Time for seafood lovers to get crabby

As one who has caught, cleaned, prepared, and eaten crab for half a century, I have only one major criticism of Fred Thompson's "Crazy for Crab," aptly subtitled "Everything You Need to Know to Enjoy Fabulous Crabs at Home" (Harvard Common Press, $32.95 hardcover; $19.95, paperback). Why is it replete with all those recipes for cooking the wonderful crab? Doesn't adding anything to the succulent meat of fresh crab give new meaning to "gilding the lily"?

It's a point Mr. Thompson apparently recognizes, since he writes, "By itself crab is a feast for the tongue and soul." Examples of what I consider over-the-top recipes are Macadamia Nut-Crusted Soft-Shell Crabs and Savannah Deviled Crab Crusted With Pecans. But no doubt some readers will enjoy giving them a try.

Make no mistake: "Crazy for Crab" is not simply a cookbook, nor is it merely about the blue crab. However, with 157 pages devoted to recipes for the glorious crustacean, chapter titles such as the Elusive Perfect Crab Cake and the Sublime Soft Shells, "Crazy for Crab" will be a favorite with home cooks.

While the hundreds of ways to prepare this delightful seafood may well constitute gustatory overkill, the book is at once a feast for the palate and the eye.

It is lavishly illustrated with pictures of the Chesapeake Bay, the Pacific Northwest, and the Maine Coast, where these denizens are found, as well as with beautiful photographs of the pièces de résistance, the crabs themselves.

"Crazy for Crab" emphasizes blue crab with valuable insights on - and illustrations for - identifying, catching, cleaning, and storing the creature whose habitat ranges from Rhode Island to Florida and across the Gulf of Mexico to Texas, but is most closely identified with the Chesapeake Bay.

The volume also examines Dungeness, Jonah, king, snow, stone, and Maine crabs; however, these species receive less-detailed analysis.

Mr. Thompson speaks with respect about the ability of the industrious watermen to catch their elusive prey. He also wonders about the future for the crabs and the watermen because of pollution and government regulation.

Certain readers may learn more than they ever wanted to know about crab or find tedious the specificity with which Thompson describes the creatures. Others, however, may buy the book just for these details - such as the grading and naming of soft shells by size: mediums, primes, hotels, jumbos, and whales.

Those who expect Thompson to delve into modern scientific analysis of plummeting crab yields or disappearing estuarine habitat may be disappointed. "Crazy for Crab" does allude to encroaching development as the principal threat and raises a number of cogent questions about species protection, but leaves most unanswered.

Still, he includes a comprehensive list of crab festivals, many crab purveyors and numerous restaurants where the crustaceans may be consumed, as well as a useful index. In the end, "Crazy for Crab" is a perfect read for the summer crab feast.

Carl Tobias is the Williams Professor at the University of Richmond School of Law in Virginia.

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