The Food Almanac: Wednesday, April 10, 2013

It's National Soft-Shell Crab Day!

Yes, We Have Some Bananas
Today in 1633, greengrocer Thomas Johnson of Snow Hill in London displayed bananas in his shop window. They were the first bananas ever sold at retail in that country. Most people in England had never seen or tasted bananas, but heard enough about them to snap them up. Bananas would not become widely available in England for another 200 years.

Today's Flavor 
National Soft-Shell Crab Day. Soft-shell crabs are just beginning to appear right now. The early part of the season is best, with the biggest specimens we may see all year. 

Soft-shell crabs are almost absurdly delectable. Every creature that eats crabs relishes these. It's a wonder any crabs make it past that vulnerable stage. Soft-shell crabs are blue crabs that have just molted their too-small shells. Almost all the ones that come our way are farm-raised. (The wild ones hide very effectively, and finding one is dumb luck.) Soft-shell crab producers can tell when a crab is about to molt. As soon as it does, it's removed from the water. Otherwise, the shell stiffens and gets "papery."

A crab increases its size by pumping up its tissues with water in the minutes after it sheds. If you ever see the process, you'll wonder how that crab could possibly have been in that old hard shell. Crabs get better as they get bigger. A gigantic soft-shell crab contains, among many other wonderful things, two massive jumbo lumps of a size one rarely gets in straight crabmeat dishes. One "whale" (as the biggest soft-shell crabs are known in the trade) is better than two smaller crabs.

Cleaning a soft-shell crab for cooking is a bit involved. You cut off the face and rip out the gills (the "dead-man's fingers") and the sand sac. You can then proceed, but the crab will appear to have lost some corpulence. So some chefs stuff something inside to take the place of what came out. As for the actual cooking, no method beats deep-frying. I've occasionally had broiled or grilled soft-shell crabs that were as good as fried. But never better, and usually worse. From that point, nothing enhances a soft-shell crab more than napping it with a little brown butter and a pile of lump crabmeat on top.

Gourmet Gazetteer
Fish Fry Creek is in the southeast corner of Oklahoma, in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains. Its water flows in turn into the Mountain Fork, the Little River, the Red River, and the Atchafalaya. It's conceivable that a catfish could swim along that route but take a turn from the Red into the Mississippi , and wind up being caught from the Moonwalk and served in a French Quarter dining room. But not likely. And that would be one tough catfish. There are almost certainly catfish Fish Fry Creek, there being a reservoir just upstream on the Mountain Fork. If you don't catch anything, it's a seven-mile cross-country hike to Broken Bow, where you can have lunch or dinner at the Dancing Rabbit Creek Cafe.

Edible Dictionary
king crab, n.--One of a family of crabs found all over the world. The most famous is the red king crab, so called because it turns that color when cooked. Most of the edible meat comes from the long, thick legs. Covered with a thick, hard shell, it can weigh as much as twenty pounds (the record is twenty-five). It lives in the sub-Arctic areas of the world, originally around Alaska, which gives it another common name: Alaska king crab. In recent years, as a result of its introduction to the fjords off the European coast of Russia, king crabs are spreading prolifically into Norway's seas. King crabs are notoriously dangerous to catch, and the Alaska fishery is regulated to make it seasonal. It was grossly overfished in the 1970s and 1980s, and was on menus across America. The season is in early to mid-summer. The standard way to serve it is the same as for lobster: boiled or steamed, with drawn butter. It has a very mild, sweet flavor.

Food And The Law
On this day in 1995, smoking was banned in all New York City restaurants with more than 35 seats. From that point, laws prohibiting smoking in restaurants spread. It took a dozen years for them to come here, but we're glad they did. Right now, some restaurants are complaining that the ban has had a negative effect on business. That happened in New York, too--initially. Sooner than anyone expected, volume was back up to (and beyond) levels from the smoking era.

Food On The Air
On this evening in 1982, in a skit on Saturday Night Live, Eddie Murphy pulled a large live lobster out of a tank, held him up to the cameras, and named him Larry. He then asked the audience whether they wanted Larry boiled and eaten, or whether Larry should be allowed to live. Giving the lobster a name was what decided that one. By the end of the show, the telephone voting from around the country gave Larry a reprieve, and he went on to live until he could collect residuals from the reruns of the show.

The Old Kitchen Sage Sez:
When with your food empathy you feel
You'll begin to dread your every meal.
For you to eat, something must die
But forget it! It's already said good-bye!

People We'd Like To Take To Dinner
Novelist Paul Theroux's birthday is today, in 1941. He mostly writes fiction now, but he came to my attention through two travel books. In both, he takes trains to the farthest points tracks lead. The Great Railway Bazaar goes from London through Asia. The Old Patagonian Expressstarts in Boston and ends in Mendoza, Argentina. He digs into the culture wherever he goes, and has much to say about the way people eat. To an extent, it was what Anthony Bourdain does now, but thirty years before.

Annals Of Fishing
Today in 1989, a number of major American food distributors stopped selling canned tuna caught in nets that trapped (and then suffocated) dolphins. The move caused the price of tuna to rise a bit, but tuna from countries that did not accept the restriction went down dramatically, and for a time its sales actually went up. Now dolphin-safe tuna is the standard of the business. Progress is all around us.

Music To Drink Shots By
Today in 1958, The Champs' recording of Tequila hit Number One on the pop charts. It was essentially an instrumental, with the group saying "Tequila!" at the end of every few bars.

Food Namesakes
Relief pitcher Dan Quisenberry signed a lifetime contract with the Kansas City Royals today in 1985. . . Kirk Lowdermilk, pro football player, was born today in 1963. . . Bill Martini, former Congressman from New Jersey, was born today in 1947. . . Jay Cooke, an early American financier, was born today in 1821.

Words To Eat By
"Soft crabs are always fried (or broiled) in the altogether, with maybe a small jock-strap of bacon added."--H.L. Mencken.

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