Part of a series of stories calling into question the supposed joys of summer.
The first time Katie Mettle ever picked her own crab, she was 27 years old. It was at an all-you-can-eat crab restaurant in Ocean City, and it was her then-boyfriend’s idea.
“You know when you’re dating a guy and you’re like, ‘I’m going to be open-minded about what he likes,’ even though you kind of hate it?” she said. “I was deluding myself. He pulled the lungs out, and I was like, ‘This is over for me.’ ”
She meant the crabs, though the relationship limped along only a little while longer before it, too, began to crack apart and stink. It wasn’t just about the crab’s lungs. It was also the “mustard,” the jolly euphemism for the crab’s bile-yellow hepatopancreas. It was the beady eyes.
“I don’t have the stomach to eat something that is staring at me with dead eyes,” said Mettle, now 31.
The time for the ritual of Mid-Atlantic crab feasts has arrived, a highlight of summer for Marylanders and the Maryland-adjacent. Head to a waterside spot like Cantler’s, outside of Annapolis, order a dozen jumbo crabs steamed in Old Bay, pop them apart with your bare hands and savor the lumps of sweet crab flesh within. Everyone from Maryland loves it. Right?
Not Stephen Kalnoske of Frederick. “My friends say, ‘Why do you hate the great state of Maryland?’ ” said the 35-year-old software developer, who lets his “exasperated” wife pick crabs for him.
“I just think the sheer amount of labor that goes into getting crab meat out of a crab is insane,” said Patrick McMahon, 29, a copywriter for Giant who was raised in Montgomery County by a family that frequently went to Kent Island for crabs.
He called them “the seafood equivalent of celery” — a vegetable so laborious that myth and legend have deemed it a “negative-calorie” food, as if eating it could burn more calories than it contains. It’s not actually true of celery or crab, but “you’re hungrier after than when you started,” he said.
It’s true, though, that picking crabs is a lot of work. An average blue crab weighs one-third of a pound, but the amount of meat that can be extracted from it is tiny. A pound of crabs yields about 2 1/4 ounces of meat, just about half the size of a McDonald’s Quarter Pounder — but only the patty, without the bun or toppings.
“It’s like shelling a lobster, but when you get done with a lobster, you have 10 times more meat to show for it,” said Jeff Dufour, 45, the editor in chief of National Journal Daily and a Connecticut native. “You have to shuck eight to ten crabs to get the same amount.” (Maybe you shuck your crabs in New England, but in the Mid-Atlantic, we pick them, Jeff.)
For locals who don’t like picking crabs, the summer is full of yellowed entrails, foul marine odors, social engagements to avoid and loyalties to defend.
“I get crab-shamed all the time,” said Iris McCarthy, 40, a food writer in Wilmington, Del., who comes from a family of “rooter to tooter” eaters, for whom “breaking down your dinner was second nature.” But since childhood, she has found crustacean dismemberment — which she calls “the self-checkout of the culinary world” — disgusting. A vegetarian once told her that as a meat eater, she “should have the courage to come face to face with your dinner,” she recalled. “I’m ashamed to say that actually looking what I’m about to eat in its face really does turn my stomach.”
But crabs are kind of gross, when you think about it.
“Crabs will eat just about anything; they’re a disgusting bug. They’re the roach of the bay,” said McMahon. To catch a crab, “you have to cut a decaying fish head off and toss it in there. Which is repulsive.”
Then there’s the odor, seemingly resistant to soap.
“I feel like my hands smell for two days,” said Brian Falasca, 35, who works for the federal government. His wife, Lindsey, loves summer crab feasts. Falasca isn’t participating this year. “I told her to bring me back a crab cake sandwich.”
It’s worse when it’s in your home. Six years ago, Jenn Topper’s in-laws arrived at her one-bedroom Washington apartment bearing “at least three dozen crabs, possibly four dozen.” Topper, 34, thinks snow crab is okay, but she detests blue crab.
“I was like, first off, how do we eat them in an apartment? Second: How do we eat all of them before they start to stink up my house?” They brought some to a friend’s barbecue but ended up throwing about a dozen away. She kept the windows open, but the scent still lingered more than a week.
Growing up in Northern Virginia, Laura Lopez’s family steamed their own crabs at home. When she and her sisters would complain about the smell, her parents boiled cinnamon sticks to refresh the air.
“It would just smell like cinnamon sticks and crabs,” said Lopez, 33, a copywriter. “You know how smell is always associated with memory? If I ever smell cinnamon, I immediately think of crabs.” It makes Christmas pretty weird for her.
Even if you get past the smell, there’s the inconvenience. In the process of breaking a crab apart, you’ll inevitably cut yourself on a piece of shell and get Old Bay or lemon or other detritus in the wound. “The stinging factor is off the charts,” said Conor Lastowka, 38, who grew up in Vienna, Va., but now lives in Burlington, Vt. Even dead crabs fight back.
“After you’ve clawed through this cage of razor blades, you’re rewarded with a chewed-up-gum amount of meat,” said Topher Mathews, 42, founder of the Georgetown Metropolitan news site.
And you have to pay for the privilege. Meaty jumbo crabs are pricey: A dozen cost $129 at Jimmy’s Famous Seafood in Baltimore. At Quarterdeck in Arlington, they’re $135 but not always available; extra-large crabs are $110 for a dozen.
For all that work, all that time and all that money, you won’t be all that satisfied.
“I’d rather just get a lobster roll and move on with my day,” Falasca said. Both Mathews and McMahon have ordered hamburgers at crab shacks. Tony Young, 50, of Upper Marlboro, Md., orders chicken or shrimp instead. “You’ll be full off of that,” he said. “Get a couple of sides, and you’re done.”
At Jimmy’s, owner John Minadakis says customers will tease their crab-cake-ordering friends, “sitting there with their fork and knife, all proper.”
“They’re like, ‘Come on, you gotta do at least one,’ ” Minadakis said. “They say, ‘Stop being stuck up, get dirty.’ ”
And that, for the crab-averse, is the worst part of all: Not only are they expected to dismember and disembowel a bottom-dwelling animal, spending hours tweezing out tiny morsels of meat as the shell punctures their skin, but they’re also expected to like it.
Lastowka believes crabs are “an emperor’s new clothes thing” — that pickers aren’t enjoying themselves as much as they claim. “No one wants to be a stick in the mud and say, ‘Guys, I think we should have spent this money somewhere else.’ ”
Mettle compares it to a religion, which makes her an atheist. “It feels very sacrosanct,” she said, but she just doesn’t get it. Friends tell her crab-picking is about being social, but why not do that over ice cream? Or any other edible thing that’s not sharp enough to wound you and loaded with pancreatic goo?
“If I have to figure out how to take out what I’m not supposed to eat before I eat it, I’m not going to eat it,” Mettle said. “I have a hard enough time figuring out artichokes.”