My own experience picking my first Maryland Blue Crab was in a local restaurant two years ago when we first moved into Cape St. Claire. The whole restaurant heard me say I had never "picked" before. I had Marylanders around my table as I was given my first lesson. At first I was slow. With time I have improved.
Our tour continued into the steam room. The room was small, narrow and as you would expect, filled with steam. The aroma of crab was thick in the air. Too much time spent in this room and you would find yourself smelling of sweet crab. Not sure if that is a good thing or not…LOL
The huge baskets hold 10 bushels of crabs a piece. A bushel is about 40 pounds of crab and with a wooden basket, the bushel weight would be around 45 pounds. The steamers each hold two of the 4ft X 6 ft steel baskets.
I learned that a fresh crab that is uncooked is good for about 4 days. A crab that has been steamed is considered okay to eat up to 14 days. Crab meat that is processed in a can will last up to 18 months or longer. As with all seafood that has been packaged you should follow a few check points. First, smell it. If it smells good, chances are that the fish is okay to eat. Second, look at the fish. If it looks okay then you should be good to go. Finally, taste it. If it still taste fresh, dig right in. If any of these three elements are not good, do not eat the fish and dispose of it immediately.
Out of the steamer and into a huge wheel barrow, the crabs are carted across a small drive way to a room bustling with activitiy: the picking room. I can honestly say I was not prepared to see what I did when we walked through the doors. Row after row of fresh crab, cans, meat, trays, utensils and ladies. Lots of ladies HAND picking the crabs.
It was all very organized. Jack was very forthcoming with information about the workers in this room. We had many questions and he answered each one for us. He told us that every 1 1/2 hours the ladies get up and have a break. He shared with us how they are compensated for picking the crabs. Each of these ladies, each day, will pick 25-30 pounds of crab. During the busiest time of the season they will average 40-45 pounds per person. The room will pick 400-500 bushels of crab a day.
We were fortunate enough to be on the tour during Jack's busiest month: October. The crabs are at their best. They are full of meat.
Jack mentioned that June and July tend to be busy months too but the crabs are still developing and so we tend to have crab with less meat. Basically same amount of work to pick but less meat. LOL
The crabs are shoveled onto the tables creating piles for the ladies to access easily. The level of focus when we walked in was impressive. They each worked their tools with the expertise necessary to pick crabs in one of the oldest processing plants in the world. Each can is packed a certain way. The claws are sent to a separate table to be picked and sold as "claw" meat. See the two pictures below.
The crab meat from the JM Clayton Company can be found under the name of Epicure Crabmeat. I buy it locally at Whole Foods in Annapolis, MD.
They ship this product all over the country. They ship whole crabs as well, next day shipping of course.
I am grateful that I took Casey's offer of attending the crab processing tour. I learned so much about a a tradition that is deeply rooted in Maryland and along the Chesapeake Bay shores. Eating crab is what Marylanders do through the summer and into the Fall months.
The act of picking brings family and friends together where we laugh, tell stories and eat the fresh meat that is picked from the bodies of each crab.
For many generations of families that have lived in Maryland, the crab industry has provided income and employment. We learned of one such woman that has worked for the plant for 63 years. Her mother worked for 80+ years.
I captured the hands of this woman below. The skill in which she was able to clean a crab was fascinating. We watched as she methodically did a chore that she could perform in her sleep. Over and over she turned the crab, looking for each and every pocket of meat to add to the can sitting near her. To have such loyalty and longevity says a lot about a company. It is rare and I am not sure my generation or those of my kids will be able to say the same thing.
I have two recipes that are very popular on my blog that use crabmeat.
Gluten Free Crab Cakes…..to make them not gluten free, simply substitute the cracker or bread for a normal version: Ritz, Club Cracker or white /wheat loaves.
Maryland Blue Crab Dip…serve with baguettes, corn chips or crackers.
To learn how to steam Maryland Blue Crabs visit HERE.
To learn how to pick a crab go HERE.