All it took was fishing line, raw chicken legs, and a modicum of patience. At least that’s what my uncle told all of us as we sunbathed on the deck of his house in Galveston Bay. Our entire family, enormous in its extended scope, had gathered for the annual Fourth of July party, and the children had been tasked with providing fresh caught crabs for dinner. “Suit up and let’s get going,” he said to nobody in particular, but we all obeyed, pushing and tripping each other as we rushed to the cars, fighting over who would ride shotgun.
The drive was all but ten minutes, but the excitement mingled with the thickly salted air of Galveston made it seem like an eternity. I peered out the window at the water below the bridge, the viscous dark clay from the Mississippi Delta giving the water its signature brown hue. I had never seen a beach with white sands or blue waters at that age. Galveston was all I knew, and I knew I loved it.
We filed out of the family Suburban one after another, barely able to contain our excitement as we sprinted to the jetty, a squall of sand stirring up in our dust. My brothers, sister, a sprawl of cousins, and I arrived for duty on the slick rock jetty stretching out into the murky waters. Our mission was simple: catch some crabs.
Chicken legs fastened to fishing wires, we dropped our bait just off the jagged edges of the jetty, and watched as the chicken sank slowly, hovering for a moment just beneath the surface of the water before vanishing out of sight. Slugging or limpid fishing wires behind us, bickering as children do, trying not to slip and fall into the shards of rock obscured by the water below us.
The “nothing is happening,” “I don’t think there are any crabs today,” “get off of my rock!” and various other squabbles were swallowed by the crashing of the waves and gusts of gulf winds, and then suddenly… a tug. I buried all of my focus under the faint flicker of light glimmering just beneath the surface, watching intently as the fishing line slowly straightened itself out. Slowly, then all at once, a repetitive jerking sensation resonated along the length of the wire, causing my hand to vibrate as though it was an extension of the bate.
“CRAB!!! I HAVE A CRAB!! MOM, MOM! DAD!!! LOOK!!!” Bellowed out of my tiny little belly, clinging to my makeshift fishing pole for dear life, clueless as to what actions I should take to procure my catch.
“Pull it up,” my Mom said with a casualty that can only be maintained by parents amused at the histrionics of a young child. I didn’t pull so much as yank the fishing wire vertically with a force that propelled the chicken out of the water, and dangling at my knees was not one, but two ravenous blue crabs nibbling away at the leg as water slid off of their hard shells, transforming into vapor as it collided with the July heat.
My Mom came over with a tennis raquet sized fishing net and lured the crabs into its mesh, their spindly legs and pinchers objecting to their mesh confines. It wasn’t long after that the whole troop of us had multiple crabs tugging at our lines, and the nets swelled with crabs and loose tufts of seaweed. After we had sufficiently wiped the jetty of its crab population, we piled back into our respective cars, giddy that the fruits of our labor would be dinner for the evening.
As we arrived back at the beach house, I nearly flew out of my seatbelt and sprinted to the deck to watch my Uncle Don examine and clean the day catches, releasing the pregnant females back into the bay, careful not to damage the swollen spongy burnt orange sacks clinging to their bellies. He worked with an ease and efficiency one could only posses after years of practice, and I watched in awe as he effortlessly skimmed through the crush of shells and meat.
When dinner came around, crab abounded in all its salty sweet glory, and everyone indulging in the feast thanked the crabbing crew for providing the delicacy. There was a sensation of satisfaction with which I became acquainted in that moment, knowing I had a hand in catching dinner for myself and the family. I felt accomplished, proud, and deserving of a second helping.
I often find myself transported back to those July Fourth crabbing excursions when I pass the local fishmongers at the Farmer’s Markets, the irrefutable scent of fresh seafood wafting through the air as I walk by. I take immense pleasure in the long leisurely chats I have with the fishmongers, watching as their sundrenched skin stretches and curls in passionate waves while they delight in conversing about their boats and territories, responsible fishing practices and marina politics. The respect they have for the water and the fish goes beyond a craft or a hobby; they are the caretakes of the ocean, at one with the sea and the creatures who inhabit it. The culinary liaisons between the water and land. Their excitement and passion reminds me of my own when I pulled my first catch out of the ocean. Only mine was a passing moment, eternally embedded as a childhood memory. Theirs a delicious, daily occurrence.
