The Chesapeake Bay Blue crab, whose intricate multichambered body has frustrated the picks and mallets of seafood lovers since before the days of Capt. John Smith, appears to have met its mechanical master.
Bolted to the floor of a whitewashed cinderblock building here stands the instrument technology has so often promised and so often failed to deliver -- a machine that will pick crabs.
Shrieking and vibrating like an overloaded clothes washer on the spin cycle, the somewhat Orwellian device empties nearly five crabs per second and, its developers say, gets nearly one-third more meat from each crab at less than one-seventh the cost of hand picking.
It holds the potential of transforming the economy --industry, and of providing large-scale access at last to one of the world's most abundant and under-used sources, of protein.
"This is a simple, practical device for removing meat from crustaceans," said Hampton seafood packer William P. Hunt, one of the machine's prime developers. We have proven that the size of the crustacean is of no consequence and the type of crustacean is of no consequence. I'm not B.S.-ing you -- we have a machine!"
For nearly 25 years a crab machine has been the dream of every seafood packer on the bay, where a dwindling and[WORD ILLEGIBLE] supply of white-capped, quick-fingered women has traditionally separated crab from shell.
Dozens of inventors have gone broke or crazy trying to pick crabs with everything from water flushing to centrifugal force.
The search has been as much as offense: the first person with an efficient machine, the packers knew could afford to buy crabs at such a high price and sell the meat at such a low price he would run the hand-picking plants out of business.
Hunt, a burly, silver-haired man in his 60s, began his quest for the mechanical crab picker, about six years ago, and later pooled his efforts with those of a sister, two Maryland packers and a Delaware businessman.
Their joint venture, the C. Savory Corp., was built around the concept of a former New Bedford, Mass., deck hand, trawler skipper and research boat engineer named Richard Wenstrom, now 53.
"Altogether, all of us must have spent $1 1/2 million since the start of this thing," said Hunt. "I had hired Dick Wenstron who was down in Florida. He invented the scallop shucker and like all inventors, he's crazy as a bedbug."
"I brought him up here and I said 'Dick, I want you to invent us a crab picking machine.' Three days later he called me back and said 'I've got the principle.'
"I went right over there and he was holding crabs up and dropping them on the floor. Picking them up and dropping them again. 'Impact!' he said. Then I KNEW he was crazy."
Wenstron, however, pointed out that the meat was coming cleanly out of the portions of crab that didn't break. The trick clearly was to find some way to drop the crab without breaking it.
Today, that is essentially what the Savory Corp.'s "Quick Pick" machine does. Cooked crab bodies, stripped of their claws, legs and shell and hosed clean of their inedible innards, are held upside down on a special grating and oscillated at 4,200 revolutions per minute. An electric motor powers the vibrating grate by means of an eccentric shaft rotating three-eighths inch off center.
In five seconds (10 for dredged winter crabs) the body shells have been jolted clean of every particle of meat, even in those tiny recesses traditionally out of reach of the handpickers' knife. The processed shells are as light and airy as a blown egg.
"If you say the average trained person picks four pounds of meat an hour," Wenstron said, "even if you forget about the better efficiency of the machine, the same person could pick 15 pounds an hour using the machine. He'd just be picking in a different way, taking the claws and backs off and so on. And you don't need a skilled worker to use this machine. Anybody off the street can run it."
Best of all, in hunt's opinion, the machine produces a product comparable or better than hand-picked meat; identical in flavor and texture and far less peppered with the tiny shell fragments that creep into even the best handpicked samples.
Wenstron, who Hunt says is 95 per cent responsible for the machine's final design, says the "Quick Pick" has been proven in a laborious, seven-year trial-and-error process he describes as "strickly Rube Goldberg." He says the machine is as complex in engineering as it is simple in concept.
"You wouldn't believe what we've been through with this thing," he muttered. "Stainless steel. . . special alloy bearings. . . The damm thing keeps trying to shake itself apart. But it's proven now. This machine's been running since November. Even if something breaks, we can tear it down, replace any part, and have it running again in an hour."
"He's a fanatic about this machine," Hunt says of the extraordinarily active Wenstron. "He's just as nervous as a whore in church, but he's a genius."
For Hunt, the crab machine is only one of many ventures. He's had as many as 17 corporations going at once, including three tugboats and barges, several fishing boats, a scallop trawler, a fuel oil distributorship and interests in several packing houses, including one in Mexico.
"I'm a damn fool," he explains.
His search for the "Quick Pick" grew out of his interest in the P. K. Hunt Crab Co. here, which his family has owned for 50 years and his sister manages.
"We're into crab meat," he says. "We're into it heavy."
He and his other partners, who include Wenstron, Clayton Brooks of Cambridge, Md., Calvin Tolley of Toddsville, Md. and Theodore Reinke of Rehoboth, Del, have been pointedly close-mouthed about their invention.
When rumors of its existence crept out -- other packers speak of it apprehensively, as if it were some sort of crab-processing nuclear weapon --Hunt fended off an inquiring reporter for more than a year.
Though the patents are apparently firmly nailed down, only one machine so far is in existence. Hunt and Wenstron say seven or eight more may be built by the end of the year, but they won't say exactly what they'll cost ("under $15,000, says Hunt) or what will be done with them.
"We could destroy the crab industry with this machine," he said, "but we're not going to do that. We got employees to consider and a lot of people with a lot of capital invested. They got to be protected. We have got to somehow control the use of the machine and we're studying that now."
Theoretically, uncontrolled use of the machine could result in danger to the crab itself, since the limited supply of hand pickers on the bay has traditionally controlled the size of the crab catch almost as effectively as has the weather.
Each female crab, however, produces something like two million eggs, and bay crabs have shown extraordinary ecological resilience in the face of environmental pressures far greater than crabbing, according to Dr. Willard Van Engel of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, premier crab biologist on the bay.
Hunt says he himself plans to use the machine at first primarily on surpluses his hand-pickers can't handle, which he says pile up in the heavy crabbing days of spring, summer and fall.
And he wants to push its use -- particularly overseas -- for Jonah crabs, rock crabs, red crabs and other ocean species traditionally unsought because they're difficult to pick.
"I was over in India and they got the most beautiful crabs you ever did see over there," he said, "and a lot of hungry people."
Samir Basta, a nutritionist who travels the globe studying food needs and sources for the World Bank, says crabs have seldom been studied as a food source for underdeveloped countries "because most of them are consumed locally and there is rarely a surplus catch."
"But this is probably something we should look at," he added. "Almost every country has some sort of crab crawling around."
Crab meat, he said, is one of the world's richest sources of protein --nearly twice as rich as beef liver, for example -- and said encouraging crab fisheries might meet the bank's twin objectives of developing both new food sources and small scale industry in Third World countries.
Wenstron isn't sure he wants to take on the whole world. He wants to try out his crab machine in Maine, he said, but more than a year ago he was already talking about "moving south, doing some fishing, producing crab meat and staying out of the way."
Hunt, however, has already formed another corporation. This one, he said, will manufacture organic pesticides -- out of leftover crab shells.