buy the crab on the day that you plan to eat it - it doesn’t keep well - and store it in the refrigerator until shortly before serving. I like to let mine sit out for about 20 minutes before eating, so that the meat isn’t too cold.
- If you don’t live on the West Coast (or in a city where fresh crab might be flown in daily), you can mail-order Dungeness crab from places like this. (That link goes to my favorite fish market in Seattle.)
- Dungeness crabs weigh from one to two pounds or so. We bought three big ones, and they amply fed four of us.