The illustration accompanying articles on cooking shrimp and soft-shell crabs in Wednesday's Food section was by Alice Yeager.
There are those who broil soft-shell crabs and those who pan fry them. There are people who dip the little creatures in batter and cook them in hot fat, and there are people in places like New York, Paris and Washington who saute' them with white wine and almonds.
But without putting too fine a point on it, there is only one proper way to cook soft-shell crabs, and that is on a charcoal grill, basted with lemon juice, Tabasco and butter.
This truth is not generally appreciated, and so we have obsessively nouvelle chefs quartering these sidestepping bits of manna, sprinkling them with things like Pernod and throwing them on tortellini. This sort of overkill should be resisted by all right-thinking people. While the only really bad soft-shell is a non-fresh one, to sauce the softshell is to butter the brie. The grill is the only way to go.
For those new to the greater Chesapeake and to the blue crab in his limper, not to say wimper, form, the soft-shell may prove something of a challenge.
I remember eating my first soft crab some years ago at Taylor's Restaurant in Deltaville, Va., a famous crab-cake mecca, and the experience was somewhat unnerving. The crab came in a bun with the little legs hanging out, and one munched it dolefully, despite the dazzling flavor, with the disturbing and delicious guilt of a gourmet cannibal consuming a small and particularly succulent child.
Those preparing to grill their first crab should be steeled to overcome similar pitfalls of squeamishness. No hamburger pattie ever fried with the inquisition sizzle of a grilled crab. No baby lamb ever looked more vulunerable than this feisty crustacean seized precisely in mid-molt, too depleted to even lift a claw.
There can be a certain depraved, gloating victory in hearing the final mortal clatter of hard-shells and lobsters struggling in a steaming pot -- sweet revenge for a lifetime of nipped toes beneath the surf.
But witnessing the last autonomic twitch of a grilling soft crab inspires nothing so much as a rush to rescue and comfort. The damn things are almost loveable.
Nevertheless, grill away. It's a man-eat-crab world out there. Each female crab produces something like 750,000 eggs as many as two and even three times a year. Were we not dutifully munching them with vigilant rapacity, they might rise up and march on us by the millions. Westward from Deal Island, claw-to-claw: Revenge of the Crab People.
Between 150,000 and 240,000 blue crabs are caught in the Chesapeake every year, roughly one-half the nation's yearly crab meal and fully 90 percent of its market in soft-shells.
We're lucky to be able to get at them with their armor off, although in the case of the she-crab, a certain tristesse attaches to the affair. It is only during the brief interval between shedding her old shell and hardening her new one that she can make love. Often soft females are netted as "doublers" -- literally caught in the act.
Life is hard.
In Tilghman, Md., hard by the Knapps Narrows drawbridge, the Tilghman Soft-Shell Crab Farm functions as the King Ranch of soft crabs, buying up molt-prone "busters" and rotating them among a dozen shallow tabletop cages or wooden "floats," through which bay water circulates constantly, until their moment of supreme softness.
Then they are plucked from their watery waiting room and tucked neatly into sealable baggies, either live or stove-ready with their faces, aprons and gills sliced off. The price varies with the supply, but live soft-shells of middle size generally bring about $14 a dozen, cleaned crabs a dollar more.
Cleaned soft-shells should generally be cooked the same day. Live soft-shells will stay that way for several days, if kept cool and moist. But then you have to clean them, which merely requires the sang froid of a chipmunk assassin.
Just insert a knife or scissors behind the eyes and cut off the face of the crab, bend back and snip off the triangular or elongated "apron" on the ventral side, then fold back each pointed end of the carapace and scrape off the spongy gills underneath. By the time you're finished, the crab will have gone to that great chicken neck up in the sky.
It's at this point that the softshell novice quails -- torn between the deep fryer and the saute' pan, the Pernod and the almonds.
Reject them all. The soft-shell crab, properly viewed, is minimalism on pointy little legs. Splash him with fresh lemon juice while the coals get properly gray, then brush on a little melted butter -- augmented with a half teaspoon of Tabasco sauce -- and slap them on the grill.
Soft-shells look so fragile at this point it always seems startling that they take as long as 10 minutes on each side to cook, sizzling and popping their way to flavory nirvana.
Watery as they are, they sort of steam their insides while the outsides turn crisp and crunchy. They're done when they feel just firm to the spatula and the shell glows the deep reddish brown of a tanbark sail in a Severn River sunset.
Grilling is rough treatment, of course, and legs and even claws are often lost to the fire down below. This is always sad, but no catastrophe. Being totally consumable, the crab itself is the main object.
Paint a little more butter on him, squeeze on a little more lemon juice, then serve him up with corn on the cob, fresh tomatoes and beer or a dry white such as sancerre or pinot grigio.
Always allow at least three crabs per person or you'll have a riot on your hands, for grilled soft-shells are one of the true glories of American cuisine: the very essense of the Chesapeake and its tributaries, suddenly rendered chewable.