More delicate and versatile than their lofty cousins from Maine, Atlantic blue crabs are also more common than lobster. Charleston is famous for its She-Crab Soup, but crabmeat itself is so delicious that I hesitate to team it with dairy products, especially in warmer weather when crab is plentiful. When I was a child, crabbing was one of my favorite activities, even when I knew full well that I could probably catch more by simply putting out the family trap. In the fifties, when Cap’n Mac Holmes was the patriarch of Edisto Island, we would visit his children and grandchildren at his old house on the beach. There we’d sit spellbound by his Gullah tales of hurricanes and “haints” and fascinated by his cigar box of fossilized shark’s teeth, millions of years old. He was “Granddaddy” to all and headed up the old “yacht” club down at the wide and shallow mouth of the South Edisto River, on the southern tip of the island, where we loved to crab. It’s no wonder the Lowcountry saw the disappearance of good homemade chicken stock, given all the chicken parts we used to pull in crabs on the end of our weighted cotton twine.
At other times we might go back up inland to Cowpens, a spot midmarsh off Legare (pronounced “le GREE”) Road, where we dangled our strings at low tide from the dilapidated bridge. Before the onslaught of development in the Lowcountry in the early seventies, I do not remember ever coming home empty-handed from a crabbing jaunt. Crabs were not only plentiful then, but larger as well.
It was on Hilton Head Island, though, that I really learned about crabs; as much as I love Charleston and Edisto, something dramatic happens when you cross Port Royal Sound, a culinary boundary as real as the geographic Fall Line. Perhaps the lack of a bridge to Hilton Head and Daufuskie islands kept their traditions isolated and pure; or perhaps it was the cooking of boating families that was so different, given cramped conditions and limited stores. South of Port Royal, people really know their crabs, and they clean them live.
Many cities claim crabs as their own: Baltimore, New Orleans, Charleston, Savannah, Mobile, Jacksonville, and Wilmington. And we all love a good crab boil. But down around Daufuskie you’re likely to be invited to a different kind of crab crack—one that isn’t messy at all, because the crabs are cleaned before they are steamed.
If you’re the squeamish sort, you can always ice the crabs down for a while before you start—but be sure all of them are alive and kicking before you do. Grab the crab from behind. You may find it easy to grab hold of its last set of legs, which are flattened into paddles for swimming. Or you may want to lay something heavy across the crab or grasp it with big crab tongs if you’re afraid (and well you might be: a crab can all but sever a finger). Then, with the crab facing away from you, grab one of its pincers at the joint and twist the entire claw down and off the body. Then do the same with the second claw.
Turn the crab over and pull its apron away from its body. Then, using the apron as its “pop tab,” or by inserting a fork into the crab at the edge where the apron is attached, pop the entire carapace off the crab. Discard or save for a stock or to stuff with deviled crab. Pull off the gills and the spongy “dead man,” but if the crab is a female with unmistakable bright orange roe, save it. Rip off the mouth and pop the body in half (or use a knife or kitchen shears), then rinse the claws and body halves in cold water.
You now have a crab that is all meat and a little bit of shell, ready to be cooked in half the time and space and to be enjoyed without the sloppiness of boiled whole crabs. You will not need so large a pot, and an inch of seasoned water in the bottom of a pan is really all that is needed to steam crabs. Let it come to a boil and add the claws and the body parts. Cover and steam for about ten minutes. The crabs will cook perfectly in the steam, not absorb water and overcook, and are much safer, cleaner, and better-keeping than traditionally boiled whole crabs. But the best part is in the eating, for picking the meat from a steamed cleaned crab is a simple process. Where each leg is attached to the body, a chamber holds a perfect piece of meat that will come out with little effort and no tools. Clean and cook crabs once this way, and you will never go back to boiling live crabs again—unless you are from Louisiana or Maryland and must have heavily seasoned salts clinging to the shells of your crabs. And for recipes calling for crabmeat (expensive even in Charleston) this method saves a lot of time and fuss (though picking crabs is work). (A dozen large, meaty crabs will yield a pound of white lump crabmeat, plus the claws.) But the bottom line is: after you have eaten crabs cooked this way, you will probably find it unappetizing to sit down to crab guts at a traditional boil.
Crabs have inspired a Pulitzer Prize-winning book, an enormous industry, and a world of recipes. In 1988, 6 million pounds of local crabs were harvested commercially in South Carolina. No one knows how many more are taken recreationally. The recipes here were chosen to show off the Lowcountry’s particular way with these crustaceans.
Harriott Pinckney Horry’s receipt book from Hampton Plantation includes the following, written in about 1770. Today it would be called “Panned Crabmeat” and would be delicious on toast points, which are the “sippets” she suggests.