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Dec072012

« 1932: Exploding Crabs & (real) clam chowder »

Blue crabs and foods comprising crabmeat are like soul food to old timers from the Eastern Shore regions of Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware. But the Chesapeake was over-crabbed. Demand expanded beyond the regional population. And importers began to bring (inferior) crab meat from other parts of the world.  Prices continue to rise.

My grandmother was raised in a kosher home and never ate pork or any meat with dairy. But she loved crab cakes and shrimp and she broke kosher law by eating these foods. Her soul, it seems, was part Eastern Shore.

It would be an interesting study to trace the dissolution of loyalty to kosher through the past few generations. Why was shellfish an acceptable departure but not milk with meat?  

Another family elder — who has asked to remain anonymous — also strayed from kosher. He eats pork sausage, bacon, and cheeseburgers; shrimp, scallops, and lobster — though never in his own home and not until later in life. But he will not and has not ever eaten crab. "Why?" I've often wondered. His reason, it turns out, has nothing to do with diet or religion or ethics or flavor. 

About eighty years ago when he was a boy — it was an era when, I imagine, American shorelines were more accessible and less privatized, a time when children could wander and explore nature without paying admission (it was also a time when fireworks were still legal in Massachusetts) — he had an experience with crabs that etched to his soul a deep disdain for the creatures. It will never fade.  

Here’s the story, as told to me by Mr. Anon, a 94-year-old relative of mine who happens to be a native of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Over the years he has told me many incredible stories from his life but until now, has not allowed me to share them with others. This one's a gem.

Crabs Graphic Illustration

It happened in the summertime when I was about 14 years old, in Winthrop, Massachusetts, where I grew up. It was a beautiful time of life. It was nothing to walk through the water and climb up on a rock and as the tide came in, to look down and see lobsters and flounder and all kinds of perch. You could drop in a hand line and catch a bunch of perch and you'd have dinner for the day. The water was so crystal clear. The fish were so plentiful. Sadly, young people today cannot know of the bountiful nature that existed years ago. 

On one particular beautiful day — just before the Fourth of July — the sun was shining, the tide was out, and I was walking in the shallow water to go swimming. It was a rocky beach — not sandy — and it was notorious for these large crabs that were about five or six inches across, not including the claws. You had to go through a lot of seaweed to get to the deep water and the crabs lived in this seaweed.  

As I walked through to go swimming, one of them latched onto my toe — firmly. I yelled and kicked and threw him right off. But it hurt like anything!  

So I decided to buy a whole string of firecrackers and untangle it so that I would have individual firecrackers. I walked out along the beach to where all the crabs were peacefully sunning themselves in the seaweed — blowing bubbles, happy as anything.  

I approached one, and immediately his claws went up. I took a firecracker, put it between his claws and he clamped right down on it. I lit it, walked away, and watched [as he pulled the firecracker toward his center and] blew himself up. This was the prelude to the Hamas suicide bombers, you know.

And so I did that all along the beach, blowing up crabs from one end to the other. I must have done about fifty or sixty crabs. When high tide came in, it was crab meat washing all along the shore. Seagulls descended in droves for the free meal. They cleaned up the beach.

I love shrimp, I love lobster, and I love clams. I hate crabs. To tell the truth, I never had them before that day when I blew them up. And I never had them after. Many times people have tried to get me to try crabs. If they hadn’t bit me I might have had a different attitude. 

But it was fun watching them blow themselves up — handing each one a firecracker that it thought was someone else’s toe. The firecrackers really made a bang. And that bang blew them up. It really was great to see them go to pieces. They deserved it. CH-CH-CH-CH-CH-BOOM!! I hope I got the one that [had grabbed] me. That’s the area of the beach I was working on.

I wouldn't hurt those crabs if I was back there again. I don't even know if I would kill a cockroach if I saw it in the house. I like to preserve life in nature. That's why, when I caught that snake in my apartment last year, I released it into the woods.

