My Dungeness Crab Adventure

September 7, 2008 | By | COMMENTS

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Let’s say you’re growing up in Boca Raton, Florida and you’re looking at a map and someone says to you, “Point to a place in America that seems the most exotic to you, the most far away?” there’s a good chance you might point to Washington State. After all, it’s pretty much as far as you can get from Boca Raton within the continental U.S. And growing up, as I did (past the age of 11), in South Florida, I very rarely–if ever–entertained the idea that I might, one day, find myself in Washington State, on a barely inhabited island on the San Juan archipelago, sitting in a rowboat with my boyfriend, his dad, and brother, pulling up traps of giant crabs that we would take ashore, smash on the side of a bucket, and cook in sea water. The closest I ever got to cooking and killing my own seafood in Boca Raton was choosing a lobster from the tank at Red Lobster when I went there with my grandparents.

Flash forward to me at the age of 29: generously invited by Craig and his family to join them for five days on the San Juan Islands where we would catch, kill, clean and cook our own fresh Dungeness crabs; I was suddenly about to experience the most exotic adventure the younger me could’ve imagined.

Craig’s family has a cabin on Eliza Island, which is the first stop on the San Juan ferry from Bellingham. You exit the boat on to a pier and there Craig’s family waits for you with Bagel the Beagle to welcome you ashore.

The island is magnificent. It’s relatively small, though it certainly wore me out to paddle around it in a kayak. It has high peaks with lots of trees and beaches with colorful and smooth rocks which Craig likes to collect. Mostly, it’s the air that won me over: crisp, clean, calming. I quickly eased into island life: playing cards with Craig’s cousins, aunts and uncles, playing fetch with the dog, and helping Craig’s mom, Julee, shell crab in the morning:

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The crab we ate at the beginning was crab caught the previous Wednesday. The law states you can only crab on Wednesdays so, having arrived on a Sunday, we had to wait four days for the fresh crab experience. Still, the leftover crab was plentiful and flavorful–don’t you want to dip your hand into this bowl?

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Craig’s dad, Steve, made his famous crab cakes which are constantly referenced by Craig whenever a crab cake disappoints him at a restaurant or cocktail party. “When my dad makes crab cakes, they’re almost entirely crab,” he likes to say. And now that I’ve had them, I can be a crab cake snob too:

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But as much as I enjoyed the crab cakes and the camaraderie, I was eagerly awaiting the fresh crab Craig has been talking about from the moment I met him back in 2006. Seriously. I’m 99% sure that on our first date, he must’ve talked about the fresh Dungeness crabs he catches with his family on Eliza Island, smashing them on a bucket, boiling them in sea water and eating them, hot out of the pot, right there on the beach. “There’s nothing like it,” he says. “It’s the best thing in the world.”

Alas, after much concentration and attempts at time-control (couldn’t move it forward), Wednesday came. I was profoundly excited, but not more excited than Craig.

“Are you ready?” he said as we joined Steve outside. “This is it!”

The first ingredient one needs to hunt Dungeness Crabs is an ingredient one might not expect.

“What are those?” I asked Steve as he opened a Styrofoam pouch of what looked like poultry.

“Turkey legs,” he answered.

“Turkey legs?” I repeated. “Crabs eat turkey legs?”

“Yup,” he said. “Turkey legs are good crab bait.”

He proceeded to put a turkey leg in each of four traps:

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The next part is where our story becomes a thrilling adventure: the part where we board the rowboat and take the traps to sea.

Here’s Steve, Craig and Craig’s brother Eric as we prepared to row to our deaths:

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Actually, the rowing out to sea was pretty uneventful. Steve is a good rower and, unfortunately for this narrative, no one fell overboard:

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Once we were a decent ways away from shore, we began dropping traps. This entails a complicated process that goes like this: you take a trap and drop it in the water. It sinks. A buoy floats to the surface. That’s it. You paddle away and drop the next trap. When all four are dropped, you return to shore and wait two hours.

“Hi Adam, I’m a reader, and I’m waiting for the adventure. You did say this was an adventure, didn’t you?”

Be quiet, reader! I’m getting there!

While on shore we played more cards and read more books and then, two hours later, we returned to the boat and Steve paddled us out to the first buoy. And here’s where the adventure becomes a real adventure: Craig pulls up the trap from the water, as documented in this exciting video!

For those at work or those who can’t play video: there were lots of crabs in there! But Steve had to throw most of them back because they were female; the law states you can only keep male crabs. The reasons are pretty self-evident: female crabs eat babies.

We pulled up all four traps–some had lots of crabs, some had very few crabs, and a few of them had sea stars like this one:

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There’s Craig’s sister Kristin in the background. Hi Kristin!

All in all, we came to shore with about eight fully-sized male Dungeness crabs and then, after carrying the rowboat on to the beach, we proceeded to Step 2: cleaning the crabs.

