Rodney Dangerfield and the red crab share the same beef: they get no respect. In the case of the crab at least, the plight seems unjustified.
Unlike the better known blue crab, for instance, the red crab can be harvested year round, and from Nova Scotia to Cuba. Its sweet taste has been compared favorably to lobster. It's not only larger and meatier than the blue -- growing upwards of 2 1/4 pounds -- but also less expensive.
But few have even heard of Geryon quinquedens. And those who have -- primarily fish purveyors -- say that even getting the species is difficult. "It's a good product," acknowledged Bill Devein of Baltimore's Faidley Market, "and all that can be had can be sold, but that's the problem. We sell more out of curiosity than anything."
Others see a seasonal and regional bias against the red crab. "People in this area do not eat crab unless it's summertime," noted Moe Cheramie of Old New Orleans Seafood Market in McLean. "It takes quite a few years to break food habits." Explained Bob Jordan of Jordan's Seafood, "This is the land of the blue crab."
Few foods are as elusive or as fragile as the red crab, which is distinguished not only by its hue, but by its long legs, squarish body and the fact it is a walking crab, not a swimmer. Since the crustaceans prefer water temperatures of between 38 and 41 degrees, they are found only far offshore, generally south of New England in depths of 250 to 300 fathoms, but as deep as 1,000 fathoms further south along the Atlantic coast.
Because the red crabs are harvested in such deep water, "they die very quickly upon reaching the surface," said Tom Vasile, factory manager of Bay Trading Company in Danvers, Mass., the largest processor of the product. In comparison, "other crabs stay alive two to three days."
Moreover, noted Fredric M. Serchuck, chief of New England Fisheries Resource Investigation at the National Marine Fisheries Service in Woods Hole, Mass., "red crabs tend to bleed, almost like hemophiliacs," which generally necessitates immediate processing to avert spoilage.
Encountered first by lobstermen in the 1950s, the red crab was harvested merely incidentally through the mid-1960s, when Andreas Holmsen, professor of resource economics at the University of Rhode Island, conducted the first study of the crustacean, complete with a departmental taste test of the creature in 1964. Commercial fishery was initiated in the early '70s, according to Serchuck.
A 1974 survey conducted between offshore Maryland and eastern Georges Bank determined the standing crop to be an estimated 59 million pounds. By the end of the decade, Maryland was promoting the delicacy not only at home, but as far way as Cleveland and Detroit.
"For profitability, red crab has to be marketed like lobster, as an individual sale," said Bob Prier, director of Maryland's Office of Seafood Marketing. "For picking purposes it's not profitable." Despite the state's efforts to build a market for the red crab, "it never blossomed," recalled Prier, who estimated Maryland's annual red crab harvest at less than a million pounds (in contrast, the amount of blue crab harvested last year was a whopping 53,120,005 pounds).
So who's selling the stuff to places like Phillips Crab House, Griffin's Seafood Market, Steamer Restaurant and others in and near Ocean City? George Topping for one. For the past nine years the 33-year-old Ocean City fisherman has weathered the ups and downs of the red crab business, 75 miles from shore aboard The Original Jackson. With the assistance of three others, Topping spends 19 of every 23 days on the water, generally leaving on a Monday, at which time he drops his crab pots and commences fishing for tuna, swordfish and lobster. ("If it's just red crab, you'll starve or go broke trying to make it," he explained.) By Thursday the lobster pots used to fish the red crab are hauled to the surface, to minimize the time the delicate catch is exposed to air before being shipped home Friday. The time and expense spent simply putting the equipment in place is enormous: each rig -- there are two 30-pot crab rigs, each costing between $4,000-$5,0000 -- requires 3 miles of 5/8 inch line. Another half mile of line is used to reach the crabs' habitat, some 2,500 feet beneath the water's surface. And every year, claims Topping, his lines are cut at least once by passing deep-sea fishermen. Despite the headaches, "I just get talked into doing it every year," sighed Topping.
