"For a spellbinding minute, crab and bulldog stood perfectly still, staring each other down."

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20090805crabscage.jpgIt was a quiet day in Patchogue. There were just a few fishermen on the docks, along with me, hunched over with a book, my four crabbing nets in circulation. When the docks are quiet, there’s time to think. I think about my upcoming articles and the books I’m reading at the moment—but mostly, I think about the crabs.

Having never worked on a farm, these crabs are the closest I’ve come to understanding an animal before I've eaten it. Does it make a difference, to be so closely acquainted with that which you consume? I think it does.

Gardeners also understand this, that there is an incomparable intimacy to pulling up your own carrots or patiently picking the slugs off your prized lettuce heads. Still, as much as I enjoy harvesting from my garden, no vegetable could be as memorable as a live, feisty crab.

Surprising Discoveries

We imagine crabs as bottom dwellers, lurking beneath the piers, scavenging on all sorts of carrion. This is true, but blue crabs are also dynamic, proactive eaters. Pushing themselves into the muddy bottoms of the water, blue crabs will hide with just their eyes poking out, biding time until their prey draws nearer. Sometimes, on clear days, I can peer into the sunny spots in the ocean and see the crabs swimming along with the tide, near the water's surface. I’d never thought of blue crabs as swimmers, but they can rapidly navigate their way through the waves for miles.

And the sex lives of crabs? I first became intrigued when I found in my nets several crabs that came in pairs. Called doublers, these pairs consist of a female on the bottom and a male on top. Like lobsters, blue crabs can only mate when the female has shed; a female crab, ready to molt, will seek a male who can carry her in an upright position. After she sheds, he clasps the newly molted, fragile female so that their abdomens are touching, and then he completes the task at hand. The pair remains bonded for a few days; only after the female's protective shell hardens will the two crabs will part ways.

Doublers, engaged as they are with one another, are fairly easy to toss back into the ocean. Single crabs that are not of legal size, on the other hand, are nearly impossible to return to the water. They'll scramble frantically out of the nets in their attempt to escape. Some of them have a sixth sense for the water and will scamper off the docks in a split second. Other crabs, however, seem hopelessly wayward.

The Face-Off

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There, as I sat waiting to pull up my nets, I watched one tiny crab having the most difficult time on the docks. It scurried in various directions until, by chance, it drew the attention of an inquisitive dog. The crab seemed not to mind that it was only one-hundredth the size of its mammalian foe. Instead, it brandished its arms at the approaching dog, daring the beast to come closer.

For a spellbinding minute, crab and bulldog stood perfectly still, staring each other down. Finally, the foes slowly backed away, perhaps in the recognition that both were fierce in their own right. The little crab eventually scuttled sideways over the wooden docks and back into the ocean, where I presume it is now, perhaps staking out its fair share of the carrion.

As for me? I took home quite a few blue claws that day, the biggest of which was well over eight inches in length. Steamed in beer and eaten with a bit of Old Bay, the crab was by far the largest I’ve had yet. Due to its ample size, shelling the meat was almost too easy. As I feasted, I couldn't help thinking about the secret lives of crabs.

About the author: Chichi Wang took her degree in philosophy, but decided that writing about food would be much more fun than writing about Plato. She firmly believes in all things offal, the importance of reading great books, and the necessity of three-hour meals. If she were ever to get a tattoo, it would say “Fat is flavor.” Visit her blog, My Chalkboard Fridge.

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