Nobody liberates the lump meat faster than a professional crab picker. Want to see how they do it? . . . Want to see it again?
Every summer as a child, I went to my friend Annie McCormick’s house on the Fourth of July to eat crabs. And every year, without fail, her father would pull me aside and show me how to pick crabs his way. Funny thing was, I already knew how to pick crabs, and Mr. McCormick’s method, sound as it was, didn’t better my fastest time picking a crab, my crab-picking style, or my shot at the biggest-piece-of-lump-meat contest (an annual event at the McCormick house). I suspect most of us have a Mr. McCormick in our lives-someone who believes his is the absolute best way to pick a crab and never stops trying to convert you. But in fact, there is no perfect way to pick a crab. Even if someone’s method is close to perfection, it may not be perfect for you. That being said, our mission here is to show you how the professionals do it. At least this way when your Mr. McCormick comes around this summer and tries to show you the finer points of crab picking, you’ll be able to show him a thing or two.
In this case our professional is Robin Bradshaw of Smith Island, Md. Bradshaw, a native of the island, has been picking crabs for a living since she was 16 years old, and is a member of the Smith Island Crabmeat Co-op-a group of about 10 women who make a living selling the crabmeat from their husbands’ daily catches, and who formed the co-op after the state health department cracked down on in-home picking in 1992. With help from state and local officials, they set up a licensed crab-picking operation on the island where they can pick crabs to their heart’s content.
During my afternoon visit with Bradshaw, she showed me around the co-op, and then we sat down at the big stainless steel table so she could show me how she picks. Often all 10 women in the co-op will pick around this table, but that day it was just the two of us. Bradshaw was very patient while teaching me her techniques, stopping often to explain things and to allow each step to be photographed. During my lesson, I learned that Bradshaw can pick a crab in about 35 seconds (though she admitted that when she picks them to eat, she slows her pace considerably), and that by the end of the season her fingernails look awful. While learning, I made the typical rookie mistake of trying to get every last morsel of crabmeat-that’s not how the pros do it. To pick fast, Bradshaw says, you have to let a few slivers of meat slip by the wayside if you’re going to keep your pace. I also got Bradshaw’s take on a few points of contention regarding crabs in general. She feels that fall is the best time of year for sooks (females). Contrarily, jimmies (males) are better at the beginning of the crabbing season. And when I asked her if the “mustard” inside the crab is actually bad for you, she replied, “I don’t know, but I don’t want it. We just call it guts.” She did tell me about people who like eating it and of another who at least temporarily considered it a culinary delicacy. “He collected a container of it. He was a chef and he wanted to see if he could make something out of it. . . . We never heard from him again.”
As I mentioned earlier, I have my own way of eating crabs. And while my techniques have always worked well for me, apparently many of them are big no-no’s among real crab pickers. First of all, after removing the shell and legs and clearing “the guts,” I’ve always broken the crab in half (along what would be the spine, were crabs vertebrates). That’s the worst thing you can do, Bradshaw says. “You can’t get to the meat very good, especially if you’re pickin’ with a knife.” After picking a few crabs, I saw her point-it was much easier to get to the meat from the side, where the legs were, than from the inside edge. Also, I had never used a knife to pick crabs. The pros, on the other hand, do pretty much all of it with a knife. A sharp, heavy stain less steel knife is important while you’re scraping the meat out of the crab because the knife can slide along the walls of the chambers easily, allowing you to get the meat and not the cartilage. A slightly concave or “hooked” blade helps you get into some tight places, and, if the handle is heavy enough, you can use it to crack a crab claw open without any broken shell, leaving only the intact claw meat.
Bradshaw has used her old Carvel Hall knife for about 26 years now, and it seems to work as an extension of her hand. It’s pretty worn out though, and she’s a bit worried about where to find her next one. Carvel Hall went out of business several years ago and worthy equivalents are now a bit harder to come by [see sidebar page 84]. I never used a knife in my picking endeavors, but I did use a mallet. Surprisingly, the ubiquitous crab mallet isn’t used by the pros; they crack claws with a blow from their knife handle. If you don’t have a hefty enough knife, you can place your knife blade where you want to crack the claw and give it a good whack with a mallet to produce the same effect.
While it was difficult to employ some of Robin’s methods at first, after I picked five or six crabs her way I really got the hang of it. I could get the legs off without too much trouble, pick a good lump of back fin, and get a good bit of the meat out of the top chambers without making a mess of everything. I found that cutting the legs off rather than pulling them made a huge difference when it came time to find where the meaty chambers were, and that using the knife in general made everything go much more quickly. In about an hour, we picked roughly half a bushel, which yielded about three pounds of crab meat. Since Bradshaw couldn’t sell what I had picked, she graciously made me and photographer Vince Lupo delicious crabcake sandwiches to take back on the boat to Crisfield with us. Because the meat wasn’t separated into claw and lump meat the cakes were much more flavorful than I am used to. I also took about half of a pound home and, feeling like a real pro, made some fantastic hot crab dip. Then I called Mr. McCormick.