Nosh Box: Time for a Wise Crack

Now’s a great time to crack a Metacarcinus Magister, whom we know as Dungeness crab. After five years of Latin during high school and college, the literal translation is somewhat whimsical: “teacher crab.”


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Dungeness crab at Fisherman's Wharf, San Francisco.

CC Fred Hsu

This crustacean is renowned along the West Coast, and especially in the Bay Area. Dungeness crabs are a very important in California as one of the oldest and most valuable fishing grounds, creating jobs for coastal fishermen and processors, as well as emerging in local folklore.

Crazy Crab: In 1984 a local National League ballclub was not enjoying a good season. It lost 96 games, and finished last in its division. In an irrational and desperate move to improve fan moral and boost ticket sales at Candlestick Park, team management created an anti-mascot mascot called Crazy Crab. The man inside the costume was actor, song-and-dance-man, and magician Wayne Doba. The crab was designed to be booed by fans, and hated by both the home team and opponents.

The mascot lasted only one season, culminating in a back injury and a lawsuit after San Diego Padres players jumped the costumed Doba and pummeled him badly. But time — and a $2,000 legal settlement — apparently healed all wounds. While not reinstalled on the ball field, the ballclub commemorated Crazy Crab with both a namesake sandwich and a bobble head doll after moving to Pac Bell Stadium.

Why Now: Back in November, the local Dungeness crab season opened. In the Bay Area, this native crab appeared on many Thanksgiving menus: as a salad additive, an appetizer, or an entrée. A secondary spike in the demand curve arrived around Christmas and New Year’s Day.

Our crab season extends through June; only the males may be caught legally. There are several reasons why February is an appropriate time for a fine-cooked crab. Firstly, by the end of December, 80 percent of the annual crab sales are over, according to industry sources. That means that the February demand is lower but should be more than adequate.

So a price dip transforms Mr. Magister into a fund-raising vehicle. Schools, churches, and other nonprofits produce winter crab feeds according to a near-universal formula: garlic bread, green salad, and red-sauced pasta, accompany a bottomless bucket of cracked crab. Personalize the process with your own plastic bib and favorite dipping sauce, while you contribute to a worthy cause and enjoy your favorite crustacean.

A Fisherman’s Stew: February’s frigid temps also make a steaming bowl of crab cioppino, a tasty way to chase away the chills. This traditional tomato-based fisherman’s stew uses Dungeness crab as its namesake ingredient. Several local eateries produce excellent renditions.

But DIY versions are well within the skill-set of home cooks, with a simple, herbed tomato sauce, and a plethora of fresh crab, clams, mussels, shrimp, and whitefish added to the simmering sauce in the proper order to prevent overcooking. Shelling the crab legs and lump meat first makes the enjoyment cleaner and simpler.

Live vs. Cooked: There are the three worthwhile benefits of buying live crabs.

First, you know precisely how fresh your crab is. Second, The tomalley from a fresh crab is a very tasty condiment, as a crab dressing or additive to mayo or cocktail sauce. But the half-life of the tomalley is measured in hours—the fresher the better. The difference between a fresh-boiled tomalley and a day old is astounding. And third, the crab-boil could take a lesson from the folks in New Orleans: Whether its crabs, crayfish, or shrimp, the seasonings in the boiling medium make all the difference. They would never consider boiling crustaceans in water seasoned only with salt. So check online for a crab-boil recipes, or mix up your own with some Zatarain’s, Old Bay, cayenne, paprika. and dried herbs.

Where to Buy Locally: A simple tack is to stroll the streets of Oakland’s Chinatown, and compare the prices of the fishmongers with fresh tanks. Other local vendors selling both cooked and live are: Hapuku Fish Shop, 5655 College Ave., Oakland, 510-250-6007, www.RockridgeMarketHall.com/hapuku-fish; Monterey Fish Market, 1582 Hopkins St., Berkeley, 510-525-5600, www.MontereyFish.com; Tokyo Fish Market, 1220 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley, 510-524-7243, www.TokyoFish.net.

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