I love Crabs. But, no one loves Baltimore Crabs more than Zora's husband Peter, so no crab dinner is complete without him.
This dinner had the smell of fear and sweat before it even got started. My initial intention was to travel out to The Hunts' Point Fish Market in the middle of the night to purchase two bushels of crabs. Then, the reality of keeping two baskets of live crabs cold for fifteen hours hit, and I realized I needed a new plan.
You can't cook a dead crab, you see. They need to be alive and kicking, as the song goes.
New plan: Call Vishnu the Fish Man and have him call his purveyor at Hunt's Point, and get the crabs from him, so to speak.
I was specific. I asked for two bushels of #1 'Jimmies.' Jumbo Jimmies, if you will. 'Jimmies' are male crabs; Bigger, and by this late in the season, nice and heavy in their shells. MUCH easier to pick than the smaller female crabs. Vishnu says, 'no problem,' and that he will have them for me when I get there on Friday afternoon.I arrive to pick them up Friday and it is cold and raining out. Great.
So it turns out that (a) I COULD have gone to Hunters' Point myself and just kept the crab bushels in the backyard under ice for the day and they probably would have been fine (although I would be exhausted, since Hunts Point is only open in the wee hours of the morning) and, (b) as it's raining, it is looking increasingly as though we will have to have the dinner inside, which is fine if one lives in a church basement, but less so when you are trying to feed twenty people armed with crab hammers in your living room. (Cut to: visual of crab parts all over the ceiling.)
I inspect one of the bushels, and there are some big crabs on top. Totally trying to jump out of the container. One of them makes it to the floor, and we wind up chasing him down the meat aisle. Great crabs so far. I pay for them, Vishnu helps me get a cab, (which we have to then line with black garbage bags as the bushels are already beginning to stink) and the crabs and I are off to my house. The crabs get unloaded and are moved to the back yard, and I go back upstairs to the kitchen where I resume the rest of the prep.I saute some slab bacon and vidalia onions and simmer, with ham hocks, collards, escarole, chicory, water, salt and a little cider vinegar for about 2 hours.
I boil the little salt potatoes with so much salt they float, drain them and set them aside.
vidalia onions very, very thinly and then toss them all together and park them in the fridge to marinate.
I melt butter, add flour to make a roux, then add half and half, heavy cream and cheese, and then toss in cooked macaroni. I never made macaroni and cheese that didn't come in a box before today (to my credit--- the last time I made mac and cheese at all was in college) so I have to call Karl over to see if I am doing it right. I toast bread crumbs with butter and Parmesan, scatter over the top and bake the whole business. Many hours later, people cannot get enough of my first go at macaroni and cheese. So, there!
Zora and Peter arrive when it is almost time to start cooking crabs. We realize that I have once again over-committed my burners and we will have to do the corn in the oven. Can you do corn in the oven? Zora shucks the ears and arranges them in water in roasting pans and covers tightly with foil. They go on 450 degrees for about 10 minutes and came out perfectly. Who knew?
There is a last-minute bit of head-scratching over the location of the crab recipe." RECIPE? What recipe? I thought we just layered them in with a little water and vinegar and then rock salt and Old Bay-- steam for about 15 minutes..."
No, No. Apparently there exists a recipe that we used the last time we did crabs (see, you cook enough of these damn dinners and you can't remember anything. I am beginning to have a little compassion for poor Alfred Portale!)
So, while Zora slices tomatoes, Peter does some research on The Internets (it's a series of tubes) and finds the recipe. The water and vinegar are measured, the first of the crabs are dropped into boiling Old Bay graves.
Except, we discover that, after the first layer of very alive, perfectly acceptable crabs, there are many, many layers of smaller, #2 crabs. NOT #1's as I had ordered. And the second bushel aren't even #2's... those are #3s.
NO ONE wants to pick #3 crabs unless they are wearing a hair net and working in a cannery. Fuckity fuck. And it is not like I can take them back. We forge ahead. People have to work twice as hard for a little bit of crab meat. Delicious crab, but getting to it is a major pain in the ass.
Oh, and also, the crabs are all females. All of them.
Now, Vishnu has been my trusty seafood guy for the past three years; He is solid. But his purveyor LIED to him and the following day, I let him have it about how he needs to tell his guy how unhappy I was. He got screwed with no lube and no love. Poor Vishnu. Great guy, but he fell for the old crab bait and switch.
We put all the sides out, along with a big bowl of melted butter for people to coat the ears of corn.
Then the banana bourbon pudding, one of Karl's masterpiece dishes, rolls out.
Cut to: Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, as some people who shall remain nameless (Fertig) run naked throughout the forest, covered in bananas and boozy pudding...
All in all, a very successful evening.
No crabs on the ceiling. Karl, Peter and Zora stay up late into the night picking the meat out of the remaining half-bushel of crabs out on the back balcony while I sneak off to bed... Anticipation got me up at 6 am and by 2 am I can no longer see straight.
And the coda? The coda is that this was a Friday night dinner, and sadly, our trash goes out on TUESDAY. Let me just say that the other, bigger lesson learned here is: DO NOT schedule a crab dinner for twenty people four days before your trash gets picked up. MY GOD. The stink. The stink was perceptible from a BLOCK AWAY. For three days. It was horrible. We had to close the front windows, and our neighbors wanted to run us off the block and rightly so. Even the contractor strength black garbage bags couldn't contain the crabby stench.
Live and learn. With crabs!