“Just close your eyes and take a bite,” I said to the uneasy tourist. I found myself saying that quite often the summers I waitressed at a local waterside restaurant. Many travelers, enamored by the water culture they had discovered here on the Eastern Shore, would often order a soft crab sandwich not realizing what it actually was. When the plate arrived at their table with legs poking out of either side of a piece of white bread, they were taken back.
“They are quite delicious,” I would coax them along. Some were brave enough to discover they were delicious and others of the more timid sort, would order something else rather than put the fried leggy thing up to their mouths. It was their loss, but some people aren’t culinarily adventurous. For those who were willing to give it a try, it was an experience they will never forget. “How could something that looks like that taste so good?” Many would wonder. My reply was always the same, “I don’t know, they just are.”
For those who grew up eating soft crab sandwiches and loving them…this story is for you. For those who don’t know much about soft crabs, this story is also for you. Enjoy, legs and all.
In the 1960s, Nancy Engle lived in a house with her parents on “Hel’s Half Acre” in Oxford. One day, Alan Howard, who lived in a trailer nearby, saw her mowing the grass in her bathing suit. The next thing she knew, as Nancy tells it, she was walking down the aisle. Alan had grown up in Baltimore but in the summers had spent time with his uncle on Kent Island crabbing. After serving in the Army, he decided to move to the Eastern Shore and become a waterman. Nancy and Alan married in 1964 and rented a bigger trailer on “Hel’s Half Acre” from Helen Bradley. While Alan continued to work the water and Nancy was a nurse, they bought a piece of land on Irish Creek in 1967 for $5,000, built a house, replaced the handmade dock and moved there in 1970.
In addition to Alan working the water, he had also been shedding crabs on Town Creek in Oxford. With his new residence, he had the waterfront and space to expand his crab shedding business. First, he built five large floats (4’ x 8’) to keep off his dock. Tending to the peelers by boat was tedious work and so within one year, he moved the wooden floats on shore, sold them, and replaced them with fiberglass basins of the same size. A shed was built to shield them from the sun and river water was pumped by a “Gould Pump” from the end of the dock to the floats keeping the water circulating and adding oxygen to the open tanks. Before long, business was in full swing; he had eight floats and a walk-in cooler.
Pausing the story for a moment, let’s really take a look at the soft crab. A soft crab is the state a crab is in for a few hours just after it sheds its shell or “molts.” When it sheds, it backs out of its shell and within a few hours the new shell will become like paper and then gradually get harder. This process is how a crab grows. Small crabs may shed many times in a season, while larger crabs will shed less. There is a rhythm to the shedding that follows the cycles of the moon. Around a full moon, a large majority of crabs will shed, followed by quieter weeks. A “peeler” is a crab that will shed its old shell very soon. There are a few ways to recognize a peeler. One, if you caught it with another larger Jimmy crab (male), it is most likely a peeler (these mates are called doublers). Two, if you flip the crab upside down and the apron is like a triangle and pinkish, and the crab is heavy it is most likely a peeler. Third, if you look at the backfin and it has a red tinge or red outline, it’s most likely a peeler. As the red outline becomes more pronounced, the closer the crab is to shedding. This outline is a paper thin new back fin that shows through the shell.
There are three stages to a peeler. The “green stage” may last for a week or more, a “near ripe” may ripen any day, and a ripe will shed or “molt” at any time, and must be checked often. Ripe peelers must be checked often because when they shed they are soft, weak and vulnerable to the other crabs in the tank. Yes, crabs are cannibals. In the wild, crabs seek shelter in tall grasses to hide from predators when they shed. This is just one of the many reasons native river grasses are so important to the health of the Chesapeake Bay.
When their first child was born in 1976, Nancy opted to stay home and help with the soft crab business, enabling Alan to take on more crabs. But selling soft crabs wasn’t all Alan did, he also worked the water all seasons. From April until October it was hard and soft crabs, fall, winter and early spring it was oysters or gill netting. Crabbing season was around the clock for six months.
