Paleo in Maryland: Steamed Crabs

I’m a very crabby guy.

But when I say crabby, I don’t mean curmudgeonly or cantankerous, although I’ve occasionally been accused of both.

I mean I love to eat crabs. Steamed crabs.

Maryland steamed crabServe’em up with some ice-cold beer on a picnic table covered with old newspaper and in my humble opinion, you’ve pretty much achieved Nirvana.

But that’s because I’m from Maryland, where steamed crabs are more than food – they’re a way of life. Marylanders have been gorging themselves on steamed crabs since the first settlers paddled up the Chesapeake Bay in 1634, and even before that if you consider Native American tribes like the Nanticoke and the Powhatan.

There was a time when hardly anyone outside of the Delmarva Peninsula – that’s where Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia all collide on the eastern side of the Chesapeake – ate much crabs, but that’s changed in recent years. It’s not hard to get a decent crab cake in most American cities nowadays, but steamed crabs? That’s a different story!

So whenever Lea and I visit my Mom & Dad on Maryland’s eastern shore, we make a point to have steamed crabs. Lea, a native Texan, had never had steamed crabs before she met me, but after 15 years of marriage she can tear into them with gusto! She also likes that eating steamed crabs fits in well with her lower-carb, paleo diet.

Now…a little bit about the crabs, themselves. The ones that we eat in Maryland are called Callinectes sappidus, which means “tasty beautiful swimmer” in Latin. But that’s a mouthful for a Marylander, so we just call them “Blue crabs,” which makes sense because before they get tossed in the pot they actually are…blue.

We like to think of blue crabs as our own, but the truth is they’re found all the way from Nova Scotia down into the Gulf of Mexico and even as far south as Argentina! Good thing, too, because due to over-fishing, most of the crabs we eat are imported from Louisiana! No matter, they’re still blue crabs, and nobody does them like they’re done in Maryland…sorry, Virginia!

Now if you’re going to do steamed crabs right, you will need Old Bay Seasoning. A German immigrant named Gustav Brunn created Old Bay in Baltimore in the late 1940’s, and it fast became a staple ingredient for steamed crabs. In 2006, the McCormick Spice Company – also originally from Baltimore – acquired the recipe and it’s now widely available. (According to McCormick, Old Bay is gluten-free!)When we visit my folks in Ocean City, we usually buy crabs at a local joint like this one: Crabs-to-Go.

Crabs to goCrabs-to-Go is a very busy place, especially during the summer. Most of the patrons want steamed crabs, so the giant steam pots are running full steam (pun intended) around-the-clock.

It’s best to place your order in advance to avoid a long wait, and to check on the price. Like a lot of seafood, the price fluctuates with market conditions.Steamed crabs are generally sold by the dozen, or by the bushel. What’s a bushel, you say? That depends on the size of the crab; for example, if you’re buying Jumbo crabs (6 – 6.5”” across the body), then a bushel can be anywhere from 60-72 Jimmies. Jimmies?? What’s that? Well, that’s what crabbers call an adult male blue crab; adult females are called “sooks”. Jimmies are larger and meatier, so they’re better for steaming. Sooks are “picked” by commercial processing plants and used as fresh or pasteurized meat.

Once we procured our order from Crabs-to-Go, we grabbed a large swath of industrial brown paper to use as a tablecloth (steamed crabs are very unpretentious), and headed home for our feast.After clearing off the table, we laid down industrial brown paper and dumped out the crabs. The smell of fresh, steamed crabs and Old Bay seasoning was both overpowering and intoxicating. (Note the Redbridge Gluten-Free Beer!)

Our oldest son was not too thrilled by the sight of steamed crabs. He thought they looked like giant red spiders. I’m used to them, but I have to admit…they kinda’ do! To appease Ben’s sensibilities we bought him fried calamari which he ate INSIDE the house, far away from the horrifying crabs.
Sweet Pea (aka Nathaniel) was initially hesitant…After we told him you eat crabs by smashing them with a wooden hammer his enthusiasm reappeared. The first thing you do when eating steamed crabs is to tear off the large, front arms at the shoulder and crack open the claw.

There’s a lot of yummy meat in there!

After you’re done with the claws, it’s time for the back fin crabmeat – the BEST tasting part of the crab!

First you turn the crab over and lift up the “apron” which looks like a tab.

Then insert a knife (or use your hands) between the top and bottom halves of the crab’s body,

and literally yank it apart.

Then cut the crab in half.

You are getting closer to your reward.

If you’re a die-hard lover of steamed crabs, like my mom,

you’ll probably want to eat “the mustard.” This is the yellow, mushy stuff typically found inside the torso. Some people swear by it, but in the spirit of full disclosure, I must admit I NEVER eat “the mustard.” That’s because I know what “the mustard” really is…and it’s kind of gross. ‘Nuff said.

If you don’t want to eat “the mustard,” then go for the meat. Once you have cracked open the shell, scrape off the squishy, cone-shaped things; these are lungs, and they’re not too tasty. Underneath the lungs is a hard, pearly shell, and under that shell is the backfin crabmeat. It takes some effort, but believe me, it’s worth it!

After that, pull all the smaller legs out of the torso and suck the meat and juice out of the shoulder. Then you’re done! Toss the remains of the carcass into the scrap pile, sip some beer, and grab another crab!

I usually call it quits after about 6 or 7 crabs, but I’ve been known to occasionally eat more. When everyone is finished, you should have a nice big pile of dead crab parts, and a very full stomach.

