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The Edge Epicure
An Outer Banks Rite of Spring: Stalking the Soft Shell
By Marsha Bacenko · Photos by Greg Bailey & Linda Lauby

The body of water closest to where I grew up was the Hudson River, in which at that time, one wouldn't be inclined to fish for much of anything. Where did crabs, mussels, shrimp or scallops come from? These were all exotic treats that somehow appeared magically on my plate. Only after moving to the Outer Banks years ago, with its close proximity to water on all sides, did I give thought to where these exotic creatures actually originated, especially soft-shell crabs, with timing everything in their short window of opportunity.

Soft-shell crabs are actually blue crabs. Their Latin name is Callinectes sapidus, which translates to "tasty beautiful swimmer." Although these crabs are found from Massachusetts to Florida, their greatest concentration is in the Chesapeake Bay and North Carolina's coastal waters. Warm, brackish water provides the environment in which they grow best. And timing is crucial: they must be harvested in early spring - before they have developed their shells - thus allowing them to be eaten whole as soft shells. A trick to tell when the crab is about to shed its shell is to look at the area between the last two joints on the oar-like swimming legs (the fifth pair), the most translucent portion of the crab. Five to 10 days before molting a white line appears between those joints that turns pink and then red when the crab is nearing the time to shed its shell.

Now, it's possible for the average person to catch soft shells. If, at the crack of dawn, you want to wade through shallow water - which crabs love - with a long-handled net seeking them out, you may get lucky. But it may be easier left to the experts, who use several different harvesting methods. One is the peeler pot - and now it gets sexy. Harvesters with crab pots use a live male crab, a "jimmy," to actually lure the mate-seeking female ("sook") crabs. But the poor male is isolated in a holding cell, and no mating is possible, and the females become trapped. A jimmy can act as a stud all season long, and one hopes he actually attains his wish at the end of the process.

Another method of catching crabs is to tie a string around the swimming leg of a jimmy, which of course will go for every female in the vicinity after being dropped into the water. When the jimmy grabs a female, the crabber then delicately draws up the string (which is often secured to a pole) and nets the pair. At this point, the jimmy is having a really frustrating day.

Some crabbers trap crabs nearing the end of their molting cycle and hold them in special holding pens, or shedding tanks, waiting for the point at which they molt. This method requires patience and constant monitoring, as it is imperative that the newly molted crabs be removed from the water before their shells begin to harden.

Former Kitty Hawk Mayor Clifton Perry harvests soft shells commercially on the Outer Banks. "After I retired from the Coast Guard in 1977, I started long-net fishing, then when that went by the wayside, I started crabbing about 18 years ago for a change," he says. "Every year I question whether I'm going to continue, but it keeps me physically active in the summer - that's why I do it. Plus, I can do the crabbing on my own." But in the two- to four-week prime soft-shell season, his wife and daughter pitch in to help; it's impossible to do by himself. "You just get crabby working so hard," he says with a grin. The crabs' new shells form inside while the outside shell is still on; then the shell bursts. Because hard-shelled crabs will kill and eat newly molted crabs, the soft shells must be separated precisely at the time they shed. Also, to maintain a soft shell's parchment-like shell, crabbers have one to four hours to "capture" and remove them from the water. It's a 24-hour-a-day job, since his pens are full of crabs at all different molting stages, and they must be checked constantly.

No matter how they're caught, soft-shell crabs are a time-honored delicacy along the whole Eastern seaboard, and are a delight to eat. And cleaning them is simple, although your local seafood store will do it for you.

Chef Sara Pena, who has years of experience working at several Outer Banks restaurants, offers an easy way to prepare these beauties: "Don't be afraid of purchasing (them) alive," she says. "I only buy live soft shells. There is a personal preference as to how to clean these guys. My choice is to fold back the left and right sides of the shell and remove the lungs. You may see what we refer to as 'mustard,' a yellowish substance on the inside of the shell. This is in a pocket that I squeeze and rinse off - but not everyone chooses to remove this. Cutting off the eye area is optional, as well; I usually use a scissors to make this snip."

Because the number of soft shells caught in a season can differ dramatically from year to year, it's even more of a treat when they are plentiful. With rainfall, water temperature and market prices all determining whether the season is a good one or not, Perry states it succinctly: "You take it when you can get it!"

Celebrating the Spring Soft Shell
By Linda Lauby · Photos by Greg Bailey & Linda Lauby
To coincide with Marsha Bacenko’s article on soft-shell crabs, this issue’s Edge Epicure photo shoot features four different preparation methods for these springtime delicacies. Spring of 2005 was nearly non-existent on the Outer Banks, with a lot of cold weather, Nor’Easters and wintry days, with only sporadic hints of the warm weather to come. It was not a good spring for soft shells, which began molting about a month later than usual. When we were finally able to procure them it was a cause célèbre, and we made the most of our decidedly delicious bounty.

Deep-Fried Soft Shell Clusters Soft Shell Scampi Soft Shell Sushi Macadamia-Crusted Soft Shells with Black Beans

Sales director Greg Bailey hosted our annual food-fest, and we cooked, photographed, made a general mess, sampled wine and ate until we ran out of crabs and daylight.

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