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Articles & Essays

"When it comes to eating crab on the coast, keep it fresh"

Published 05/31/19
The News & Observer (Raleigh, NC)
    The vacationing Hub and I were settling into our beers at our favorite Outer Banks restaurant when I saw a server bring a brown paper bag out of the kitchen. She rolled down the top and dropped it in the center of a nearby table of six.
    I shook my head in disgust. I knew what was coming.
    Some fool had ordered crab legs.
    Nothing makes you feel more like you’re on the North Carolina coast than eating crab caught in the Bering Sea, frozen, and hauled practically from Russia.
    I’ve always wondered if, afterward, they put the crabs in little wheelchairs and park them in underwater assisted living centers, where their crab grandchildren listen, disbelieving, to their stories of being hauled to the surface by an unseen hand. (“Sure, Grandcrab, next you’ll tell us a lady you met at a sandbar drugged you and you woke up in a tub of ice minus a kidney.”)
    Yet, crab legs are everywhere on the coast, a spindly, pink plague scuttling across restaurant menus.
    Crab legs are for people who don’t really like seafood but think they should eat it because they’re at the beach, and who want to spend a lot of money. They’re not as honest with themselves as those who order steaks from the “Landlubbers” sections of the menus. Steak-eaters don’t like stuff that comes out of the water and they’re secure enough to go their own way while others indulge. I can respect that.
    But crab leg people - no.
    They’re a block away from an ocean that’s crawling with fish, if fish could crawl other than the Austrailan crawl; and shrimp and oysters and clams and local blue crabs. Blue crabs, which time and timing turn into the delicacy of my dreams, soft-shell crabs.
    I have eaten crab legs only twice. The first time was at least three decades ago, at a Red Lobster far away from any body of water unless you counted the puddles in the parking lot. It’s the seafood restaurant for people who don’t want to know that they’re eating seafood under all the butter, cream sauce and batter.
    I’d never had to commit breaking and entering for my food before. The legs put up such a pitched battle that it took both my hands on the nutcracker to crack the shells, which turned to knife-like shards and slashed a finger. By the time I stopped  the bleeding in the faux-nautical ladies room, my crab legs were cold. And cold crab legs taste like fake sushi, but not in a good way.
    The second time was three years ago at an Alaskan crab shack, in actual Alaska. The  crab legs placed before me on a picnic table by the water had been running amok in the sea mere hours, instead of weeks, earlier. The only ice they’d ever encountered were chunks floating on the ocean. The shells gave way easily in my hands - no nutcracker needed - and fell into soft pieces. The crab inside was moist and tender, so sweet and flavorful that dipping it in butter would’ve been a prosecutable offense. Context is everything, people.
    At the Outer Banks, The Hub and I stroll in like A-listers at the Oscars because people there tend to visit restaurants in packs. Parties of eight or 10 cruise in, dragging tired toddlers and sandy babies in sunbonnets, to face a 30-minute wait on a Friday night. Not us. We like the high-tops at our favorite place, which offer a good view of the bar’s continuous loop of surfing videos. We long to see someone fall off, yet it rarely happens. I suspect that falls occur a lot in reality, but putting wipeouts in a video wouldn’t be good marketing.
    We ate there a lot because the food was good, the beer was cold and we wanted to keep up our search for wipeouts. The server recognized us, and I brought her into the deep discussion Hub and I were having: What was the first record album you ever bought?
    Hub, “Crosby, Stills and Nash.”
    Me, “Meet the Beatles.”
    Server: “NSync.”
    Geez, such a baby. I bet she could even surf.
    She informed us about the evening’s special, the Crab Stack: a fried soft-shell crab, then a crab cake, and it all topped with lump crabmeat and Cajun remoulade.
    The heavens opened and a choir began to sing. I raised my hand, indicating she need say no more, that the Crab Stack would be mine and to get that order in right away.
    After all, something that good was going to run out of the kitchen like it had legs.

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