But it is a food chain. You have to accept that the nutrients we need are in the food chain. Some people don't. They're vegetarians. For me, the bottom line is: moderation in everything.

***

Blowing up fifty or sixty crabs with firecrackers serves no meaningful purpose. Clearly. And who am I to judge the ethics of Mr. Anon’s war on crabs in 1932? However, I do not think the story validly explains his refusal to try crabs. Crabs are good!

(My non-acceptance of another person's eating rules represents one of my greater flaws. Real hypocrisy. No one can talk me into eating organ meats and yet sometimes I get pushy and try to persuade others to eat something they don't like or want. I have said to vegetarians, that they should eat clams because clams have no central nervous system and really, they're more like celery than chicken. I don't even think this is true!)

Why do people dislike certain foods? Of course, a person would eat anything if his/her survival depended on it. But what about situations where life is not at stake? I don't know. (A top result of my search on the topic turned up this article. It's not very scientific.)

Before I get to clams — which of course I must do because I love clams and there's a clams part of Mr. Anon's story that belongs here also — I must add that he is a gentle human being. When I asked him how he can reconcile his demeanor of today with that of a formerly delinquent crab-bomber, he said:

I know a lot of people are conscious of protection of life, trying to contribute to the health of the environment these days. But in those days when I was 14, people didn't reflect on the environment or talk about environmental protection.

***

Okay, clams. After he told me the story of the exploding crabs, Mr. Anon reminisced about the clam chowder he has eaten over the course of his life. His memories almost culminate in a recipe, so I decided to include it here.

A couple notes. The "littlenecks" to which he refers are clams that others call "soft shell clams," Ipswich clams, or "piss clams." Twin breathing siphons protrude from one of the narrow ends of these elongated bivalve mollusks. (I wrote about them in this Pizzacentric story here.) I cannot verify the superiority of one type of clam over another when it comes to chowder, but I trust my Massachusetts source when he claims that these types of clams are the best ones for making a proper clam chowder.  

Clams Graphic Illustration

Here's the "recipe" as he told it to me:

Littlenecks are wonderful clams. Back on Winthrop Beach you could just throw a rock down and they’d spurt up to let you know where they were. You’d then dig and pull up these big, beautiful clams. Bring them home, wash them in salt water so that they would expel the sand that was in them, and boil them in water until they opened. Then take out the meat, remove the skin from their necks, and drop them into a pot of potato cooked with onion and milk. This is a New England Clam Chowder. In one bowl of soup there should be about twenty clams. It's a delicious clam chowder, rich with littleneck clams. It's the kind of chowder that you can never find in restaurants today.

"Why not use other types of clams?" I asked him.

The razorback clams people dug up were the cheapest meat of all. For a while, there was a ban on digging up littlenecks. Howard Johnson and others used razorbacks and other inferior clams in their clam chowder and for their fried clams. The public never knew.  

People don't know if a chowder is made with cherrystones or razorbacks or quahogs. What people call clam chowder may not be! I'm sure people today don't know what a real kind of clam chowder is about. Today's chowder ― at least outside of Massachusetts ― is far inferior to the Ipswich clam chowder I had in New England. Maybe you can still get it there today ― if you're lucky.

Howard Johnson's Illustration                                                                           Check out the sign.  Clams were a thing at HoJo's!

For all the years I've known him, until now I had no idea how passionate he is about clams. What kindred spirits we are! I'm trying to persuade him to accompany me on a clam-digging, chowder-making trip to Boston. When's clam season?

***

Bonus material. The exploding crabs got me to thinking about the fate of shellfish in the real world. I heard that seagulls break clamshells by dropping them from high up. I looked on YouTube to see if they do the same with crabs but couldn't find evidence that they do. (It seems seagulls eat crabs by beaking them until they die and break apart.) But here's a video of a seagull as it drops a clam in order to crack it open and eat it. Skip to the 38 second mark for the peak of the action.

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