The Simple Joy of Crabbing

This cherished tradition is a way of life in Southern Delaware.

Summers in Southern Delaware were anointed with the scent of salty sea air and punctuated by the enthusiastic chatter of friends and family around a picnic table piled high with crabs. My lifelong love affair with crabbing started when I was a freckle-faced, red-headed, eager-eyed boy whose childhood unfolded against the stunning backdrop of the local Delmarva waterways.

Every enjoyable chance I got during those summer mornings I would go ‘chicken neckin.’  I’d gather my gear — a simple length of twine, a raw chicken neck and a crusty crab net that had seen better days. I’d perch on the rickety wooden pier over a bridge and cast the chicken-laden line into the depths. Sometimes I would even use the “secret weapon,” a partially cracked tin of Friskies Cat food set up to attract more crabs. My whole world focused on the battle of the will between me, the crabs and gravity trying to get them to stay on the line long enough to net them.

“Each trap we pulled was like unwrapping a gift, the suspense mounting until the wire cage broke the surface, revealing its haul of pinching blue-green treasure”.

Years later, my longtime friend Steve and I graduated to setting crab traps and running snap traps, a more efficient method but no less thrilling. Steve owned a blue 19-foot Carolina skiff boat we affectionately called Sweet Caroline or Fish Bytes because Steve works on computers daily. We’d set out into the sparkling waters, cutting through the crisp, early morning air, lining the bottom with our traps and anticipation in our veins. Our laughter echoed across the water as we joked and argued over the best spots, our hands made tough and resilient from tying knots and hauling lines.

There was something magical in those moments that transcends the simple joy of crabbing. It is the freedom, the feeling of connection with nature, the thrill of the unknown and the promise of what lay beneath the sun-dappled water. Each trap we pulled was like unwrapping a gift, the suspense mounting until the wire cage broke the surface, revealing its haul of pinching blue-green treasure.

And then, the finale of each perfect day: cooking and eating our catch. With a fishing license, we were always careful to abide by all rules and regulations, ensuring our beloved pastime was sustainable and respectful to the marine ecosystem. We returned the undersized females, keeping only the heaviest, meatiest males.

PREPARING CRABS IS AN ART 

A boiling pot, cheap beer, vinegar, a dash of seafood seasoning, the laughter of good friends and the clatter of wooden mallets against hard crab shells is all you need.

The taste of fresh crab, salty and sweet, was the taste of summer and childhood adventures etched into the very being of our memories. To this day, nothing compares to the satisfaction of cracking open a perfectly cooked crab, the reward for a day’s labor under the Southern Delaware sun.

Crabbing was more than a good time for me. It was a cherished tradition, a way of life, a bridge connecting generations. My mom and dad took me crabbing. It instilled in me a love for nature, an understanding of the importance of sustainability and a passion for the simple joys of life. As the sun set on each of those glorious summer days, the sky ablaze with orange, pink and purple hues, there was no place I’d rather be than crabbing in the tranquil waters of Southern Delaware. 

CRAB GRAVY

Crab gravy is a slow-simmered, seafood-lover’s tomato sauce full of crabs and loaded full of seasonings. You can pour it over your favorite pasta, rice or crusty bread. 

INGREDIENTS

12 crabs, backs off and cleaned

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons butter 

2 medium onions, finely chopped 

9 cloves of garlic, center removed and minced

2 28-oz cans crushed tomatoes 

1 tsp. of red pepper flakes

1 tablespoon seafood seasoning

2 cups picked crab meat

Splash of soy sauce

Salt and pepper to taste 

Handful of fresh basil leaves

Handful of fresh parsley leaves 

➊ Heat the olive oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add crab and cook until fragrant. 

➋ Remove crab. Add the butter, onions and garlic, cooking until they’re soft and fragrant, about 5 minutes.

➌ Stir in the tomatoes and red pepper flakes. Turn heat up to high. Once mixture reaches a boil, reduce heat to low and add the cleaned crabs to the pot.

➍ Cover the pot and let them stew in the simmering tomatoes for 45 minutes.

➎ Remove crabs and allow them to cool until they can be handled.

➏ Pick all the crab meat from shells. Be careful to remove any shell fragments.

➐ Add the seafood seasoning and return the picked crab meat to the pot. Let the sauce simmer for another 10 minutes or until the crab meat is heated.

➑ Add a splash of soy sauce and salt and pepper to taste. Just before serving, stir in the fresh basil and parsley.

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