I’ve told this story many times before: Once, I was driving from New Bern to the coast with my brother and sister and a friend from out West. We were in easternmost Carteret County, headed for the ferry at Cedar Island. The highway is surrounded by marsh out there. Just as the three of us locals were about to exclaim, “Oh, I love that smell!” our friend asked, “What is that smell?” You had to grow up here, I guess.
This is one of many memories that come up whenever I think of home. There are lots of things that are unique to Down East. Besides the smell of marshes, we have our barbecue, corned hams, that stupid pie, ferry boats going everywhere, and crab stew. I love them all. Especially crab stew.
Because making crab stew is such a song and dance, it’s an event as well as supper. Its preparation is involved, and it’s really messy, so we would only have it a few times per summer — once in my grandmother’s backyard, for sure, and maybe once at the beach house where we stayed for a week each season. That’s another Down East thing: Even though we lived just half an hour from the coast, we still rented a beach house every year.
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When I was growing up, you could catch crabs yourself along the riverfront in New Bern. Everybody had a crab net. All you needed besides that was a long piece of string and a few chicken necks. If you caught a five-gallon bucketful, there might be crab stew.
I never liked cleaning crabs. First of all, it hurts if they pinch you, and they will. Also, when you put them all in a basket, they cling on to each other in long, wiggling chains that are hard to separate. Lastly, I didn’t like killing them. I didn’t believe it when people told me that it was OK, that they can’t feel it. I don’t believe it now, either.
The initial prep is best done out in the yard. If you want to try it, you’ll need a garden hose and some beer. Just try not to knock over your beer when you’re swatting the mosquitoes.
You’ll then want to pick up each crab from behind, snap off the claws, pry off the carapace, spray out the ominously named devil’s fingers (aka the gills), and break the bodies in two unless the cook has told you not to. Then, the preparation moves to the kitchen.
There are two variants of our crab stew: One is served with a slice of white bread in the bottom of the bowl; the other includes cornmeal dumplings and omits the bread. The seasoning is the same for both. (I prefer the white-bread version, but recipes for each are provided below.)
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I always thought that crab stew was too messy to serve in a restaurant. From time to time at Crook’s Corner, I would attempt a cleaned-up version, but it just wasn’t the same. It is a stew, but one that’s eaten mostly with the hands. As you eat, you put the shells all over the table. You really need to be outdoors, with lots of napkins, at newspaper-covered picnic tables. That way, when you’re finished, you just roll all of the shells into the paper and take it straight to the trash.
In my first cookbook, I included a recipe that I found in my grandmother’s handwriting. The story takes a mysterious turn here. It was good, but my version wasn’t as good as the one that I remembered. This had happened before with old family recipes, and I sort of accepted it as acknowledgment that I would never be as good a cook as Grandma was.
When I began working on my second book, I discovered the real reason why my first try hadn’t been quite right: A neighbor had a different version of the recipe, again in my grandmother’s handwriting. Where the first version was thickened with flour, the second one was thickened with cornmeal and also included cornmeal dumplings. This is the one that tasted the way I remembered. (I won’t even go into the dustup caused by the fact that people who weren’t even related to us had the right recipe — in my grandmother’s handwriting! — and we didn’t.) I’m giving you the real recipe here, with dumplings if you like.
As I mentioned, the serving of crab stew is as much an occasion as it is dinner. One of the last times that I made it for a crowd was for my late father’s 80th birthday party. A friend had given us a couple dozen really large crabs. Most of the family was there. Remarkably, I was suddenly the only person who could remember how to clean crabs. So off I went, into the mosquitoes, beer in hand, to the outdoor faucet. It was a lovely party, just like old times.
photograph by Baxter Miller
Crab Stew with White Bread or Cornmeal Dumplings
As noted, I’ve included two versions of this recipe. Both are authentic. Both are messy. When we were growing up, crab stew was served with nutcrackers at each table setting. If you don’t have those, perhaps several pairs of small pliers on the table will work. We used to get yelled at for cracking the shells with our teeth.
Yield: serves a crowd.
½ pound side meat or fatback 2 medium onions, peeled and diced large 2 dozen hard crabs, cleaned and halved (some leave them whole) ½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes 3 bay leaves 1 teaspoon dried thyme 6 baking-size potatoes, peeled and cut into eighths ¾ cup all-purpose cornmeal, stirred into 2 cups of cold water and shaken in a Mason jar Salt and pepper to taste White bread or cornmeal dumplings
Render side meat in large stewpot until brown like bacon. (Be careful, it has a low smoking point.)
Add onions and sauté until soft but not brown. Add crabs and cover with cold water. Add red pepper flakes, bay leaves, and thyme.
Bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer for half an hour.
Add potatoes and cook until nearly done — about 15 minutes. Turn up the heat a little but don’t boil.
Stir in cornmeal and water mixture. Mix well. (This is a little difficult because of the crabs and potatoes.) Simmer another 15 minutes until it begins to thicken.
Salt and pepper to taste.
If serving with bread, it’s ready. Large bowls are best. Put slices of bread in the bottoms of bowls and spoon stew on top.
If using dumplings, this is the time to add them (see recipe below). Tuck them around edges of the pot and spoon a little soup over them from time to time. Cook for 20 minutes longer, then ladle into big bowls, putting a few dumplings in each.
2 cups white cornmeal ⅔ cup all-purpose flour 1 teaspoon salt 1¼ cups cold water
Sift dry ingredients together into large bowl, then mix in water. With wet hands, divide dough into 12 equal portions and form each into oval-shaped dumplings. Cook as described above. (My great-grandmother would cook these on top of her collards sometimes, too.)