Topping's naturally a big fan of the red crab. "It beats a blue crab all to hell," he said, although he's none too fond of the effort and expense its harvesting entails. "It's a pain, a lot of strain, and I've tried it a hundred different ways," claimed Topping.
His proudest achievement is bringing the red crab catch home, alive, to a small but steady band of customers. "I only lose 2 to 3 percent, which is a remarkable feat," considering the fisherman does no onboard processing. His technique? "It's a secret," said Topping, who added in defense, "I've worked nine years to get it right." Thus far this year, he's sold 8,500 pounds of the crabs.
By contrast, Bay Trading, which employs 45 workers and operates its own processing plant, sells annually about 1 1/2 million pounds of red crab, 90 percent of which is sold on the East Coast to chain restaurants (which buy the claws), supermarkets or large scale food processors, which use minced red crab meat in stuffings and crab cakes, according to spokesman Vasile. None of the company's red crab is sold live; the product is at least partially processed aboard the fishing boat before it enters the plant.
There's little competition, stated Vasile, "although crab is crab and ultimately you can compete with other species."
There are advantages to the field's few participants. "The industry more or less regulates itself," noted Serchuck. To ensure continued stocks, female red crabs are returned to the water, and only males measuring 4 1/2 inches in width or more are kept.
Such self-policed conservation of the "poor man's lobster" appears to work because there's little demand for the crab. Of course, it would seem there's little demand because of an inconsistent supply, and little supply because of the industry's labor and capital-intensive nature. It's a Catch-22 situation that may change in light of climbing blue crab prices. Moreover, offered an employe of Steamer Restaurant, where and when its available, "they love big reds."
Should you be fortunate enough to encounter the elusive red crabs alive, Topping advises removing the backs of the crustaceans before steaming them. The legs, claws and body all contain meat. Two to three red crabs yield about a pound of meat. Following are two of the Topping family's favorite red crab recipes, from the files of George's mother, Judy. JUDY TOPPING'S RED CRAB IMPERIAL (4 to 6 servings)
2 pounds picked red crab meat (or substitute blue crab)
2 eggs, beaten
1 hard-cooked egg, mashed
3/4 cup mayonnaise
Stale bread crumbs (approximately 3 slices bread)
3 tablespoons green bell pepper, boiled and skin removed, then mashed
1/4 cup worcestershire sauce
Salt and pepper to taste
Chopped fresh parsley to taste
About 5 tablespoons evaporated milk
Paprika for dusting
In a large bowl, mix the crab meat, eggs, 1/4 cup mayonnaise, bread crumbs, bell pepper, worcestershire sauce, seasoning and parsley. Place mixture in individual lightly geased ramekins. In a small bowl, combine remaining mayonnaise and evaporated milk. Beat with a fork until light and foamy and top each ramekin with a bit of the mixture. Dust tops with paprika and bake in a 350-degree oven 20 minutes or until surface is golden brown. (For a richer dish, grated cheese may be added to tops before baking.) JUDY TOPPING'S RED CRAB CAKES (Makes about 6 crab cakes)
1 pound red crab meat (or substitute blue crab)
1 teaspoon Old Bay seasoning
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 generous tablespoon mayonnaise
2 teaspoons prepared mustard
1 tablespoon worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon fresh chopped parsley
1 egg, beaten
1/2 cup cracker meal or 2 slices stale bread, blended into crumbs
Oil for cooking
1/4 cup ( 1/2 stick) butter (do not use margarine)
Lightly blend crab meat, seasonings, mayonnaise, mustard, worcestershire sauce, parsley, egg, and cracker or bread crumbs. Form into cakes. Heat a thin layer of oil in a heavy pan, and add the butter over moderate heat. Cook the cakes about 5 minutes each side or until golden brown in color. Blot on paper toweling, remove to a platter and serve immediately.