CRABS DO NOT MAKE GOOD HOUSE PETS
I never considered writing a memoir about an individual fish, or even a school of fish. But this is not a fish story, it’s a crustacean story. Better yet, an exoskeleton story.
It's my understanding that if you take living crustaceans from the ocean and bring them home, and if said soon-to-be-dinner victims are wrapped tightly in plastic bags, and after you shut the refrigerator door and the interior light blinks black and the oxygen runs out; crabs would die. Fish do. Crabs, do not.
If you love crab and want some of the freshest crabs available and you're
were willing to drive fifty miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge, up the rugged California coast line on Highway 1 past Stinson Beach, through the seaside hamlets of Olema, Marshall, and Tomales , eventually you’ll reach Bodega Bay.
A mile outside of town is the Bodega Bay Golf and Country Club. The golf course has a links style front 9 and a rustic old side back 9; both offer spectacular golf and vistas of the Pacific Ocean and Bodega Harbor.
After 36 holes of golf, my Tuesday “Swing Hard” group went for dinner on the dock at the Sandpiper. Along the pier signs informed us that Crab Season was in full swing and LIVE DUNGENESS CRABS were there for the taking. Somewhere after beer and wine and giving our orders, Boot *, a member of our golf group, decided he wanted to bring home some LIVE DUNGENESS CRABS.
A fourth generation San Franciscan, I’d teethed on crab. Back then crabs arrived on my plate already boiled, cracked and doused in shards of ice.
Around the third glass of wine Boot’s idea for fresh, live crab caught on and seven of us placed orders. Always the dolt, I ordered three. The fact that Bobbie and the kids were out of town and I had no one to enjoy the crab with did not even dawn on this high school graduate.
Boot collected our money, disappeared and returned with a gunny sack full of crabs before we’d finished our salads. He handed me a plastic-tote bag and began pulling my crabs out of the burlap. Boot was tough. I wouldn’t stick my hands into that gunny sack of crabs without iron gloves. He pulled the crabs one by one. I noticed their biggest claws were taped shut.
“These are yours; you get Claude, Harold and Fifi,” Boot kidded.
“How can you tell the sex of a crab?” I asked.
Boot shot me the “Aren’t you a dumb-shit” look.
While Boot continued to dole out crabs the rest of gang, I looked at Claude and Harold climbing over Fifi and decided they needed a little privacy. I went outside and dropped them in the trunk of my car.
I didn’t remember my crabs until 4 a.m. the next morning. I bolted out of bed fearing that the dead crab smell would make my car unsaleable. It wasn't for sale, but if someone made a big offer? And I knew Barb and the kids would never get in a car that smelled…. Ah, But I Digress.
It was still pitch black when I reached the trunk of my car. I froze. A lot of CLICKING and CLACKING came from inside. I eased the hatch open. My flashlight caught six little black, beady eyes staring back at me. Claude, Harold and Fifi had not passed away. Somehow they’d done a Harry Houdini act and escaped from the plastic bag. One of them was throwing a party between my spare tire and the car-jack.
Minutes later, well gloved, Claude, Harold and Fifi laying at the bottom of a Molly Stone grocery bag I shoved them into the vegetable bin of our refrigerator. Certain their demise would be gentle. They’d get colder and colder, then slowly go to sleep and die peacefully from hypothermia. Then I had another quandary: with Barb and kids away what was I going to do with three full-grown crabs?
SAVED BY A MA BELL CELL?
Two of my golfing buddies from the Bodega Bay golf trip, Keith K. and George R., were working on a construction project on Lombard Street in San Francisco. Not the world famous crooked part, but the congested, boring straight part. Keith called around three p.m.
During the course of their workday they remembered that I had bought three large, live crabs the previous night. Which, coincidentally, was the very same night they’d elected not to open their wallets and buy fresh, live crabs too. Keith remembered our dinner conversation I knew nothing about preparing the critters. He, however, was an expert. The conversation went something like:
‘How was I doing?’
‘I was doing fine, same as yesterday.’
‘Love the Bodega Golf course. Had a great time.'
'Great course. Great time.'
‘Didn’t you buy a few crabs last night?’
A subtle and rhetorical question! They knew darn well I’d bought crabs. Keith and George sat right next to me and watched Claude, Harold and Fifi in their little Ménage-a-Trois before I plopped them into the trunk of my car. I knew where this was headed and since I really didn’t know how to cook, clean or crack the crabs, I decided to end the ruse. I invited them for dinner. Keith promised to crack, clean and cook. George would bring the wine and I’d toss a salad and steam some rice. They accepted hungrily.
We were in agreement. Three grown men committed to our roles. Then Keith asked me to play souse-chef .
I grabbed a number 2 pencil and I wrote down his instructions.
a.Take the crabs out of the refrigerator.
b. Get a big pot, fill it with water and bring it to a boil.
c.Toss in the crabs and watch until they turn pink.
