15/05/17

Stone Crabs

Cynthia Bertelsen

Menippe Mercenaria: Menippe-Greek, meaning force or courage and Mercinaria-Latin, something of value (Stone crabs)

I now live in Florida once again. It’s not the Florida of my youth. Far fewer dirt roads lead to small orange groves, the palm trees stand in straighter rows, and manicured water-thirsty lawns sparkle green where palmetto plants once reigned.

A huge issue now is the water used by cattle grazing and sugar cane growing Millions of gallons of water are drawn daily out of the Florida aquifer, causing a tremendous drain on the life-giving water lying far below the parking lots and the miles of savannah of central Florida.  But other changes bode well for the culinary future of this quite diverse state.

Billions of gallons spiked with agricultural waste is being pumped daily from Lake Okeechobee toward the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico, browning the blue coastal waters, choking sea grass beds and crippling small businesses that depend on a healthy marine ecology.

- Carl Hiaasen (Miami Herald, 4 March 2016)

Near my house, there’s a really cool Saturday flea market on where people sell local produce, live chickens and ducks. I can also shop at an Asian market about four blocks from my house, where big-bellied fish swim in huge gurgling tanks. And many other ethnic and international markets entice creative cooks as well, including superb Indian markets. 

Ingredients come from orange groves, organic farms, fishing boats hauling in fresh seafood, and the occasional small fruit stand languishing on a dusty country road. Florida boasts a plethora of enjoyable culinary traditions, thanks to the numerous immigrant populations, both past and present: Cuban food, Greek food, Mexican, African American, Korean, Spanish, Russian - all these influences create a rich and vibrant culinary climate that thrives in modern Florida. 

Now that I live in Florida again, I seek out that most prized of Florida’s foods, one that comes from the sea. Stone crabs.

Or rather, their claws.

Formerly known as “Morro crabs of Cuba”, stone crabs delight the gourmet’s palate and strain his or her wallet. Weighing in at nearly forty dollars a pound for the larger size, stone crabs are not to be taken lightly. Don’t waste that exquisite white flesh in crab cakes or crab casseroles. The only way to eat these long-lived crabs (they live 8-10 years) is straight out of the shell. Only then can the true meaning of “recycled” be understood: the crabs are divested of one of their claws and then thrown back, only to be divested of a “retreaded” claw 18 -24 months later and so on. Claws must measure a minimum of two-and-three-quarter inches in length for “harvesting.” And female stone crabs rich with eggs must not be touched. Fishermen take care to return the crabs to their watery home in good condition – minus the pincher claw – because in 2015, the stone crab business brought in a whopping 40 million dollars. Each crab can regenerate its large claw three or four times. Fishermen, not environmentalists, spearheaded the drive to conserve this valuable natural resource.

Bait for the stone crabs
Bait for the stone crabs

I first ate stone crab claws in Cedar Key, Florida, on the Gulf of Mexico, where one of the three or four ocean-side restaurants served skateboard-sized platters of these succulent claws. In the 1960s stone crab claws went for thirty cents a pound wholesale. Sitting at a plastic-covered table, watching brown pelicans flying low over the rippling tides, we spoke little and ate much, cracking claws with nutcrackers and dipping them in melted butter. And then, scraping the tender white ambrosial flesh off the claw with our front teeth, like eating artichoke leaves, we noticed the sun setting to the west as seagulls screeched and heavy-bellied big-billed pelicans scooped up fish innards and heads discarded out the backdoor of the restaurant, their loose jaw pouches swinging like my old cat’s fat stomach when she lurches after a snake in the woods near my house today.

According to Nicolaas Mink, in his detailed article, “Selling the Storied Stone Crab (Gastronomica, Fall 2006),” eating stone crabs in Florida took on the aura of a creation myth, a veritable legend surrounding the appearance in Miami Beach  in 1921 of a near-penniless Hungarian immigrant named Joseph Weiss, of Joe’s Stone Crab fame.  Of course, people had been eating this feisty crab for years, and not just in Florida. The crab’s range extends from the Carolinas to the Yucatan.

No matter whether you eat the original claw or the regenerated “retreads” (the “retreads” are never as large as the original claws), you will likely be eating pre-cooked claws. Fishermen cook the claws on board fishing boats or in the fish houses before the claws are presented to the consumer. If raw claws are frozen, the meat tends to stick in shreds to the inside of the shells. Precooking is necessary, therefore, before freezing. Frozen stone crab claws can be stored, still frozen, for up to three months without deterioration.

Lovers of stone crabs may yearn for the likes of Mr. Jack Moore, who in those long ago days of 1928 in Manatee County, started the first commercial distributorship of these succulent crabs. At 19 cents a pound, the crabs arrived alive at various Florida restaurants and Mr. Moore was required by his clients to personally twist off the claws. Let’s hope Mr. Moore took the crabs home afterward. Or let them go back into the sea to nurse their wounds.  “Fresh” meant fresh in those days, squeamish or not.

Fresh is still fresh. The only packaging on claws is the stony shell that shatters all over your neighboring eater as you wrestle with the critters and gouge out the sweet crabby flesh. Dunk the claws into drawn butter and be traditional. Or try one of the sauces below.

Note:  Fresh stone crab claws can be enjoyed until 15 May and for as long as frozen supplies last. After that, the crabs are no longer required to make any sacrifices until October 15, when the cycle begins anew.

MUSTARD DIPPING SAUCE

1/2 cup mayonnaise 2 t. dry mustard 1 t. Worcestershire sauce Lemon juice and salt to taste

Mix all ingredients together until well-blended. Serve chilled with chilled stone crabs claws.

HONEY MUSTARD SAUCE

½ cup honey ½ cup Dijon-style mustard ½ cup cider vinegar ¼ cup Worcestershire sauce 2 t. Tabasco sauce 1 t. salt 1 T. chopped parsley

Mix all ingredients together except for parsley. Bring to a boil and boil for 3 minutes. Cool. Stir in parsley and chill sauce. Serve with chilled stone crab claws.

ASIAN DIPPING SAUCE

2 garlic cloves, mashed 1 t. dried red pepper flakes 2 t. granulated sugar 1/8 fresh lime, pulp and juice reserved ¼ cup soy sauce 1-2 T. water

Mash the garlic, sugar, and lime into a paste. Pour in the soy sauce. Thin with water as desired. Serve with warmed stone crab claws.

Credits

Name Role
Penny Averill Photographs