If you like seafood but have never tried steamed crabs then I hope this has piqued your curiosity. They’re tasty, fun, and 100% Paleo!

Bon appetite, Hon!

How do you like to eat crabs? Have you ever eaten steamed crabs?

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20 thoughts on “Paleo in Maryland: Steamed Crabs

  1. Great post; it reminded me of one of the more memorable meals I had last year at the Bethesda Crab House outside of Washington D.C. The establishment is famous for bottomless steamed crabs, brought to the table in buckets. Good times for sure–I must have eaten a dozen that night.

    I live on the FL Gulf Coast and usually gravitate toward shrimp and fish, but there’s nothing like steamed crabs in the summer.

    • Thanks for the kind words!

      I’ve never had crabs in Bethesda, so I’ll check out the Crab House next time I’m there. And FYI, steamed shrimp and Old Bay go great together.

      - G

  2. EWWWWWWWW!!!
    THIS IS GROSS!

    In addition to “the mustard” (yah, i know what that is:http://www.bluecrab.info/cooking_faq.htm scroll down until you see “the mustard”) I find the entire prospect of eating crabs utterly disgusting.
    It’s basically torture. I mean, first you take the crab that was just minding his own business and then, SCOOP, he (or she) is now in the back of a huge boat In a pile of other soon-to-be-eaten crabs. I imagine their conversation goes something like this:
    Joe the crab: Where am I?

    Steve the crab: You’re on a boat and you’re going to be eaten by humans who smash open your shell with big mallets! Fun right!

    Joe the crab: EEEK!

  3. Great post and tutorial on the ‘proper’ way to pick crabs! I live in the area and, in fact, just ate crabs at “Crabs to Go” a few weeks ago…they were delicious! Enjoy your summer :-)

    p.s. I don’t eat the mustard either, but, mother does swear by it!

    • I took a lot of marine biology in college. The mustard? It’s…a by-product of digestion. YUCK! And since crabs are bottom-feeders who munch on anything they can get their claws on (dead fish, rotten sea-weed, etc), it’s doubly disturbing.

      Still…I LOVE ‘em!

      -G

  4. My favorite time of the year is crab season (winter here). Not only do I pick them up from Buz’s Crab Stand for home, but all the local charities throw all-you-can-eat crab feeds. So much fun.

  5. Oh you just took me down memory lane! Both my parents have recently passed away but they were both from Baltimore – we grew up in Michigan but spent most every summer in Ocean City for several weeks. My dad loved those Maryland crab cakes and we always made it to Phillips several times to eat!! In Michigan he would order the Phillips crab meat and made his own crab cakes as well as a mean crab imperial !! You have made me cry but tears of happy memories as well as missing my folks!!!!!

    • Annette,

      I’m glad the article meant something to you. Eating steamed crabs is also a bittersweet experience for me. It brings back memories of growing-up and being surrounded by my extended family – grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends – many of whom are gone now. But at least I always remember them with a smile when I eat steamed crabs, so that’s a good thing!

      Best regards,

      G

  6. Just posted on your face book. Will say again, great article. As you know, I’ve gotten to the age when less is better and that’s why a great back fin crab cake suits me instead of steamed crabs. However, I do remember the family get togethers, the steamed crabs piled high in the middle of the table and the cold beer and my love of those steamed, spicy, crustaceans. Loved the article and the pictures.

  7. The lack of Chesapeake bay blue crabs is not from over fishing but actually from under fishing of striped bass. There was a lengthy moratorium on this species which allowed them to proliferate to the point where they have decimated the crab population. When I left the Hampton Roads area in 2000, we could catch striped bass on every cast for hours under the James River bridge from Newport News to Isle of Wight. We had to throw them back because they were out of season. It was easy to catch HUNDREDS in a few hours. They feed on baby blue crabs and small fish. This may also be why when the Stripers returned in huge numbers a tasy small fish called a Spot also all but disappeared.

  8. Just stumbled on your blog from Pinterest (for the bacon chocolate ganache) and I had to check out this post! I am a Maryland native as well, this tutorial is great. I spent many summers teaching how to eat crab the right way. If you ever get the chance, eat at Cantlers in Annapolis. They’ve been fishermen for a few generations and always have great selection!

  9. I love dem crabs almost as much as I love dem O’s, hon! – - For those who do not live in the Baltimore area, you havent lived until you eat a table full of hot steamed crabs washing them down with Natty Boh beer while watching an Orioles baseball game. I honestly dont know how everyone else goes through life without doing that every weekend during the summer….!!??

  10. I love crabs and practically any other food I’ve eaten including a locust stew with vegetables at Mount Arusha Game lodge in Africa. Just a note : ‘calli’ and ‘nectes’ do mean ‘beautiful’ and ‘swimmer’ but they are GREEK words and ‘sapidus’ is Latin, but its actual definition means ‘savory.’

  11. Hi, I’m Wanda and I am so sad and have been that way for a long time. What’s my problem? I came up on blue shell crabs, you see I was born in Philly and we hard these wonders almost all year round. I LOVE them steamed or boiled, but I can’t get them now, I live in Charleston, WV and there are not to many places you can get them. The place I was getting them from have raised the price on them so high it’s trouble. They don’t care about the size they want the same price. I know better, I won’t pay thirty-seven dollars a dozen for baby crabs. Size does matter!! They think because they are about the only store that sells them live, that they can charge what they want, GREED is a HORRIBLE thing!!!! I wish there were places like your here. Heart Broke in WV

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