PORTLAND, MAINE -- The thought was new, a small word dropped into a larger conversation with the marketing director of the Maine Department of Marine Resources. The word was "crab" -- or more specifically "Maine crab."
He was expecting Maine crab to emerge as a big business, grabbing a serious percentage of the market share away from lobster. Already, it was in the works, and a lobster wholesaler in Portland was in the process of hedging his bets with a crab operation.
It was worth a look. After all, what Maine has out there in the Atlantic is crab -- lots and lots of crab.
At noon in the middle of the following week, the rain was drenching this private wharf in Portland between Commercial Street and the harbor. It was jammed with delivery vans, small trucks and private cars despite zero parking spaces. Every inch of the place showed 100 years of use, but something new was afoot -- or aclaw, to be more specific.
Holden Seafood inhabits the sheds on the south side of the wharf and inside, rain at any pace is irrelevant. The place is awash with lobsters paddling around in huge tanks fed with a constant supply of fresh sea water. The crabs -- well, the crabs don't care anymore. They have been steamed and now wait in their own vats, the size of dumpsters, cooling off until the pickers can get around to tearing them asunder.
"Maine crabs" are what they're called officially although they are really two types of crabs, the Jonah or cancer borealis and the rock crab or cancer irroratus. The main difference is minor, the marginal teeth are more jagged on the rim of the shell of the Jonah and the rock crab shell looks smoother. The shell of both is a yellowish beige with shades of red and brown freckles and not nearly as attractive as their glamorous cousins, the blue crabs. Up here there is no chance for comparison since a blue hasn't been seen north of Cape Cod.
Jeff Holden of Holden Seafood is a young and energetic Maine man willing to experiment with the possibilities of fresh crab meat. Up until now, its appearance on the market was accidental, or serendipity, if you dare use that word in these salty surroundings.
The underwater population inshore (meaning close to shore) and offshore (a day or two out to sea) fails to recognize a lobster trap for what it is and is attracted to the bait -- enormous snails called Moonshells, whelk, sea urchins, an occasional fish, and certainly crabs. Inshore, the rock crabs and, in deep water, the Jonahs force their way into the traps and then discover that they can't get out. When the traps are hauled up into the boat, they are looking frantic.
The squeamish may want to skip the next couple of sentences. These thieving crabs have their large front claws torn off, one or two depending on how good the lobster catch has been. Then the body is thrown back to grow another one or two.
The claws, meanwhile, have been thrown aside on the boat's deck. Lobster wholesalers like Holden buy the crab claws, steam them, remove most of the shell to expose the meat and sell them as "cocktail claws" at outrageous prices.
Not much of a business, you'd guess. But something is clicking. It could be the enthusiasm American cooks have shown for surimi, those shreds of pollock sprayed with a crab-flavored chemical. Whatever the reason, lobstermen are beginning to save the entire crab to bring to shore and now Holden has fishermen who are going out solely for crab.
On a recent day at Holden's Seafood, the crabs being picked were all rock crabs averaging about a half pound when they hit the steamers. "Today rock crab and tomorrow Jonah's," Holden said. "We never know what the catch is going to be. But, it's all crab meat." Which is just what Euell Gibbon's said in "Stalking the Blue-eyed Scallop." Even the tiny green and lady crabs taste like crab meat. The difference is in the picking.
The line of pickers work at waist-high tables moving swiftly through piles and piles of crabs that would discourage most of us. They are paid by the pound and don't bother to look up. Nor is there much communication. Most of them are Cambodian, dressed in Maine flannel shirts and sweaters in this cool place.
Faith rises and falls in mechanical pickers -- agitators that shake the meat out, spinners that flick it out by centrifugal force, tailor-made gadgets to press the meat out of the legs. Holden showed off a machine he invented, a circle with outer holders for crab claws that pass under a soft plastic wheel. It looked as though it had never been used.
"Everything about the crab is saleable somewhere," Holden said, grasping the crab shell to explore the innards most of us would rather not know were there. "Even this empty shell is sold as a dish in the Orient."
Each pound of picked meat is carried into a room with a black light that reveals bits of shell and cartilage. What ends up in our supermarkets are six-ounce containers for around $5.50.
Other towns have other methods for getting crab meat into the consumer's refrigerator. Until this new commercial interest in Maine crab, fish markets have been supplied by a cottage industry, ladies and gentlemen down the block who sit around the kitchen table and work hard on a pile of crabs until it's time to get up and put the chowder on for dinner. Strangely enough the retail price can be much less; one market in Portsmouth, N.H., sells Maine crab meat for $9 a pound. (One try and you'll understand that the pickers did not have any black light; every cup of crab meat must be carefully picked over.)
During May at C&R Seafood in West Ocean City, Md., where "Maine" lobsters -- caught out on the edge of the continental shelf -- are sold, I was stopped dead in my tracks by a pile of crab claws sitting on the counter -- steamed with huge lashings of Old Bay seasoning, a rusty blush on top of the golden-beige shells of Maine crab.
"They're stone crab claws," the market owner said in Eastern Shorese. No, they weren't, but that's okay. Customer identification here would be closer to Florida where stone crab claws look much the same. "They sneak into the lobster traps out on the continental shelf and steal the bait," he said, "so the lobstermen bring the claws in and throw the rest of the body back."
We bought a pound. Who could resist them at $3.95? Crabs in lobster traps. Does this portend a threat to the blue crab industry? At the risk of being a traitor to New England fisheries, no. The blue crab and its delicious meat are in no danger.
Sally Tager is a freelance writer from Hampton, N.H.