Long Labor Day weekends spent in Washington practically beg for a willing host or hostess to wander down to the Southwest Waterfront, pick up a bushel of steamed crabs and offer up a newspaper-covered picnic table.
The tradition is as much a social one as it is a culinary one — an opportunity to enjoy the less oppressively hot weather, friends and cold beer.
The end-of-summer holiday also aligns with the optimal time for a crab feast. John Shields , chef and owner of Gertrude’s in Baltimore, says that though crab pickings start dotting social calendars in July, the crab hauls available in September and October are bigger and fattier, if not cheaper.
As of Thursday afternoon, the price for medium-sized male and female crabs at both Captain White’s Seafood City and Jessie Taylor Seafood were running $14 a dozen. Prices varied as the sizes increased.
On Thursday, Captain White’s was charging $18 and $22 for a dozen of large females and males respectively; $28 and $32 for a dozen of extra-large females and males respectively; and $45 for a dozen of jumbo males.
Jessie Taylor was selling a dozen of large females and males for $18 and $26 respectively; $28 and $32 for a dozen of extra-large females and males respectively; and $55 for a dozen of jumbo males.
But as a salesman with Captain White’s said on Thursday, the prices could double or triple by this weekend, as the holiday kicks into gear. “Crabs are like gold,” he said.
Picking at it
Though the picking process can be intimidating, and exceedingly messy, there is a science to it, as Shields demonstrates.
But the papertowels-on-table approach is not for everyone. “That's what amateurs might do, but Real Entertainers go the extra mile,” according to David Hagedorn, who dedicated a column to the art of the crab feast in 2010.
Picking up pre-cooked crabs can be a good thing for large groups, Hagedorn says, and the Maine Avenue seafood market has everything, down to pounds of Old Bay.
Still, cooking crabs at home is fairly simple, requiring a cooking liquid of beer, vinegar, water, wine and your desired seasonings, a big pot and about 20 to 25 minutes.
For a special crab-themed meal, Hagedorn planned a menu of Crab Hush Puppies With Old Bayonnaise, Grilled Soft-Shell Crabs With Chorizo Sauce and Breadless Crab Cakes for guests who find the picking process a bit too labor-intensive.
“And that's the thing about crabs. Some people relish the challenge, while others find that the payoff doesn't justify all the work,” Hagedorn says.
For those who want to jump straight to the reward, the Going Out Gurus have taste-tested the best crab cakes that local restaurants have to offer.
But for crab-lovers looking to throw a perfect feast this holiday weekend, our Recipe Finder can provide plenty of suggestions.