The bliss of cast-iron soft-shell crabs.

When the calendar flips and the mercury climbs, the brief season of spring brings forward a thousand fleeting treasures of the Chesapeake Bay. It is a time of emergence, then abundance, and before we know it, the ephemeral.

Blink, and you miss it. Warm days, a cool breeze. The arrival of the osprey, blooms on the dogwood tree, that first flush of wildflowers and the rippling whiff of honeysuckle, all before we’re overwhelmed by the plentitude and potency of summer. And by the eve of June, when winter already feels like another lifetime, this fruitful feeling reaches its greatest zenith on the Chesapeake with the flight of the soft-shell crab. 

From May through September (if we’re lucky), the blue crab—callinectes sapidus, or “beautiful, savory swimmer”—emerges from its wintry slumber and make its way along the bottom of this brackish bay. Before they can become those whales we covet come October, crabs must shed their hard, outer shells in order to grow, and in their molt, a new, delicate inner shell is revealed.

The entire process takes just a few hours, with the new exoskeleton fully hardening within a matter of days. But in this moment, the iconic crustaceans have transformed into the colloquial “soft crab,” “soft-shell,” “paper,” “buster,” or, at the exact right time, according to certain watermen, “velvet,” all one in the same—a coveted seafood delicacy sought out for centuries along the Atlantic Ocean and its inland waterways. To eat them as hard shells is hard work, with many a pricked finger picking its way through those intricate innards for that prized lump of luscious meat. Meanwhile, these plump, flavorful, yet fragile beauties indulged our most primal instincts and are devoured eaten whole.

That ancient molt typically takes place in grassy shallows and sandbars, but over the last hundred-plus years, watermen have also taken to shedding the crabs on land—a long-held (and still difficult) form of aquaculture in which they must intently watch the colors of the “peelers” to know precisely when they’ll shift their shape. As soon as the shells drop, the crabs are pulled from tank’s waters, forever preserved in that pliable state.

As one might expect, the appetite for these aquatic delights dates back to the estuary’s earliest settlers, with accounts by 17th century Europeans documenting the hard crab feasts and soft-shell harvests of Native Americans. James Michener speaks to such culinary customs in Chesapeake—a masterpiece tome of fiction, though based on heavy reporting and research—when his Susquehannock protagonist Pentaquod discovers the soft-shell’s edibility after watching Great Blue Herons toss them down their gullets. Later, he eats them for the first time roasted in bear fat over a live fire.

“Do I eat legs and all?” he asks Nativan, a woman of the Choptank tribe whom he would eventually marry, before inhaling four. “Now you are one of us,” she beams with pride.

In the decades that followed, the soft-shell crab would only grow in popularity, with the first soft-shell nursery built in South Carolina in 1885 by an African-American named Charles Leslie. The practice would eventually take over the entire East Coast, from New Orleans to New York City, and by the early 1900s, cookbooks carried recipes for them boiled, fried, broiled, steamed, and even curried, with one Cajun iteration declaring, “The soft-shell crab is greatly affected by epicures, and is a dainty dish that graces the most aristocratic tables.”

Somewhere along the way, Maryland’s Smith Island—the remote archipelago just west of the southern Eastern Shore and perhaps most famous for its namesake nine-layer chocolate cake—became the soft crab capital of the world, and today, watermen still troll this disappearing spit of land, wading knee-deep and net-in-hand into the shoreline grasses, the docks lined with manmade beds urging the plucked peelers to release their shells.

Only a handful of Smith Island eateries still hawk them the way they should be eaten, especially in an era of fancy appropriations such as soft-crab-studded sushi, eggs Benedicts, and bánh mìs. We’d eat those versions, too, of course, but they’ll never compare to the fried platters and white-bread sandwiches served with ripple-cut potato chips at the waterfront Bayside Inn in Smith Island. Or the fat po’boys, somehow unsacrilegously stuffed with just the meaty bodies, slung at the nearby Drum Point Market. Or any other crab shack, church cookout, or Sunday kitchen along the Chesapeake. Just simple, savory sustenance. Ambrosia by the sea.

“A crab provides little food, so he is not easy to eat. But the little he does offer is the best food under the sky,” Navitan told Pentaquod in Chesapeake. “To eat crab, you must work, which makes you appreciate him more. He is the blessing, the remembrance. And no man or woman ever ate enough.” Like the softness of spring, and even the glow of early summer, life is too short; never, ever just eat one.

For cooking them on your own, there is no right or wrong way to go about it—sautéed, grilled, or fried—but there are a few tips to save you time and trouble. Whatever you’ve been taught, know that size doesn’t matter. Just always buy them live, preferably cleaned (trust us: the process is easy, but not pretty), and keep them on ice until it’s time.

When you’re ready, pull out your cast-iron pan, place it on the stove on medium-high heat or over a live fire. Throw in a half-dozen pads of butter while you lightly dredge the crabs in flour mixed with J. O. Spice—the seasoning typically used at local seafood houses over the better-known Old Bay. Fill the pan with their flimsy bodies, fry until golden brown, add more butter, flip, repeat.

Serve them as the locals do: stacked on white bread with a thick smear of mayonnaise, ice-cold lettuce, and the equally ephemeral summer tomato. Or simply eat them on their own.

Just know that we won’t judge if you have a slice of Smith Island cake, too.

June 11, 2019 — Dennis Powell