Live at the Farmer’s Market: Crabs

by Catherine Schmitt

Last Saturday at the Orono Farmer’s Market, the Lobster Shack had a crate of live Jonah crabs for $1 apiece. Crabs are rarely sold live in Maine; crabmeat is the dominant product. I was so excited I forgot to ask where they were from. (A follow-up phone call to Lobster Shack proprietor Perley Frazier revealed that he caught them himself in Penobscot Bay off Stonington.)

I brought home five and cooked them right away, steamed just like lobster with lemon and salt in the water for about fifteen minutes. After several years of eating only soft-shell (“EZ shell”) lobsters, my cracking muscles have clearly atrophied because those suckers were hard to shuck. I spent about 90 minutes picking for about ¾ pound of crabmeat. I have renewed respect for those whose job it is to pick and pack Maine crabmeat. I’m sure their technique is better than mine.

Despite the effort, it was worth it to know I had the freshest crabmeat available and it tasted like it. Maine crabmeat has a much more delicate flavor than blue crab, so you don’t want to do too much to it or the flavor will disappear. I put the crab in fresh summer rolls using a recipe I had saved from a Louisiana Cookin’ magazine picked up at the Boston Seafood Show several years ago. In retrospect, even that may have been too much treatment.

Jonah crab, Cancer borealis, sometimes called the “Atlantic Dungeness” crab, can be harvested year-round from Maine waters, along with the smaller rock or peekytoe crab (Cancer irroratus), although fall is peak season when the crabs are full of meat. Many families trap crabs to supplement their income from lobster and other fisheries. Jonah crabs like the same rocky bottom habitat as lobster, and can be found from the intertidal zone out to deep water from Canada to Cuba.