Perhaps one day I’ll leave New York and find myself quahogging and crabbing on a near daily basis. Or maybe I’ll stay put and drop all of my anchors in the city. Until those days come to fruition, I’ll happily frequent the local fish markets around New York and recall the sand speckled days of summer as a young girl, eager to lull crabs out of their beds, and feed the people I love.
Cajun Crab Cakes
- 1 Large Shallot Minced
- 1 Large Jalapeño Seeded, minced
- 1/2 Cup Mayonaise I use Sir Kensington or make my own
- 1 TBSP Worcestershire Sauce
- 1 TBSP Dijon Mustard
- 1.5 TBSP Fresh Parsley Minced
- 2 TSP Slap Ya Mama Spice (Old Bay can be used as a substitute)
- 1 Egg
- 1 LB Fresh Jumbo Lump Crab Meat
- 1 Cup French Baguette Fresh and roughly chopped
In a large mixing bowl, combine everything but the crab and bread, and stir well-about one minute.
In a separate bowl, combine crab cakes and fresh bread. Stir very carefully so as not to shred the crab (a lot of crab cake recipes call for bread crumbs, but I've found that fresh bread not only gives the crab cakes a much softer texture, it also soaks up a lot more flavor).
After the crab and bread is mixed together, carefully pour the wet ingredient mixture into the crab mixture, make sure that everything is completely incorporated. When everything is fully combined, cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let it sit in the fridge for at least an hour.
When you're ready to make your crab cakes, melt butter or a high quality oil (olive, coconut, grapeseed etc...) on a nonstick skillet on medium-high heat. I prefer to use butter for these, but it doesn't really matter what you use.
While your pan is heating, using your hand, carefully scoop about a palm full of the crab mixture into your hand and shape the crab cakes. They will not come out in uniform balls, so if they're a little uneven and messy looking, that's perfectly fine.
Once you've shaped the crab cakes, put them directly into the pan and let them brown for about 3-4 minutes per side. Be VERY gentle when you flip them, as they come apart quite easily. I usually do this step in two batches, making 4 crab cakes at a time. But if you want to make several small crab cakes as an appetizer, you can make up as many as you can fit in the pan without overcrowding. When they are golden brown on the tops and bottoms, they're done.
The rock edges jutted beyond the edge of the water, forming a perch on which we sat, legs dangling just above the ocean’s surface. My friend Jillian had spent summers here in her youth, piling into cars with her sprawling collection of cousins, as their parents drove from the wooded hedges of rural Massachusetts to the eastern white pine lined highways of Maine. The destination-Bailey Island, the population-scarce-the nature-untouched. Adults now, Jillian invited me to join her family on their Fourth of July excursion, her flying up from Austin, me catching a bus from Brooklyn, meeting in Boston and driving from there.
As Massachusetts gave way to New Hampshire, and New Hampshire blended into its border with Maine, an instantaneous calm filtered through the open windows as we swerved and snaked through the thicketed parameters of the highway. The northern air crisp and pine scented, peppered sporadically with jolts of salinity, blew our hair into tangles as we approached the bridge connecting the island to the land. The unmistakable scent of saltwater and sun kissed sand permeated the air as we crossed over the water, an arsenal of fishing boats pulling in to dock and unload their catches for the day. Cod and clams, mussels and monkfish, scallops and lobster-the reality that I’d be sinking my teeth into local day boat catches made me salivate.
We arrived at Jillian’s uncle’s house, popping wine bottles and reminiscing about childhood summer excursions and our beer and bourbon soaked college days as we gazed out the open windows, our eyes scanning the star quilted horizon stretching endlessly out of our reach. Our eyelids eventually caved and we scattered to our respective beds, falling asleep to the tranquil lull of cicada choruses and croaks of forest frogs as the waves crashed harmoniously in the distance.
The next day consisted primarily of eating, swimming and climbing down cliff edges leading to the shoreline. The high sun glistened on the surface of the sea, and we found ourselves trekking toward a single room white seafood shack precariously positioned on the northern point of a rickety pier. “This is the freshest seafood in Maine,” Jill quipped as the tattered screen door tilted on its hinges when we pressed it open. New England tchotchkes littered the walls, hovering above the troughs of live lobsters and day boat scallops, artifacts of a time forgotten, when the anglers were known by name and the catches seldom made their way off the island. We scanned the day’s catches resting on ice beds, as the sun leathered fishmonger behind the counter handed us flimsy paper bowls brimming with clam chowder and freshly crumbled oyster crackers. “Let’s steam lobsters” echoed from one of Jill’s cousins, and we silently nodded in agreement as we spooned gobs of steaming oatmeal thick clam chowder into our ravenous mouths.
