By SHANNON WATKINS
I was uniquely odd in my family when I was a kid for taking a dim view of most seafood. Despite growing up 40 miles inland of the Chesapeake Bay, I would eat only fried fish, fried or boiled shrimp, and (weirdly enough, given the potential slime factor), clam dip.
Meanwhile, my elders couldn’t get enough of the things I liked, plus crabmeat in any form, and oysters. My aunt in particular, as I recall, during our yearly casual family Christmas Eve buffets (we also had formal Christmas dinners) could tip back a jar of raw shucked oysters and send them down the hatch with delight. My grandfather did the same thing, but mixed with chunky tomato juice my grandmother canned every summer. Whenever they did this, I made a face and left the room.
With adulthood and a desire for adventure at the table, my picky youthful tastes evolved to the point where I’m actively sad if I don’t get at least one decent meal of fried softshell crabs in warmer weather, hopefully at least one of which is a nice fat sook with roe (female crab carrying eggs).
But even people who disdain eating the whole crab, with its many menacing limbs and pincers and stalky eyes and random spongy parts that have to be dealt with, are usually fairly perked up at the thought of a crabcake. It’s like a hotdog, in that all the objectionable parts are mashed into a whole, so if they don’t know they’re eating a crustacean’s spleen, they’re able to finish it happily and ask for more. (Crabs don’t actually have spleens that I can tell; although they do have an organ that seems to function as both liver and pancreas. Also, the male’s testes, albeit inside its shell, are sort of near its eyes. If you’re feeding anyone a crabcake, I recommend keeping that information to yourself.)
The only difficulty in eating crabcakes is prepping them. Possibly you’ve had one and chomped down on a piece of shell or cartilage and deeply, bitterly regretted not having pork chops instead. A pig would never play such a dirty trick on you, you think darkly.
Which brings us to the reason crabmeat costs so much in the first place: it’s not that crabs are especially wily under duress or will only accept filet mignon as worthy bait; it’s because picking the meat out of them is time-consuming and too fiddly to be done by machines. Human workers have to do it, and human workers have to be paid (and one hopes they are, and rather well at that. Can you imagine? Anyone who has to spend eight hours a day coaxing innards out of several dozen crab wazoos to make ends meet should be picked up and taken home in a limousine, just on principle.)
But human workers, no matter how conscientious, make mistakes and overlook smallish bits of shell and cartilage, and that’s why cartons of crabmeat are doubly expensive: first in the plain cost of them, and secondly in the work you need to pick over them again to remove whatever the first batch of people at the plant might have missed.
To do this, make it easy on yourself. Don’t buy the cheaper claw meat, which is made of tiny – albeit still delicious – bits of flesh, because it takes longer to pick through; buy the chunkier lump and backfin kind, a pound of each. Then put down a good, wide thickness of newspaper, open your cartons, and have a big bowl handy. Pull out little bits of crab at a time and go over them with your fingers. Any shell or cartilage you find, drop on the newspaper. The good meat you put in the bowl. It will still take forever to go through it all. You will rest your elbows on the table and cold crab juice will dribble down them to soak into the corners of the paper. You will realize you should have turned the TV on first. After 15 minutes or so, you will have a sudden, fierce itch spring up on your nose and then race around your face as you swipe it ineffectually with the backs of your hands, cursing and sweating and leaving smudges of crab-scented ink. An ice age will pass this way. Then, finally, you’ll be done.
If it’s within 24 hours of when you want your crabcakes – say, like my mom, you’re making these for Christmas brunch, when you’ll serve them on toasted buttered sesame buns with Surry bacon and homemade tartar sauce, along with grits and homemade cinnamon rolls with cream cheese icing (I’m sorry to go on, but it’s my favorite meal of the year) – go ahead and get them ready; if not, pack the meat in freezer-proof Ziplocs, label it with the date, and toss it in the freezer.
Ultimate Jumbo Crabcakes
1 lb. jumbo lump crabmeat, picked over
1 lb. backfin crabmeat, picked over
2 cups mayonnaise
juice of 1 lemon
2 Tbsps. Old Bay seasoning
1½ Tbsps. Worcestershire sauce
1 Tbsp. chopped parsley (optional)
1 bunch scallions, finely chopped (optional)
salt and pepper
In a mixing bowl, apart from your big bowl of crabmeat, whisk remaining ingredients until smooth. Pour just enough over crabmeat to coat it (you’ll have leftover sauce). Using a rubber spatula, gently fold and mix together, trying not to break up the lumps of crabmeat. Form into thick, 4”-5” wide patties. Bake at 400F until golden brown. Serve with a whole grain mustard or tartar sauce of your choosing.
So there’s one showstopper of an option for Christmas, if you’re not in the mood for ham and you’re still turkeyed out from Thanksgiving. Even if, let’s be honest, fishing objectionable parts out of a turkey’s hind end is considerably quicker.