Actually, I say we, but it was Craig’s dad who did the dirty work. What is the dirty work? See Video #2:

So you knock their heads off on a bucket (ignore the fact it’s a kitty litter bucket), break them in half, and remove the gills. That’s all the cleaning.

It’s at this point when the crabs go from live, ugly creatures to something that looks like food. And, looking down into the container of cleaned crab, I started getting hungry.

“When do we eat?” I asked.

“As soon as Craig fills up the kettle with sea water, I’ll crank up the propane and we’ll be ready to go,” said Steve.

Craig was quick to do whatever was necessary to get those crabs cooked:

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On to a burner it went:

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And, once at a boil, Steve dropped the crabs in to cook:

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Here are the crabs cooking:

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And, at the top of the post, you’ll see what they looked like when they came out.

We’re finally at the best part: after the hunting, the turkey legs, the rowing, the dropping, the waiting, the lifting, the throwing back, the rowing ashore, the cracking, the cleaning, and the boiling, we finally get to do what I’d been dreaming of for two years: we finally got to eat the crabs.

Here’s Kristin and Craig as we prepare to eat:

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Here’s the wine we’d drink with the crabs:

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And here’s that picture from the previous post of me with my first freshly caught and cooked Dungeness crab:

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What did I think?

Maybe I was caught up in the moment. After all, this was the most work I’d ever put into the acquisition of protein; this was the first time I’d encountered an animal in its natural habitat, watched it die and ate it.

My words might’ve been hyperbole, but I still stand by it: “This is one of the best meals of my life.”

The crab was wildly sweet and succulent; the meat I got out of there, after cracking and pulling and peeling, was large and substantive and deeply pleasing, like lobster, only sweeter.

You may recall a post, from a few weeks ago, called The Great Crab Debate in which our friends Mark and Diana challenged Craig about which was better: East Coast blue crabs (which Mark and Diana favor) or the West Coast Dungeness Crabs to which Craig has dedicated his life. Not having had east coast blue crabs (though I will at the end of this month when I go to Baltimore!), I’m not capable yet of weighing in. However, to close out this post, Craig’s mom has a message for Mark, though Craig has the last word:

[Thank you Johnson family for your hospitality and for sharing your island and your crabs with me! It was an experience I'll never forget.]

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Categories: Random Videos, Videos

  • http://www.annienewman.typepad.com Anniesnyeats

    This whole entry is enthralling (and i begin to think I might be a West Coast-er by nature as I have never seen the point in working so hard to get the meat out of an Eastern crab), but I was rather shocked at the news that female crabs eat babies.

    Human babies or crab babies?

    If you mean they eat crab babies, why should you throw them back into the water, which is probably practically a crab Day Care?

    If you meant “carry and give birth to” babies but you wrote “eat” instead. it is SO not time for you and Craig to start a family.

    Just saying.

  • ageekymom

    I think he meant to write “males eat (crab) babies.”

    Loved the journal of your adventure. My stomach is growling now!

  • http://theitaliandish.blogspot.com The Italian Dish

    I thoroughly enjoyed this post. Thanks for compiling all the info for it. You experienced the ultimate in the way any food tastes the best – eating it as close to the source as you can. You can’t get crab any fresher than that! It made my mouth water.

  • Bridie

    Oh, does this makes me even sorrier that I am terribly allergic to crab. I loved your pictures and could almost smell the air and the sea. Thanks, Craig!

  • Mer

    Well worth the wait Adam. You will probably gasp in shock when I say, I’ve never had crab before or even lobster but it looks and “sounds” so good.

    On another note, I’m totally and completely addicted to your blog, do you know where I can get help for that??

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  • http://blogs.menupages.com/sanfrancsico Adam Martin

    I loved this entry. It made me nostalgic for the Dungeness crab dinners that were a staple of my San Francisco winters. While I’ve never actually rowed out to capture my own, I bet that makes them taste even better.

    I mean, if walking four blocks to the seafood market stoked my appetite as much as it did, imagine what doing actual work would do! Well, I guess you don’t have to. Well played.

  • http://www.bakingbynumbers.com Edd

    What a great post makes me want to try crab again even though im not really a fan of shellfish (childhood traumas!!) This brings back memories of fishing for oysters in Canada up above Vancouver

  • http://www.wide-eyed.org allgood2

    Dungeness crab are soo much better than Blue Crab. Though Blue Crab are better than Stone Crab (but I do love the mustard-wine-butter sauce they get served with). And Alaskan crab is just on its own, love it or hate it. It’s far saltier and more meat like than the others. But a good fresh dungeness crab is so sweet, and the meat is tender and melting. The meat of the blue crab is typically much less (since they tend to be smaller), but isn’t as sweet either. Still very good, but…

    I was surprised to see them clean before kill. It makes sense, so you can eat immediately, but we always, dump the live crabs in boiling hot water to kill rapidly (under a minute, unless you overload).

