This little free-form essay is a glossary of the crab knowledge I’ve gained from 25 years of living next-door to the Chesapeake.
Watermen: I suppose in any other part of the world, they’d be referred to as "fishermen." In Maryland, men who make their living fishing the waters of the Bay are never referred to as anything but watermen. It is a trade requiring a variety of skills, an encyclopedic knowledge of the Bay in all its aspects, business sense, and a great deal of very hard work. In these days of upward mobility, it is still most often a trade passed on from one generation to the next. Watermen have harvested the Bay for generations, going out after crabs and fishing for oysters either with long tongs or dredges (pronounced "drudges"). Up until a few years ago, those wishing to dredge for oysters were required by law to do so only under sail, and Maryland boasted the last working fleet of sailing vessels in the United States.
Crabs, hard: These are the beauties you will find in your crab cake. Crabs live to be about four years old if they are fortunate enough to survive the many adversities that face them. They’re quite aggressive, gifted with claws and legs both for swimming and for fighting. In their natural state they are a blue-green color on top and a pale cream beneath. Legally, you can’t catch or keep one that’s less than about four inches. Strictly speaking, they’re not very good to eat until they’re quite a bit larger than that. In Maryland, the male crab (called a Jimmy) is preferred for eating. (This isn’t the case everywhere.) Immature female crabs are called she-crabs, and mature females are called sooks. It takes a waterman to tell the two kinds of females apart, though anyone can distinguish the male from the female by the configuration of their undersides. Female crabs lay their eggs only once in their lifetime, and they usually die shortly afterward.
Everyone in proximity to the Chesapeake or its tributaries catches crabs occasionally. They are even taken out of the waters around Baltimore. Watermen use a variety of methods, including ingenious traps and long, long lines baited at intervals. They get up in the middle of the night to go and do this, which is why my journal is entitled "Catching the Early Crab." People with waterfront property set traps, too. People with pleasure boats occasionally attempt to emulate the watermen by setting out long lines. This tends to foul things up for the men who have to make a living at it, and the amateurs are referred to by the professionals as "chicken neckers," an allusion to the preferred amateur bait.
Crabs, soft: In order to grow, the crab must shed its hard shell and grow a new one from time to time. This process is arduous for the crab but delicious for humans. For a few short hours the crab’s new shell is soft and completely edible. It requires only a brief cleaning before being sautéed in a little butter. Everyone I know enjoys their soft crabs as sandwiches, simply eaten between two pieces of toast. The flavor is, if it’s possible, even more delicate than that of the hard crab.
Crab Soup: The Marylander’s preferred crab soup is a sort of tomato-based chowder, loaded with sweet corn, green or lima beans, whatever other vegetables happen to be around, and of course plenty of chunks of crab meat. This peppery and substantial meal-in-a-bowl is most often enjoyed the day after a feast of hard crabs. The prudent cook saves all the little leftover claws and adds those to the soup for extra flavor. Those in more southerly states make a cream-based, mild crab soup laced with a little sherry.
Crab Feasts: The general belief is that crabs get better after July 4, so an awful lot of people throw crab feasts on Independence Day. Crabs, like lobsters, need to be cooked alive. They’re layered in an enormous lidded pot with liberal sprinklings of Old Bay Seasoning (red pepper, spices, and other hot things). A can of beer is added, and they’re steamed until done. The table is spread thickly with newspaper, each feaster is provided with a wooden mallet and plenty of melted butter, and the feast begins. The traditional beverage is ice-cold beer. It would take another long essay to explain how to open and eat a crab. Your waitress—or your host or hostess—will be happy to demonstrate how to get every delicious morsel, and you’ll be enjoying your crabs like an old pro in no time.
Other Ways to Enjoy Crab: Crabmeat takes to just about anything. Sauce it richly for Crab Imperial or Crab Norfolk. Mound it in ramekins with a little cream and a few spices for deviled crab. Bind it lightly and gently with a little mayonnaise, some parsley, and a (very) few bread crumbs, sauté or broil it, and you have the delicious crab cake.