Note: This summer, SE intern Chichi Wang is heading out to the shores of Long Island to catch her own crabs, dig for her own clams, and scrounge up whatever else is edible by the ocean. Follow along every week on The Crab Pot. Take it away, Chichi!
"Crabbing is the oceanic equivalent of gardening—there’s the sense that you’re harvesting something precious each time you bring up your pot."
The desire to catch one's own meal is fundamental and compelling; like other primal needs, doing so is not always dictated by reason. This thought occurred to me only after I found myself stranded on a pile of boulders, creeping ever so slowly into the bay. Beneath my feet the waves lapped against a thick layer of matted brown seaweed, curly and slippery from the sea. It was a beautiful day at the Port Jefferson beach—clear blue skies and an ocean glittering from the sun with sailboats cruising along like skillful dabs in a watercolor, but I was there for one purpose only, and it involved the matter of my dinner.
We were there to retrieve the crab pots we had left behind earlier that day at low tide, when the rocks had been considerably less treacherous. Now, with two free hands, I inched along, clutching at the few dry spaces available on the narrow strip of boulders. A few feet ahead I watched jealously as my crabbing partner hopped from one rock to another with two buckets in tow for our potential catch. It was one of the few moments in my culinary life when I've regretted my choice of butter over treadmill, though I still think that the lengths I’ve walked to find high-quality butter should count as exercise. Still, at a snail’s pace I groped along until, finally, we found the yellow strings we had tied to the rocks in the morning. Those strings, in turn, were connected to the crab pots that we had left to “soak” for the day, hoping that our patience would be rewarded with delicious, meaty crab.
I’m convinced that there’s nothing better than crabbing. Fishing may be relaxing and scalloping or clamming may approximate the thrill of a treasure hunt, but crabbing is the oceanic equivalent of gardening—there’s the sense that you’re harvesting something precious each time you bring up your pot. Like the feeling of excitement that mounts as you pull a carrot out of the ground, not knowing exactly how large it’s grown just from looking at the frilly green top, you can never tell what you'll find in your crab pot until you haul it up.
Over the years we’ve developed all manner of superstition regarding the proper way to pull a pot. Hauling too quickly may scare off the crabs that are grazing on your bait; do it too slowly, and they’ll have the chance to scamper out of the pot before you’ve finishing retrieving it. On this particular evening, however, we hadn’t counted on the ropes getting tangled beneath the water. With the string lodged firmly between rocks and large patches of seaweed, our pulls from the water were clumsy and desperate tugs rather than the victorious hoists we’d envisioned. And when the pots finally reached our welcoming arms, there were only a few small rock crabs in the net, barely three inches across.
It was disappointing, to say the least. In the past we’ve hauled dozens of rock crabs from the cool waters of Northern California, or at the very least, errant sea whelks that have oozed into our pots. Whelks are a fine consolation prize for crab. The meat is juicy and sweet; sautéed with butter, it is as tasty as anything we’ve retrieved from the sea. On this day, only one rock crab was large enough to keep.
The journey back home was quiet. Our minds were preoccupied with dreams of the crabs that got away and as always, we wondered, what if we had stayed for just ten minutes longer? Still, steamed simply in water, the single crab made for a fine appetizer. The sweetness of its meat and the sticky, briny taste of its roe was some of the freshest I have ever tasted. And in the end, that’s why I’ll keep on crabbing, because a commitment to freshness and quality takes many forms, whether it's starting your own vegetable garden, curing your own meat, or baking your own bread. For the seafood lover, what could be better than knowing that what is on your plate was in the ocean just hours ago? Sometimes, one crab is all you need to keep on going.
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