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Summertime Eats: Losing My Soft-Shell Crab Virginity

August 12th, 2009 · 2 Comments

Editor’s note: This is one in a series of guest columns about summer food memories. Submit your personal food memory of summer and its tasty delights by emailing me through the contact button at the top of the page.


By Jane Milza, Guest columnist

It was a sultry, sunny Saturday afternoon when, for the first time, I encountered a slithery, soft-shell crab.

“Here, have one,” said the fish lover standing next to me. In his hand, the legs of the shell-less critter wiggled free of its bread blanket, temptingly shook its naked body, and with a dangling leg seemed to wave to the crowd.

Dubious introduction to this delicacy

My first meeting with a soft-shell crab was a real shocker. The memories have stayed with me for almost a lifetime. All those writhing legs, reaching out in a half-dozen directions as it was lifted from a sizzling grill and gently placed in a soft bun — I had never seen anything quite like it. The sight made me cringe.

It wasn’t until several years later that I decided to write about my experience in the food section I edited for the Staten Island Advance newspaper.

I chose the soft-shell crab as the main topic because it is such a great favorite along the East Coast, especially among New Yorkers.

On the day of the encounter with the soft-shell crab, I didn’t realize the experience would create such a long lasting impression. Some food memories die hard.

It was the first time I met my beau’s family. (At that point, the future was not that certain, but…) The relatives had gotten together for their annual cookout, and the backyard was filled with a dozen cheerful, smiling faces. As a guest, I had been introduced all around.

A wink from the wrong one

Anyway, I barely had time to meet half the folks when this sassy soft-shell crab danced smartly off the grill. Tangoing boldly across the plate, it looked me squarely in the eye — and winked. At that point, I thought, “I can stare down this creature.”

Its beady eyes rolled in my direction as it smugly curled up, snuggling against the soft, warm roll. Okay, so I have a quirky imagination.

Turning to me, the uncle manning the grill said, “This one’s yours!”

“No, I don’t think so,” I politely said, in my best school-girl voice.

“Why, it’s delicious,” said another new-found friendly relative, hoping to bolster my courage. By this time I began to realize, I really was the only outsider. They all loved soft-shell crabs.

The ball by then was in my court, conversationally speaking, so I bit the bullet.

Head, eyes and legs — oh my!

 “How do you eat it?” I asked, still smiling as I glanced sideways at the sly, wiggling crab.

“The whole thing,” was the quick response.

“Legs, head, eyes and all?” I asked, still not believing anyone could or would actually do it.


“No, I don’t think so,” I said, sounding uncharacteristically demure for the first time in my life.

I had made a full circle, again conversationally speaking, but had advanced not an inch in making friends with these nice people who had invited me to their home.

The “squishiness,” if there is such a word, and the sheer guts needed to chew “the whole thing” – gangling claws, flippers and trailing legs – was just too much for my young mind to fathom.

That day ended without a single snippet of soft-shell crab crossing my lips.

Romance takes time

Yet, life is strange. Little did I know that one day – many years later – I would meet just such another conniving crab who would sweep me off my feet. This sea creature’s line would be to promise me titillating flavor, a siren-like aroma and succulent texture.

On that day, I finally surrendered, gathered up my courage and took my first bite; I found the taste to be surprisingly extraordinary.

The memory of that first tantalizing taste is still with me all these years later.

Oh, by the way, the son in that hospitable, barbecuing family eventually became my husband; and we’ve shared many soft-shell crabs every summer since then.

As the molting season draws near each spring, I look forward to readying the first soft-shell crabs for the grill or watching them sputter in the skillet, all glistening with butter. It’s become an obsession.

Crabs and marriage still sizzling – so to speak

So, if you don’t mind, it’s that time of year again. I think I’ll just ‘toss another soft-shell crab on the barbie’. They taste sooo good.

To this day, I often wonder whether that first sassy, winking shell-less blue claw crab had a hand, not only in my new love of this mouth watering delicacy, but in my long-lasting happy marriage as well.

For those interested in duplicating my experience, I turn to Steven Raichlen’s suggestion for grilling soft-shell crabs at home. His recipe is featured in The Barbecue! Bible. Serve the grilled crabs with your favorite tangy tartar sauce.

Grilled soft-shelled crabs

  • 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted, or ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • 12 soft-shell crabs, cleaned
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Ask your fish retailer to clean the crabs. Combine the melted butter and lemon juice in a small bowl; whisk to blend. Brush the crabs on both sides with some of the lemon butter and season generously with salt and pepper.

Set up the grill for direct grilling; pre-heat to high.

When ready to cook, brush and oil the grill grate. Arrange the crabs on the hot grate and grill, turning with tongs, until the shells are bright red, about 3 – 6 minutes per side. Brush the crabs with the remaining lemon butter once or twice as they cook.

Transfer the crabs to serving plates or a platter and serve immediately. Accompany with tartar sauce and soft buns, if desired.

(Recipe from Stephen Raichlen’s The Barbecue! Bible, Workman Publishing.)


Jane Milza is the long-time food and wine editor of the Staten Island Advance. She’s now freelancing and doing restaurant consultant work, as well as teaching culinary classes.

Tags: Food and Family Intertwine

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Debbie Moose // Aug 28, 2009 at 11:41 am

    I adore soft-shells, although here in North Carolina, they’re a spring delicacy – the water gets too warm for the blue crabs to shed in the summer. And I’ve eaten them grilled, sauteed, stuffed and fried, and crispy fried is THE WAY, for me. No batter, just a light coating. And I love to let the lil’ legs hang out of my mouth when I eat them…

  • 2 Julie // May 27, 2010 at 7:22 pm

    We would go to Martin’s in Georgetown, Washington DC and have their soft shell crabs when in season. I loved them and could not have enough until we vacationed on Singer Island and I was on my stomach sun bathing in the sand when I happened to look up this tiny little crab was looking at me. That did it and I have not had a soft shell crab from that day on. Now I stick to Joe’s Stone Crab in Miami…Yum!

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