The 100-year-old white clapboard walls of the Portuguese Assn. Crown Hall seem almost to bulge outward, swelling with the sheer joy inside on this late January evening.
A couple of hundred happy eaters are packed around long trestle tables laid with long sheets of white butcher paper. Every so often -- but not nearly often enough -- someone brings over a cafeteria tray heaped with cooked Dungeness crab.
This is crab as it was meant to be eaten. There are no fancy preparations. It is boiled plain and served straight up, with no distractions except for melted butter. Save the elaborate dipping sauces for another time. Crab cakes, salads, soups or gratins? Those are for leftovers. The menu here is elemental in the extreme: salad, cracked crab, garlic bread and for dessert -- as if you’d have any room after having torn through two or three Dungies -- a little tub of vanilla ice cream like you used to get in the elementary school cafeteria.
When a tray is brought to the table, those closest to the landing point fall on the crab in a feeding frenzy, pulling it apart, cracking legs and claws, tearing open the shells and sucking out the sweet, minerally meat.
Their faces and hands grow sticky with juice, but the more they eat, the hungrier they seem to get. Dungeness has that effect on people. The din is practically deafening, a happy hubbub of neighbors and old friends reconnecting over some of the most delicious food in the world.
If ever there was a single moment that would capture the magic of Dungeness crab, this is it. An annual feast that marks the end of the holiday crab rush, it always sells out months in advance.
What makes the dinner even better is that so many of those celebrating are the people who know the crab the best -- the ones who depend on it for their living. Indeed, Crown Hall was built in 1901 as the Catholic church for the area’s Portuguese fishermen.
This food means business
Dungeness crab is much more than a winter treat up here on California’s North Coast. It is a major industry, a vital part of the local economy. From Crescent City in the north to Half Moon Bay south of San Francisco, crabs mean cash -- and lots of it. And on the North Coast, where the beauty of the scenery is matched only by the bleakness of the economy, that is crucial.
The Dungeness harvest, which for all practical purposes lasts only from the middle of November until the end of January, is either the first- or second-richest fishery in California, depending on the year and the vagaries of nature.
It accounted for more than $35 million in 2003 (a huge year), dwarfing squid, the state’s second-leading product, at $25 million and leaving king salmon’s $12 million in the dust.
But this is anything but easy money. Dungeness are only found from Monterey north, and in winter the Pacific Ocean up here is rough, the color of dirty pavement. The water is icy, with temperatures in the 40s and low 50s. When you’re out on the crab boats, the weather is often so overcast that it is hard to determine a horizon line between the dark gray of the water and the slightly lighter gray of the sky.
Sometimes you might almost believe that’s a good thing, as boats sink and rise on enormous swells. If you could actually see how rough the ocean was, it might seem even worse. It’s bad enough straining to catch a glimpse of the fog-shrouded headlands that appear and disappear less than a mile away.
There are no pleasure boats out on this water. The only company is a couple of passing whales and a half-dozen other fishermen.
The competition for Dungeness crab is fierce, partly because the fishery is so extremely efficient. Biologists estimate that 80% to 90% of the eligible crabs (basically, sexually mature males) are caught each season. To get their share, fishermen race in a dead sprint to take as much as they can as quickly as they can before the crabs become so scarce that it costs more to catch them than they can be sold for.
“You want to know what it’s like?” says one crab industry expert. “Pile $35 million in $1 bills in the middle of the floor. Jam 600 fishermen in a circle around it and then blow a whistle and say, ‘Go!’ ”
Actually, there are two California Dungeness crab seasons. First, starting Nov. 15, comes the so-called city season from San Francisco south. Starting Dec. 1, the rest of the state starts fishing. Between 70% and 80% of the California catch comes before New Year’s Day, even though the season technically runs until mid-July.
Oregon and Washington have winter seasons that usually begin about the same time as California’s and run a little longer. There is also a spring fishery in British Columbia and a summer harvest in Alaska that keep Dungeness in the markets pretty much all year round. But the bulk of the sales are done by Super Bowl Sunday.
The fishery is remarkably sustainable: It is on the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch’s “green list” as a “best choice” seafood. To protect the population, the season is closed when females are carrying eggs. Furthermore, regulations allow fishermen to take only male crabs that are bigger than 6 1/4 inches across. These will be at least 4 years old and will already have a year or two of reproduction under their belts.
To ensure that only crabs of legal size are caught, the traps have been specially designed. Big, round chicken-wire containers the size of truck tires, they have an opening in the center that allows any crabs smaller than the legal minimum to escape. Furthermore, the main trap hatch is tied shut with special twine that deteriorates in seawater, so if a trap gets lost any crabs it contains will eventually be freed.
The average boat works 250 to 300 traps, hauling them in every day in the early season. When fishing slows, that might go down to once every two or three days.
The traps are attached by long ropes to brightly colored buoys that bob on the surface. Each boat has its own distinctive color scheme so it can recognize its buoys from a distance.
When a buoy is spotted, a crewman catches the rope and attaches it to a winch, which hoists the trap up from the bottom. The trap is lifted aboard, and a deckhand inspects each crab. First he flips it over and checks the “apron” on its belly -- a wide apron means it’s a female, and it will be chucked back into the ocean. Then any crab that is close to the legal minimum is double-checked with a set of calipers.
In this way, California crabbers took more than 22 million pounds of Dungeness in 2003. Oregon crabbers caught a little more, almost 23.5 million pounds, and Washington fishermen were rewarded with a bumper 33.7 million pounds -- almost half again as much as the previous season.
