The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Washington Post employees rallied to save a crab. We named her Old Bae. Now we mourn.

This is Old Bae. (Maura Judkis)
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Old Bae’s life was meant to be short. She was purchased to die.

And yet, she persisted.

Over a span of six hours, starting when she was first introduced to The Washington Post newsroom in a Slack channel Tuesday afternoon, the blue crab evolved from a mere crustacean into an immortal.

It all started in our #leftovers Slack channel, which is normally reserved for announcements about food that’s up for grabs to the fastest takers. (If you’ve never heard of Slack: It’s an online communication program akin to instant messenger that facilitates communication among members, groups or large teams.)

On Tuesday, a Post food editor wrote in the channel that a live crab was available in The Post’s in-house test kitchen, known as the Food Lab. The crab had been purchased, along with five others — all females, according to their purveyor — for a photo shoot for an upcoming spring issue of the paper’s Food section.

Whether this blue crab became a pet or a meal was up to the person who took it. Yet there was little debate among this group of usually hungry employees: Most in the group wanted the crab to live.

The #leftovers Slack channel quickly mobilized to humanize the crab, much to the chagrin of some who wanted to eat her. It didn’t take long for a name to be chosen. A pro-eating colleague mentioned Old Bay, a blend of spices and herbs produced in the Chesapeake Bay region and originally meant to season crab.

And thus the crab became a beloved pet.

The hashtags #LetHerLive, #ShePersisted and #FreeOldBae were wielded in her honor. A GoFundMe campaign, to raise money to purchase a tank, was discussed.

But where would Old Bae go? How would she survive? “The Lord works in mysterious ways,” one colleague said in Slack as the channel’s participants put their heads together to help Old Bae find a forever home.

And, indeed, our wishes were answered. It was revealed that a Post director of product design, Katie Parker, had a pet crab that had recently died. Which meant she had an empty tank at home, just waiting for an occupant. Perhaps she would take Old Bae.

When, minutes later, Parker announced that a match had been made, the channel couldn’t have been happier.

It felt like fate: Here was a crab purchased to become an ingredient, and here was a human who had a crab-size hole in her heart. Perhaps a short life wasn’t Old Bae’s destiny after all.

The #leftovers channel started to move on, and people resumed talking about free food around the newsroom.

But sometimes things are too good to be true. While everyone was rejoicing, all was not well with Old Bae. Suddenly, Parker was pinging the Slack channel with the grim news that the blue crab had stopped moving.

This set off a flurry of questions. How long can crabs live out of water? How do they survive different temperatures? Can they go into shock or go dormant because of stress? No one really had a clue.

Rom Lipcius, a professor of marine science at William and Mary’s Virginia Institute of Marine Science, later told me that the shelf life of a crab can vary widely. “It depends on their size, how they’re captured, how they’re handled,” Lipcius said. “Basically, what you need to do is keep the crab moist and cool. Wrap it in sea grass or seaweed, which keeps their gills moist so they can transfer oxygen in the air to their gills.”

In other words, if you want to buy a blue crab with the intention of keeping it as a pet, handling the crab carefully is vital, as is storing it properly until it can be introduced to an aquarium. This generally does not involve refrigeration.

But Old Bae wasn’t bought to be a pet, and she might have been doomed from the start.

Deputy Food Editor Bonnie Benwick had purchased Old Bae and her fellow crabs at a seafood market in Washington two days before these events, placed them in a loosely closed paper bag inside a loosely closed plastic bag, then put them in her own 38-degree refrigerator. Lipcius said crabs wouldn’t last long in that environment, and he added that because they’re naturally aggressive, they might have done some battle inside those bags.

Benwick went to a photographer’s studio Monday, boiling two crabs there and giving two live crabs to the photographer. She later took the remaining two live crabs to The Post, where they were stored in a refrigerator ahead of a photo shoot Tuesday.

When she opened the fridge Tuesday, one of the crabs was unresponsive. But one waved its arms, as if asking to be taken out.

“She was the perkiest one of the group, always waving her claws. I took a liking to her and wanted her to be pardoned, like a turkey,” Benwick said later. “She was a survivor. I recognized spirit there.”

Now, hours later, Parker was struggling to keep Old Bae alive. She placed the crab in a box with damp paper towels, then in a fish bowl to see whether the water would revive her. Nothing worked.

Five hours after the crab’s introduction to the newsroom, Parker officially announced her passing.

Soon she had been immortalized in a new, animated Slack emoji — a crab with one waving arm — and on a photoshopped image of her with angel wings. Some even changed their Slack profile image to her picture. A balloon artist in the newsroom made an Old Bae of balloons.

On Thursday, the story of Old Bae reached the top of the paper’s masthead. During a town hall meeting with staff, Executive Editor Martin Baron read aloud three employee-submitted questions. The last was this: “Can we have a moment of silence for #OldBae, our short-lived newsroom crab mascot?” Baron mispronounced it “Old Bye,” but no matter. He obliged.

“Now, I think it’s only appropriate that the newsroom should have a mascot that’s a crab,” Baron said. “Um, but I don’t know what mascot this is, so, I never heard of this mascot. But I think it’s fine if we have a moment of silence, so here we go.”

He paused.

“That’s it.”

It’s unclear whether Old Bae had made any Post employees reconsider their relationship with meat or seafood. But the crab, one colleague quipped, had taught us a lot about “life, love and crabs.”

Look for Old Bae in the spring issue of The Post’s Food section, which will be online and in print March 29.

#RIPOldBae. Gone, but not forgotten.

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