The lobsters had been brought in just hours before, and they viciously cranked their tails, propelling their bodies backwards through the water filled metal basin acting as their temporary home. A short haired, deep wrinkled brunette materialized from behind the counter with a fishing net, exchanging pleasantries in her weightily studded New England accent, effortlessly plucking the lobsters from the makeshift seabed while she assured us they would be the “freshest lobstahs you’ll evah try.” It was as though her vocal chords had been marinated in tobacco smoke and whiskey, then left to tan in the sun; to this day I still equate the husky vibrato of her voice with the salty scent of fish markets…
Before we knew it, the sun was sliding hastily west to its final resting place, and multi-quart pots of water were set to boil on the stove. Butter melted on a free burner, and we held our lobsters, claw side down, gently massaging their heads with our free hands in vague attempts to quell their nerves before we plunged them into the boiling water. My stomach tensed a bit as I approached the pot, I’d never cooked a live lobster before, and swinging from guilt to excitement and back again, I drew my breath deep into my lungs, closed my eyes, and let go of the shell. The maroon and black splotched armor transformed into a candy apple red casing within minutes, and I twisted open a cold beer, toasting to my lobster in gratitude for becoming the freshest Fourth of July meal in which I’d ever had the privilege of indulging. The fireworks were about to begin, and we hauled our lobsters to the picnic table on the deck, a symphony of claw crackers and crackling firewood harmonized with clinking beer bottles and infectious laughter, and our butter soaked fresh lobsters stunned our taste buds with the wonderment of their sea salty sweetness.
As the moon made its slow ascension into the pearl pierced night sky, we used the natural light of the stars overhead to navigate our way to the rock formations bordering the shoreline. The July Fourth fireworks glittered above the rushes and unruly forested terrain of the island as we all sat in silence, our arms draped like sheets around each other’s sun drenched shoulders watching the light show above. Our bellies full of fresh local lobster, our heads slightly buzzed from sun and beer, we knew that Maine really was the way life should be.
Live Maine Lobster Rolls
- 1-1.5 lb Maine Lobster
- 1/2 fresh lemon juiced
- 1-2 tbsp plain mayonnaise
- 1 spring onion diced
- 1 New England style roll or hot dog bun
- 1/2 tbsp butter softened
Pre-Heat Oven to 350F
Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil (you’ll want enough water to submerge the lobster completely), and drop the lobster claws and head first into the pot- you’ll want to hold it at the base of the body near the top of the tail. Make sure you have a firm grip to steady the lobster so you can control the direction it enters the water.
Allow the lobster to cook 12-18 minutes depending on the size. It will turn bright red after a few minutes in the water.
Once the lobster is done boiling, use tongs to remove it from the water, or empty the pot of water. The shell will be scorching hot, so give it a rinse under cold water to cool down the shell until you can handle it with bare hands.
Remove the shell-you’ll need kitchen scissors and claw crackers if it’s hard shelled-soft shells you can pull apart with you hands. Extract the meat and chop large chunks into bite sized pieces and save the shell for a seafood stock (we want to use everything edible if possible).
Mix the lobster, lemon, mayonnaise and onion in a bowl and put in the refrigerator for about 10 minutes so the flavors meld. You can also use celery or fennel if you’d like in place of the onion. You don’t need to add salt, as you’ll have plenty salinity from the lobster meat. But if you want to add salt, nobody will judge you.
While the lobster salad is chilling, butter the rolls and toast them in the oven until golden in the center and slightly crispy around the edges. Remove toast from oven.
Fill roll (it should be slit from the top not the side) with lobster salad and serve with a side of salt and vinegar chips and pickles.
- Chenin Blanc (dry Chenin from Anjou works beautifully with this)
- IPA (Ballast Point Sculpin and Goose Island are my go to beers for seafood)
- Wheat Ale (Ommegang Witte is meant for this sandwich)
- Root Beer (I don’t know why this combo works but it does)