That kind of fluctuation is normal in the crab business, and that’s just one more reason crabbers push so hard so fast to get their share.
A rush to fill the traps
Ironically, while this frenzied fishing doesn’t seem to harm the crab population, it is extremely hard on the fishermen. Commercial fishing is one of the most dangerous occupations in the world, and that is particularly true in the rough, icy waters of the Pacific Northwest. It’s a rare year that goes by without a serious accident.
Even on the calmest of oceans, the very nature of the Dungeness fishery can cause accidents. In their rush to catch their limits quickly, fishermen can overwhelm their boats -- loading aboard so many crabs and traps that the slightest crosswise wave turns the whole thing right over. They can also overwhelm themselves: Exhaustion is a leading cause of accidents as crabbers push to fish around the clock to get the most out of the early season.
This is the same kind of dangerous “derby” fishing that led to the 1995 reforms in the Alaskan halibut industry. Today, each boat has an allotted share of the catch, which it can take at its leisure. This has improved safety, extended the fresh season and increased the price the fishermen get for their catch.
But even though almost everyone in the crab industry agrees that something similar needs to be done, a recent University of California survey of crabbers regarding various management options found the most popular choice was maintaining the current system.
The California Legislature passed a bill that would limit each boat on the Central Coast to 250 traps on an experimental basis (the second-most popular solution). But at the urging of processors and large boat owners, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed it.
Going to the source
Once the crabs are caught, they are unloaded at the boats’ home ports and then trucked to central processing plants like Caito Fisheries at Noyo Harbor, a tiny port hidden in a cleft in the land between Mendocino and Fort Bragg. Small as it is, more than half a million pounds of Dungeness crab pass through Noyo every year.
As at other fishing ports along the coast, you can buy whole crabs here straight off the boats and at a couple of small seafood markets. But at Noyo that is pretty much window dressing for tourists. Almost all of the Dungeness landed here is cooked and cleaned for meat (as are about 60% of all the crabs caught on the West Coast). In an industrial setting like Caito, a crew of 30 workers can clean 10,000 pounds of live crab a day.
In Southern California, we can’t just run down to the docks to pick out our crabs (they aren’t caught south of Monterey). But we do have an even more convenient alternative. Asian markets, such as the widespread 99 Ranch chain, usually have whole tanks filled with live Dungeness. Think of them as landlocked crab boats. Indeed, in some ways they’re even better.
Last week at the 99 Ranch market on Pioneer Boulevard in Artesia, they had two separate tanks of Dungeness crabs, having separated out the biggest and fattest ones to sell for an extra $1 a pound ($5.69 versus $4.69).
This is the way to go. While you can buy whole cooked crab, clusters (cooked leg sections) and even cleaned meat, crabs as regal as the Dungeness deserve the very best treatment. That means carefully choosing and cooking them yourself and then serving them in the simplest possible manner so you can appreciate the full natural savor of the crab. Save the fancy preparations for whatever crabmeat you have left over after a cracked-crab feast, or just buy an extra crab or two to cook alongside the ones you’re going to eat right away.
Call it the Mendocino menu: Arrange the crab pieces on a platter. Slice a loaf of crusty bread. Open a bottle of white wine. Make a green salad. Then call your family and closest friends to the table and let the frenzy begin.
A boom time for the crab harvest
This year’s Dungeness crab harvest promises to be one of the biggest in quite some time, and thanks to a quirk of nature this wealth of crabs should last much longer than usual.
Dungeness seasons vary crazily. One year it seems there are no crabs to be had; the next year there’s a glut. No one really understands why. What’s uncontested is that we’re in the midst of a boom. In 2001, California’s total Dungeness harvest was 3.5 million pounds. In 2002 it more than doubled to just over 7 million pounds. Last year it nearly tripled to more than 22 million pounds -- the state’s biggest in 25 years -- and this year’s appears to be at least as big.
The same scenario is playing out in Oregon and Washington, but with an important twist: Fisheries managers found that crabs in northern Oregon and Washington were very slow to come out of the molt this year, and so the opening of the season was pushed back from the normal date of Dec. 1 to Jan. 15.
Last year Washington led the nation in Dungeness caught, and Oregon was second. With both fisheries seeing plenty of crabs in the water, consumers will probably enjoy bargains in late January and early February.
How to prepare a fresh Dungeness
Cooking and cleaning Dungeness crab is easy.
Start by choosing a good crab. It should be well filled out, with a hard shell around the legs. And it should be full of fight. Reject any that seem light or lackadaisical.
In polite company, allow half a crab per person. If it’s just family, make it a whole one. If you’re by yourself, use your own discretion. Dungies yield about 25% of their live weight in picked meat. With an average weight of 2 to 2 1/2 pounds, you’ll get a little more than half a pound of pure meat per crab.
Put the crab or crabs (you’ll want to invite friends) in a big pot and cover with generously salted cold water. Bring to a boil, and 15 to 20 minutes after the first big bubbles appear, the crabs will be done. To verify, pull off one of the little back legs -- there should be little feathers of body meat attached.
Drain the crabs and set them aside until they are cool enough to handle (there is some disagreement whether Dungeness are best served still slightly warm or well chilled, a question worthy of extensive investigation).
To clean the crab, pry off the top shell, lifting from the back hinge, and rinse out the fat and viscera (die-hards may want to collect this; it is heavenly with mayonnaise). Pull off the gills on either side, the jaws and the “apron” underneath.
Pull off the legs and crack each large section using the back of a large knife. Cut the crab body in half lengthwise, then cut each half in sections between the leg joints. Put them on the platter and you’re ready to feast.