Excrabaganza: A Crab Quest on the Atlantic Coast

People collect all sorts of crap: matchbooks, stamps, campaign buttons, shot glasses, G.I. Joes, telegraph line insulators, taxidermy, Hummels, Klingon weaponry, even gently used underwear. I collect U.S. states. I've dreamed of having my own road show; it'd be called "Food Gas Longing," and I'd sign off every episode "with Slim Jim wishes and Gatorade dreams." Since I don't have any sponsors, it's been slow going, but in April I logged my forty-third state--South Carolina.

Every state I've seen has been by car. Traveling to Charleston and Edisto Island from Connecticut (one of the nine states I've called home, for readers tempted to picture me in madras shorts and a Vineyard Vines ascot) meant passing through old favorites, most notably Delaware, Virginia, and North Carolina.

Along this route I can recommend, for starters, Sambo's Tavern (283 Front St; 302-674-9724) in Leipsic, Delaware. About Sambo's, which I didn't visit on this outing, my friend John B-- wrote, "Pictures of every NASCAR driver of the early 1990s ring the dining room. . . . [T]he crabs make it. High quality, fresh, local crabs. We got our dozen for $35 and had a fun afternoon banging them with mallets and washing down the brine with lager." (Yuengling, in these parts.) Sambo's was my introduction to crab croquet. I can report that a basket of salt-encrusted blue crabs is a meal like no other. In heaven, these will be the bar snack, mark my words.

In Virginia, I spent the night on Chincoteague Island, renowned for its population of wild ponies, immortalized by Marguerite Henry in Misty of Chincoteague (1947), Sea Star, Orphan of Chincoteague (1949), and others. I can't vouch for Ms. Henry's oeuvre, with which I'm unfamiliar; Publishers Weekly had hard words for the "grating overuse of exclamation points" in her "disappointing" novel Brown Sunshine of Sawdust Valley (1998). I can promise that the sight of raggedy, ruminative feral ponies in the adjacent Assateague Island State Park is nothing short of magical.

Chincoteague is underwhelming in the off-season. Most restaurants are closed, and one's inner animal-rights fanatic may be awakened by the sight of ponies penned up on commercial property--presumably for those vacationers more intrigued by soft-serve and souvenirs than a patient foray into the state park. But there's serviceable seafood, and I suspect it only gets better in the summertime. Try Bill's Seafood Restaurant (4040 Main St; 757-336-5831), an unpretentious spot ("honey, there's nothing wrong with the butter--it's cheese spread") which boasts a classic oyster stew with Virginia ham, and a generous shellfish "tower," which will be removed from its display stand as soon as you've had a moment to admire it. The stone crab claws and raw oysters are fat and fresh.

When leaving Chincoteague, one should be vigilant for peanut stands. Boiled peanuts (or "balt peanuts," as they're called in Tennessee) are exactly what they sound like: raw peanuts boiled in salt water. They're sold self-serve in Ziploc along some of the less-trafficked byways. A welcome alternative to Slim Jims.

I'll mention Wilmington, North Carolina's Firebelly Lounge (265 North Front St; 910-763-0141) in passing, because I don't remember what I ate there--not the frog legs, which a waiter warned me were a novelty food that tastes just like . . . etc. Firebelly is of interest primarily because it offers generous portions (of whatever I ate) and because Steve Buscemi was stabbed there while filming something with Vince Vaughn. Just don't leave Wilmington without marveling at its well-stocked Serpentarium, where no one will prevent you from taunting a King Cobra until it tries to bite you through the glass.

The highlight of this route is the SeeWee Restaurant in Awendaw, South Carolina (4808 U.S. 17; 843-928-3609‎), technically inside the Francis Marion State Park. SeeWee is no secret, having been promoted by Jane and Michael Stern of Roadfood fame, but it deserves all the enthusiastic publicity it can get. Be sure to get fried oysters, fried shrimp, fried okra, fried green tomatoes, macaroni and cheese, butter beans, collard greens, hush puppies, Nehi grape soda, banana pudding, and, best of all, she-crab soup. The soup comes with a NyQuil cup of sherry, to mix in to one's taste.

Summer is soft-shell crab season, as many readers are doubtless aware. I scored only one soft crab, in Charleston, at the Amen Street Fish and Raw Bar (205 East Bay St; 843-853-8600). This may be a tourist magnet--though not on the order of the Myrtle-worthy Noisy Oyster or A.W. Shuck's--but if it is, that's fine by me, because what am I if not a professional tourist? I ordered a deep-fried crab with a succotash of bacon and corn, and the second thing I did upon returning home, after preparing an alligator steak bought on Edisto Island, was buy five soft-shell blue crabs and go to town on them.

A quick guide to eating this summery delicacy:

  • A soft-shell crab is one that's molting. If you live on the Atlantic Coast, the soft-shell crabs you'll find at your local fish market are blue crabs. It's best to buy these live, but it can be hard to tell if they are, as they'll come out of a fridge, barely moving (if at all), and will not snap at you like a lobster. As long as they've been refrigerated, it doesn't matter if they're essentially dead. They should be cleaned as close to dinnertime as possible.
  • Cleaning a soft-shell crab is faith-shaking. You'll need to shear the crab's face off with scissors. Don't be alarmed by its bloodcurdling scream . . . no, really, it's probably dead, and even if it's not, it won't run around like a chicken does when you cut its head off. It's definitely incapable of running around. You'll need to strip its gills, the feathery things under the shell that look like you wouldn't want to eat them. You'll also need to yank off the "apron," the panel on the ass-end of the crab's underbelly.
  • Bread the crab in a mixture of egg, flour, cornmeal, and special seasoning--a little salt and cayenne pepper, or Cajun spice. Fry it in oil or butter, about four minutes on each side. For a Gullah-style sandwich, serve the crab on a roll with lettuce, tomato, black pepper, and seasoned mayo.

And check out Max Watman's grilled soft-shell crab post and recipes.

Soft-Shell Crabs: An Excrabaganza on the Atlantic Coast