In April, Alan would drive south to Crisfield and buy their peelers before our season was really getting started. Hard crabbing started at about 4 a.m. everyday. Alan would check the floats at 4 a.m. just before he headed out trot lining for the day. At 6 a.m. Nancy would check the crabs and then again every two hours throughout the day and into the night, even checking them at midnight.
Each tank would be looked over and as the peelers ripened they would be moved from a “green” tank to a “near ripe” tank to a “ripe” tank. Once they shed in a tank or float, they were left to rest (out of harms way) for about 30 minutes. Then they were either packed live or cleaned and then packed. Once taken out of the water, their shells do not harden as quickly. To clean a soft crab, the face is cut off with scissors, the back apron is removed, and the top shell is folded back so the gills or “devils fingers” can be removed. The top is then replaced and the crab is ready to cook or ship. Soft crabs must be refrigerated once cleaned. Many of the crabs that Alan sold were “sold live” and cleaned at the restaurant. A soft crab can live out of water for several days, if kept cool and packed slightly upright.
Alan would return from hard crabbing around 11 a.m. and head to Bellevue and then St. Michaels to sell his catch and buy peelers from other watermen. While he was gone, Nancy would take the ferry with baby in tow and deliver live soft crabs to the Oxford Carry-Out and the Robert Morris Inn. They also sold to Higgin’s Crab House. Some were frozen and shipped to Baltimore to a grocery store owned by Alan’s father; and extras were cleaned and frozen for times when crabs weren’t shedding. Some watermen dropped off peelers to sell at Alan and Nancy’s dock or visited their driveway by pick-up truck to make a sale. Tiredness also visited often. With a rigorous schedule of checking the crabs every two hours, and babies at home, Nancy was caught more than once in her nightgown.
This circle of time went round and round, hour after hour, day after day, week after week, month after month without pause. Except for the “hiccups.” The Gould pump that pumped the river water burned up every 18 months or so and would need to be replaced. If the electricity went out, they would empty the water out of the floats because without oxygen in the water the crabs would die; oxygen in the air would keep them alive longer.
Another hiccup might be a raccoon “fishing the floats.” A particular raccoon family was discovered to be eating into the profits, feasting on about a dozen soft crabs a night. So one night Alan climbed on top of the walk-in cooler with a shot gun where he would have a good view of the floats. Nancy went to bed and slept so soundly that when she woke she asked Alan if he had taken care of the problem. Turns out, it’s hard to shoot a raccoon while asleep on top of a walk-in cooler. They ended up trapping the racoons and letting them go somewhere else.
This pattern of hard work continued until the late 1980s when Alan passed away. Nancy went back to nursing and the floats went empty. But the methods for shedding out a soft crab have not changed. It is tedious and tiresome work; work without pause for six months a year. Was it a labor of love? Maybe. Was it exhaustion in its purest form? Certainly.
It’s fascinating to me how much culture plays a role in our perceptions of what food is. When we are introduced to local specialties as children, we don’t think of them as such. For example, I grew up eating scrapple not really knowing what it was exactly, but man it tasted good. When I found out it was made of pork scraps from a variety of places on a pig, it didn’t matter to me; it had been normalized within my culture. To this day scrapple and grits make me think of breakfast at home when I was young and it’s a comforting feeling. Many may feel the same about a soft crab sandwich, closing your eyes and biting into one isn’t just for the adventurous tourists, it’s for the locals too. Sure, you know the legs are there, you’ve eaten one before, but in closing our eyes we may flash back to a time when soft crabs were more plentiful and you knew who shed it.
If you’re local and reading this, you may even have known Alan Howard or know Nancy Howard. Either way, the next time you enjoy a soft crab sandwich I invite you to envision their operation and think about the hours of work they put into making sure the soft crab got between those two slices of white bread.
Cathy Schmidt writes from Trappe where she and her husband Chef Brian Schmidt own Garden and Garnish Catering. A food explorer, Cathy loves to garden and cook from scratch.
Nancy Howard’s Soft Crab Sandwich
Coat with flour and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place into deep fryer until crispy. Serve as a sandwich on white bread.