  • jeff

    Sigh….does Craig have a gay 39 year old brother? :)

  • Gus V.

    Actually you can crab from Wednesday to Saturday. Traps must be pulled but you can toss them back in again on Wednesday. There are limits (5 per day) and you have to have a license – glad you had a good time in our neck of the woods.

  • vickie

    Hi Adam!

    Just curious to know what would happen if you boiled them in water without splitting them & getting rid of the gills (the way you cook other crabs, I guess). Does it affect the taste? Does removing the gills make it tastier?

    Do you get more meat out of a dungeness crab than you would from a blue? Because when I eat blue crabs I need 4 minimum to feel full. Even with rice.

    Anyway, that was a great post. I really, truly wish I could taste Dungeness crabs too.

  • Joel Springer

    Hi

    A San Francisco native here, born and raised on San Francisco Bay Shrimp (which are effectively extinct), and Dungeness Crab.

    Dungeness crabs vary in size, but I have attended crab feeds, where each person gets 1/2 crab, cooked/cracked/cleaned, and that is more than sufficient to satisfy an average appetite + garlic bread and maybe lemon and/or cocktail or louis sauce.

    I have also seen crab in black bean sauce served at Asian restaurants, and one crab can easily provide a good portion to 4 people.

    I think the traditional SF way is to cook the crabs first, then clean them and crack them.

    My boyfriend, (alas) however, does not like to shell his own crab, shrimp or lobster (and he is from New England!)

  • http://www.chesapeakebaygiftbaskets.com Laura

    Being from Washington DC, we can only get frozen Dungeness Crab — the description of the freshly caught ones is mouthwatering. As said above we do have our beloved Blue Crabs — also delicious but much smaller and harder work to eat!

  • http://www.chesapeakebaygiftbaskets.com Laura

    Being from Washington DC, we can only get frozen Dungeness Crab — the description of the freshly caught ones is mouthwatering. As said above we do have our beloved Blue Crabs — also delicious but much smaller and harder work to eat!

  • Lauren

    you’re coming to BALTIMORE!?

    ahh what will you be doing there? there are so many places you MUST go :)

  • http://chewonthatblog.com Hillary

    I still don’t understand the female eating baby thing. Why would you want them to go back into the ocean and eat crab babies? Wouldn’t you want those babies to grow up and become crabs you would fetch and eat? I’m surprised there is a law about that.

    Sounds like an awesome adventure! I would love to do something like this.

  • http://www.mousebouche.blogspot.com The Mouse

    Is Craig’s family looking to adopt?

  • samantha

    As a native Alaskan I give you something to remember Adam, Alaska is part of the continental US, just not the Contiguous 48 states. Love the site, wonderfully vivid post . Thanks for sharing your stories.

  • Anonymous

    i enjoyed this post very much, what an amazing adventure topped off with an amazing meal! thank you so much for sharing :)

  • http://devourthis.typepad.com/ Jackie

    Adam, I left a long, researched comment on this post and it didn’t show up! My comments have often not shown up in the year that I’ve been commenting– it’s very frustrating because I take time to write them and it ends up being all for naught. :( I had found you a great link for crab places in Baltimore…

  • http://www.kittalog.com Kitt

    What a delicious post! Great documenting.

    Do you think Andy Warhol perfume smells like crab?

  • Mike S

    Dude. I need to find myself a boyfriend who has a family home on an island off the coast of Washington. Soooo jealous. Might I borrow Craig for a little bit? Just a weekend would make my lonely boy blues quiet for a good long time. :o)

    -Mike

  • Mike S

    Dude. I need to find myself a boyfriend who has a family home on an island off the coast of Washington. Soooo jealous. Might I borrow Craig for a little bit? Just a weekend would make my lonely boy blues quiet for a good long time. :o)

    -Mike

  • http://thewiveswithknives.blogspot.com Cathy at Wives with Knives

    Greetings. What a great post. Crabbing is so much fun and the rewards are fantastically delicious. I’ve linked to your site from by blog where I’ve posted a recipe for hot crab sandwiches. I thought my readers would enjoy seeing how these critters are caught.

  • http://thewiveswithknives.blogspot.com Cathy at Wives with Knives

    Greetings. What a great post. Crabbing is so much fun and the rewards are fantastically delicious. I’ve linked to your site from by blog where I’ve posted a recipe for hot crab sandwiches. I thought my readers would enjoy seeing how these critters are caught.

  • http://thewiveswithknives.blogspot.com Cathy at Wives with Knives

    You’ve got a terrific blog and an excellent post on crabbing. I just posted a crab recipe on my blog and linked to yours so my readers can see how these delicious little critters are caught.

  • http://thewiveswithknives.blogspot.com Cathy at Wives with Knives

    I apologize for the duplications. My computer is having a bad day.

  • chungwan

    To Hillary,

    It was a joke.

    Female crabs produce babies – that’s why you throw them back into the water.