I’ve spent many afternoons this summer at the harbor watching Kid Two learn how to sail. He’s quite good and seems to enjoy it, so I think foresee a boat in our future – probably something stable like a little El Toro he can continue learning with.

We used to have a sailboat – it was 30 feet long with a 9 foot beam, and despite the 80 or so square feet of living space, it was my first home with LL and Kid One’s first home ever. The galley contained a two-burner propane camp stove, a small sink, and an insulated under-counter space that served as the fridge. I’d pick up a five pound bag of ice every day to keep things cold like mayo and pickles and leftover chicken and half bottle of wine.

An advantage of living in the harbor is the availability of seafood fresh from the fishing boats, but our limited kitchen and knowledge prevented us from buying a whole fish and doing it up right. Once we surmised a crab was small and simple enough to try and prepare ourselves and carted a big live Dungeness back to the boat. It was an experiment that failed, though; cooking and cleaning and cracking it was awkward and messy. Plus, it was hard to get rid of the crab smell. And so over the years I’ve purchased my crab from the grocery store – already cooked, cleaned, and cracked.

But since there hasn’t been any crab available lately I was interested in the sign I passed each afternoon on the way to sailing, just three lines handwritten on a wooden board: Live Crab, Gayle R, E-Dock. The timing was perfect when I finally wandered over to check it out, because Fisherman Frank had just cooked up a couple and offered me a big chunk of claw meat – it was REALLY good. AMAZINGLY good. NOTHING like grocery store crab – this was warm and moist and tasted like the early-morning air smells at low tide. I had to have more; I had to make sure LL and the boys experienced this flavor. Impulsively I asked him for three. He asked what I brought to put them in and laughed at my blank look, graciously loaning me a 5-gallon bucket to transport my six pounds of fresh Dungeness. First lesson learned.

Crab in a bucket

Driving home I realized I didn’t have a pot big enough to boil them in, so I called Neighbor Tom. He’s a commercial fisherman and fellow Midwesterner, and I knew he’d have a crab pot I could borrow. He didn’t but offered a solution, showing up five minutes later with a cleaver and a mallet and telling me to take notes, he was only doing this for me once. I learned how to grab a crab from behind so it doesn’t pinch, to toss it on its back in the grass, to line up the cleaver vertically over the center of its body, and to hit it hard with the mallet. Just once. Second lesson learned.

The next step, cleaning the crab, is very simple once it’s been demonstrated. Just tear off the back plate, pull off the eyeballs and gills, then shake out the “butter.” He warned me against rinsing the crab because chlorine in the county water ruins the flavor. The only thing left to do was steam the crab halves for exactly 13 minutes over rapidly boiling water. I used the bamboo steamer over the pasta pot, and it was just as perfect as the crab from the Gayle R. Amazing. There was little mess and no fishy smell; we didn’t need to douse it with lemons or cocktail sauce – it was just an embodiment of perfection.

I learned all this at the end of crab season, scheduled to close in a few days. Intent to share both the knowledge and the taste, we invited friends over for a crab feast the following night. After stopping the next day to buy a cleaver and a stockpot I arrived at the harbor, armed with buckets – but the Gayle R was at sea. Undaunted, I drove around until I saw a couple of guys unloading coolers from a pick-up. They sent me to a guy who sent me to a guy who sold me seven enormous crabs from a healthy-looking tank packed with big live crabs crawling all over each other. Score.

I was thrilled that night to teach four children how to wield a cleaver and mallet and to clean and cook their own crab. And I’m still thrilled thinking about this first successful crab adventure – it was a case study in eating locally, in eliminating so many levels of middlemen between us and our meals. The big lesson was letting go of the fear and mystery in getting a big live pinching creature from the ocean to our plates.  I feel empowered now, like I’m in possession of some elusive knowledge. I’ll certainly be back at the harbor when the season opens again, and will hopefully never eat grocery store crab again.