We had just had our first lobster roll of the season at Down East Lobster Pound in Trenton, Maine, and were feeling pretty good about the upcoming Memorial Day weekend on Mount Desert Island and a few days off from the NYC rat race.
At Down East– where you can find the perfect lobster roll (stuffed big, no filler, buttery toasted roll) – the bins that hold the lobster were also piled high with Maine crab. “Why not try it?” I thought. For $1.49 pound, we got six big ones to take home.
To cook them, we took our lobster pot across the street to Somes Harbor on Mount Desert Island, filled it up at the dock, and threw in some seaweed – that’s the way my Dad cooks lobster. We boiled the crabs for 12 minutes and then plunged them into cold water to stop the cooking.
That helps release the crabmeat from the shell, we were told. “Otherwise, you’ll be swearin’” was the advice.
We served the crab with fresh asparagus – a wonderful spring meal. After all, on Memorial Day in Maine the lilacs are still in bloom.
Was there enough crabmeat for a meal? Yes, and more. Although the effort-to-meat ratio was higher than with lobster, the claws and legs produced sweet, delicate meat.
But I wondered why this crustacean is so under-rated in Maine?
I asked around. It seems that the lobster men consider crabs a nuisance because they eat the bait from the lobster traps. They pull up the crabs coincidentally when they’re hauling their lobster. They might give them to their wives to pick and market the crabmeat or sell the whole crabs to lobster pounds if they get a decent price. But because of crabs’ relatively low value, they’re regarded as a throwaway by-product.
This seems generally to have been the story until 1997 when a seafood wholesaler in Portland started referring to Maine rock crabs (Cancer irroratus) as “Peekytoe,” the local slang term. That’s because the crab leg has a sharp point or “picked toe” — “picked” pronounced as if it had two syllables (rhyming with picket).
Suddenly the newly christened Peekytoe crab was being featured in recipes by Martha Stewart and Daniel Boulud and in NYC restaurant notes with $$$$ next to the listing.
New York chefs started paying $12 to $14 a pound for something that has long been routinely discarded.
A final note. Peekytoe crabs are different from blue crabs, which are common from Massachusetts to Texas and particularly prized from Chesapeake Bay, North Carolina and Louisiana fisheries during their “soft shell” phase.
I used to go crabbing with my Dad on Nantucket. We’d coax the blue crabs over to our nets with some chicken wings on a string, then scoop them up. They’re fast, which makes crabbing a lot of fun.
In Maine they don’t have blue crabs, but every once in a while you see something else blue.