Ashore, a way of life built around the crab

After a crab is plucked out of the Chesapeake Bay, it can face a long journey before landing in someone's plate.

Some crabs get served up fresh right here on the Maryland shore, where a local culture has grown up - and declined - with the crab trade.

Many soft-shell crabs wind up at the Handy Co., a processing plant in Crisfield, Md. that has operated since 1894. Upon their arrival, the crabs are rattled down narrow conveyor belts, sorted by weight and size, trimmed of their inedible parts, placed in form-fitting packaging trays, and quickly frozen.

Other crab houses thrive during the hard-crab picking season, which runs from July to mid-November, really taking off in the fall months.

In spring and early summer, the frozen crabs - along with boxes of live soft-shells - are trucked daily to Baltimore's international airport, where they fly to stores and restaurants around the world before landing on dinner tables.

During a peak run at Handy last month, the company's 125 employees worked 14-hour shifts, seven days a week, processing up to 10,000 pounds of soft-shell crabs a day.

The company's president, Carol Haltaman, faces a challenge of finding workers who will endure the long hours. In recent years, she has resorted to hiring workers from Mexico to get the job done.

Finding enough workers has been even more difficult for Jim Dodson, owner of the nearby Byrd's Seafood, a Crisfield-based crab-picking house founded in 1949 that removes meat for use in crab cakes, soups, and salads.

"The labor force is shrinking," Mr. Dodson says. "Basically what I have at the crab house now is older women. I have no younger women ... there is just nobody who wants to do it anymore."

Picking houses working the hard-shell trade face other problems, including, ironically, the success of the hard-shell "basket trade," says Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Waterman's Association.

This trade caters to restaurants that serve "baskets" of steamed and seasoned crabs still in their shells. An increasingly popular dining experience, patrons sit at tables covered in heavy brown wrapping paper and pick out their own meat with the aid of a small wooden hammer.

"That market has expanded so much that we can't supply it and also supply the picking houses," Mr. Simns explains.

Times have certainly changed.

In the 1930s, Crisfield had 44 crab-picking houses, Dodson notes. Boats would tie up five and six deep to unload their catch. "Crisfield was crab capital of the world," he says. And until five years ago, the town had eight crab houses. Today, three remain.

Only one or two graduates from Crisfield High School go into the crabbing business each year, says Vickie Carter, a counselor at the school, which has a large crab sculpture outside the main entrance and is home to the "Mighty Crabbers." The symbols testify to the one-time might of the business. Crab emblems adorn the street signs and the town's water tower. During the annual Crab Derby in September, girls vie for the title of "Miss Crustacean."

But symbols may not be able to carry the trade.

"It's on the way out," Mr. Dodson says wistfully of the picking industry that would hire many, mostly African-American women, who would sit around large tables overflowing with cooked crabs. Starting off with a prayer and a hearty "Amen," the women would pick the meat as they talked and watched over their children playing nearby.

The children, in turn, would learn the skill as they helped their mothers pick out the meaty claws. The average picker makes about $50 a day, and a "good picker" makes up to $100 a day, Dodson notes.

Gina Brown was the daughter of a crab picker. She followed her mother's example and went to work for Byrd's.

She left the picking business over five years ago, however, and now is a supervisor in research and development with the Handy Co. Of her former job, she says, "you have nowhere to move up. Just every day, you go to work and pick crabs. It's like a dead end."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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