Ask a Marylander to name something unequivocally “Maryland,” and nine out of ten will pick the blue crab. Callinectes sapidus, meaning “beautiful, savory swimmer,” is hands down Maryland’s most popular Chesapeake Bay resident and an iconic statewide symbol, emblazoned on everything from billboards to license plates. Revered for its sweet taste that goes well with everything from spicy seasonings to heavy cream, crabs are eaten in dozens of forms: steamed, pan-fried, baked, broiled, in soups, crab cakes, dips, and everything else in between. What the lobster is to Maine, the blue crab is to Maryland, and while it’s true that blue crabs are found up and down the Atlantic seaboard, 60 percent are found and harvested in the Chesapeake Bay, giving Maryland and Virginia equal bragging rights.
Come Memorial Day, families across the state indulge in their first bushel of crabs for the year. Steamed over a mixture of vinegar and water or beer, with layers of Old Bay or other seafood seasoning between the crabs, they’re properly dumped directly onto a newspaper or brown paper “tablecloth” that is rolled up and thrown away at the end of the crab feast. Just as a lobster feast isn’t a sitdown fancy dinner, steamed crabs in Maryland are a casual, messy affair. Ideally, you’re sitting outside at a picnic table, dressed in old shorts and a T-shirt, with a stack of paper towels at your side and a mallet or knife at the ready. A hard thump or a quick slice into the steamed crabs, and crab juice sprays onto your neighbor’s hair and clothing. This is perfectly acceptable crab-eating etiquette.
For those less familiar with blue crabs, here are a few important things to know about our beautiful swimmers:
Jimmies are male crabs: the heaviest, meatiest, most in-demand crustaceans. They’re easily identified by looking at the “apron” that all blue crabs have on their undersides. Jimmies have an inverted T-shaped apron.
Sallies are immature female crabs. Their aprons are triangular, their claws red.
Sooks are mature females, readily identified by the red claw tips and their inverted U- or bell-shaped aprons. Sooks are mostly sold to processing houses to be “picked” for their meat.
Sponge crabs are pregnant females that carry their fertilized eggs under their abdomen. From a distance, the eggs look like sponges. It is illegal to harvest sponge crabs.
Peelers are crabs that are getting ready to molt, or shed their shells, which blue crabs must do periodically in order to keep growing. When a crab is about to peel, it displays a colored line next to its backfin claw. Experienced watermen can tell almost exactly when a crab will molt by looking at the color of the line. A red line classifies the crab as a “rank” peeler, meaning the molt is imminent. Peelers are often kept in “shedding” tanks by watermen who sell them for soft-shell crab-eating.
Soft-shell crabs are a true spring delicacy in Maryland, but they’re served all summer.
Jumbo lump is the best crabmeat, and it’s the most expensive, consisting of big pieces of crab with no shell or cartilage. If you want to make crab cakes that consist only of big chunks of meat, use jumbo lump meat.
Backfin crabmeat is harvested from the backfin section of the crab. It has nice lumps of meat but also some broken body meat. Backfin is also excellent for making crab cakes.
Special meat is meat from the crab’s body that isn’t in lumps. Special meat is used in all crab dishes, including crab cakes.
Claw meat is just what the name suggests. It is dark and sweet, wonderful for eating as an appetizer, with the shell cracked off; it’s also used for soups and other dishes, but not for crab cakes. It’s the cheapest crabmeat.
Reprinted with permission from Dishing Up Maryland, published by Storey Publishing, LLC., March 2010.