She loved them with a coastal passion, but Grandmama refused to cook blue crabs. Coming from a woman who liked to eat the unskinned squirrels our cats killed, this always seemed a bit incongruous.
Once I asked her why she didn’t cook live crabs. She looked at me — a 13-year-old her own height — with a direct and even stare.
“You know they scream when they hit the boiling water?” she demanded.
Growing up on the salt marsh near the tidal creeks of South Carolina, I often ate fish, shrimp, oysters, or crabs; they were always caught, netted, harvested, or trapped by my family. The fish was freshest in the summer: channel bass (spot tail), blackfish, King and Spanish mackerel, the occasional dolphin — and also a healthy dose of freshwater catfish and rockfish (striped bass).
The recreational shrimp season ran from September to November, and the oysters were good to harvest in any month ending in an “R.” Once or twice a year, we’d make a pilgrimage to the Florida Keys to catch stone crab, lobster, and snapper.
We’d eat some of the seafood fresh but, like avid gardeners, we’d put up much of the harvest to use year-round. Bringing in the catch was always a family affair.
A couple of times a month during the long Carolina summers, my dad would bait the crab trap tied to my uncle’s dock. The rule stood unspoken: If you provided the bait — ideally oily mackerel carcasses from the week’s fishing trip — you kept the crabs. In two days, the trap was ready to be checked, and as I grew older, that responsibility often fell to me.
The trap was heavy in the swift current, and my hands would get slimy on the rope as I strained to pull it out of the creek. It was 10 feet from the pluff-mud bottom to the water’s surface, and another 15 feet swinging and banging against the pilings, until I heaved it over the edge of the dock, careful not to grab the cage near angry claws.
Sometimes I’d find two blue-clawed crabs staring back at me, clamping the wire cage in defiance. Other times, I’d find 27, crawling and scurrying over each other like overgrown insects in a horror movie.
Transferring the crabs from trap to five-gallon bucket required feats of strength, dexterity, and balance I never quite mastered. Inevitably, a crab or two would escape, and I’d have to pounce to step on their backs before they made their way over the dock’s edge and back into the water.
When I got home, mud-spattered and smelling of the sea, my mom would immediately put a giant black pot on to boil. The crabs blew saline bubbles in the bucket and attacked the tongs grabbing for them. When my mom finally managed to seize one, she’d flip it into the simmering water.
One by one, you’d hear them: screams.
A screaming crab may seem like a strange nugget of coastal lore, but it’s actually scientific fact: When a live blue crab at room temperature finally lets go of the tongs and drops into angrily boiling water, the gas in its abdomen immediately expands and leaks out tiny openings in its body cavity, creating a high-pitched, far-away sounding “eeeeeeeeeeee.”
In layman’s terms: They scream.
It’s a sound that makes you squirm, because it’s the sound of death. I listened to the crabs wailing and knew, in my own gut, why Grandmama didn’t want to cook crabs. I could will myself to stay in the kitchen, but not to actually drop the crabs in the pot.
Because the sound of death is also the sound of dinner. When you hear that scream, it means the crab is fresh. If you’ve ever had crab at a restaurant that tasted slightly of ammonia, rest assured that the crab you ate didn’t scream when it hit the bubbling water; it was probably already dead. Good blue crab hinges on the scream. No scream, no fabulous-tasting crab.
Blue crabs boiling on the stove emit a peculiar smell. It’s sharp and makes your nostrils flare; it’s not just crab, but a concentration of seawater and mud that heightens the intensity of the crab aroma. When the cooking crabs turned from bluish-gray to pinkish-orange, the uncomfortable moment had passed. Now it was Grandmama’s turn.
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