Mike Hutt, executive director of the Virginia Marine Products Board, and Greg Lewis, owner of Little River Seafood in the Northern Neck, were unimpressed with my crab picking. And I'm pretty good at it — some (I, at least) would say I'm very good at it, after all the practice I've had. "I have seen people do it that way," I could hear Hutt saying. "My own sister-in-law picks them like that." Did I hear him laugh?
I was afraid of the knife wielded by the professional crab picker, Celina, given that the curved edge was located on the top part of the knife, instead of the bottom where you'd expect it to be. It looked really sharp, too.
Wearing rubber gloves (which I would think would impede the knife-wielding process), Celina sliced off the hard top shell, chopped off the legs and then sliced the crab's body in half crosswise. She picked it clean and was finished with the crab in about 30 seconds, and the meat from a single crab rolled to the side of the cup, leaving emptiness all around it. It was going to take a lot to fill up that 1-pound container.
The crabs arrive at Little River Seafood in bushels in the back of a waterman's pickup, lids upside down to indicate female crabs and right side up for jimmies, or male crabs.
There aren't that many baskets, maybe a dozen or less. After they're weighed, the watermen, who are akin to independent contractors, are paid (more for jimmies, less for females). The baskets get stashed in a big refrigerated walk-in along with the stacks and stacks of baskets of other live Chesapeake Bay blue crabs, dozing and quiet in the cool temperatures, claws poking out between the slats, waiting for the steam that will turn them into something wonderful to eat.
They're back. Well, almost. "The blue crab population is going to be 60 percent higher than last year's," says Hutt. That means I can ease up on my boycott a little bit.
Part of the overfishing problem is that while jimmies are sold whole (because of their higher price), female crabs are used for lump crabmeat, much of which winds up in crab cakes. The demand for crabmeat far outweighs the supply, and so in the past, watermen took too many of the female crabs out of the bay to the detriment of breeding the next generation.
A joint agreement between Virginia and Maryland to shorten the season, ban dredging the mud for female crabs in the off-season while they're spawning, and limit the numbers that can be taken out of the bay is finally helping to save the blue crab.
This is good news for Little River Seafood. Lewis has been processing crabs there for 27 years. Assisted by his daughter, Kelly, and her husband, Steve Minor, he processes anywhere from 300,000 to 400,000 pounds of crabmeat a year and sells it up and down the East Coast. Their crab cakes are sold as far away as California.
"The best time to eat crabs," Steve Minor says, "is in September and October. Most people don't know that — they quit eating them after Labor Day. In [the fall], the crabs are plentiful and full, and they've had time to grow, to mature."
I'm still going to avoid crab cakes (although I didn't turn down the two Minor offered me at Little River Seafood) when I can resist them, but now that I know that the blue crab isn't going to be eaten into extinction, I'm going to let myself indulge in a couple of crab-picking parties this summer, slowly dismantling crabs in my inefficient way, swatting flies and eating for hours — in heaven.