I was doing fine up until part c. Then I began to wonder. Could I do this? Could I surprise Bobbie and my kids the next time we had crab? Sure I could bring a big pot of water to boil, but toss in live crabs and watch as they turned pink? Yep, I convinced myself these were things I could do. I was a former United States Marine. While I digested part c. Keith continued with, “if our crabs start to scream too loud just turn up the music and cover the pot with a lid. Their screams usually die out after four or five minutes.” Keith is not mean-spirited by nature, but his Kamikaze like laugh does grate on occasion. “See you around seven,” he hung up.
Around 6:30, I poured myself a shot of bourbon and started to get ready. Crab without a terrific cocktail sauce is, well, just crab-blah. A few years back Bobbie showed me how to make her crab, prawn, shrimp and artichoke Super Sauce. Start with a small glass bowl, scoop in two tablespoons of Best Foods mayo, three vigorous squirts of ketchup, a dollop of horseradish, t spoon of soy sauce and the juice of half a lemon. Delicious. Should be on the shelves of your local supermarket shortly.
I put rice in our steamer, cleaned the spinach for the salad, added a sprinkle of walnuts and then went searching for a big pot. I knew we had one. I’d cleaned it on more than one occasion. I looked where Bobbie kept the pots. No luck. I checked under the sink and a few other likely places finally finding it above the stove behind some cookbooks. I wrote a post-it to ask Bobbie why she hid the large pot behind cookbooks. Then tore it up. She would just add it to her “ stupid question” folder. An ever expanding testimony to my ineptness and Barb’s patience .
Filling the pot with water I set it on the stove and went for the crabs. I figured I should let them thaw out before boiling. Innocently, I untied the plastic bag and spread their motionless exoskeleton bodies on our granite counter top. Then I did two stupid things in a row. Two stupid things in a row is not close to my record. First I cut the tape holding their huge, razor sharp, teethed claws together. Then, and this is up for conjecture; I MIGHT have said the following, “Water needs to boil before I can cook you guys.” I MIGHT have said that. I'm pretty sure I thought it. But, as events unfolded. I MIGHT have said, “cook you guys,” aloud.
I THOUGHT THEY WERE DEAD
I laid out napkins, knives and forks and wine glasses on the dinning room table. From the kitchen I heard the lid on the pot start to flap and thump a metallic tune. Claude, Harold and Fifi must have heard the pot boiling too. When I returned to the kitchen they had disappeared!
I don’t even know if crabs have ears. Okay, let’s say they have ears, could they translate what they hear from English to Crab? How could a crab break down the verb to be? I am a crab. I was in the ocean. Someone is about to boil me alive.
I scanned the kitchen counter. Crabs have two fore claws and six aft legs. They can be fast. Next time you’re at the beach watch them sidle across rocks, through tide pools and disappear into microscopic nooks and crannies. Impressive. I found my escapees to be from a lower gene pool. They did not exhibit great escape prowess. They hadn't gotten far.
One formidable claw poked up from behind our coffee canister. All three crabs had only gotten as far away from the pot of boiling water as a crab could get and still be on the granite counter top. Claude hid behind the toaster. Harold and Fifi slipped from behind the canisters and moved in tandem, across the counter past the sink, and backed-up between our spice racks. They honestly could have been candidates for Dancing with the Stars. Though not in the rumba or tango section, more of in the “sideling-along” part of the show.
I looked at the clock. 6:52 PM. Keith and George would be arriving any minute. It was time to get on with it. I slipped my hands into two big potholders and looked at the crabs. They looked back at me. I looked at the huge cauldron of boiling water, so did the crabs. ‘Women and children first,’ I mused.
No, that was for lifeboats and house fires. Fifi would be last, I decided, and since Harold was right by her side with a claw spread wide, I went for Claude. Here it gets a bit weird. As I reached for Claude behind the toaster, his little black eyes at the top of his little eye stalks seemed to be darting about the kitchen seeking any avenue of escape. At the exact moment I began to experience some trepidation about this entire exercise. Claude draped his claws over the top of our toaster and they came together like an altar boy at Sunday Mass.
I gave up on Claude and went instead for Harold and Fifi. Harold moved out in front of Fifi, a sacrificial crab, offering himself up for slaughter. Hell, I felt like I was in the middle of a Sponge Bob Square Pants cartoon. Then Keith’s voice repeated in the back of my brain, “If they scream too loud turn up the music and cover the pot with a lid.”
I still don’t know if crabs scream. I seriously doubt it. But that night I decided not to find out. Learning quickly, * I manged to grab the rear end of each crab. I returned them to the grocery bag and marched them back to the trunk of my car.
I put the rice steamer in the fridge for another time and used the boiling pot of water to boil up a batch of spaghetti. I made garlic bread, poured myself a tall Old Crow over ice and waited for my Keith and George.
They didn't arrive until after 9 p.m. George had miss-measured a metal banister and had to do the whole thing again.
“Where are the crabs?” Keith asked.
“From a plastic bag inside of a refrigerator?”
“They're smarter than they look."
Claude, Harold and Fifi were granted a reprieve and I hope still live happily somewhere in San Francisco Bay.
Hint: The safest place to hold any type of live crab is between their rear legs. Even then a quick and determined crab can inflict injury. They removed my stitches five weeks later – Thank You Fifi.
*Sometime I’ll have to relate the story of how Boot got christened ‘Boot.’