Master of the winter table and essential catch for the local fleet
PHOTOGRAPHY BY DAVID HILLS AND CRYSTAL BIRNS
As a transplant from New England, my first true foray into Dungeness crab culture happened just last year when my friends celebrated the start of the season with a mid-November crab boil. We drank Champagne and ate crab cakes and Caesar salad while huddled around a giant bowl full of crab legs waiting to be cracked, peeled and devoured.
The scene was festive and the fresh crab was delectable—tender meat that was rich and buttery in flavor while maintaining a clean, saline taste. Still, I felt mostly like an outsider, a curmudgeon from the Northeast muttering something about lobsters under my breath. The crowd briefly entertained the idea that there was fair competition amongst the crustaceans, but then firmly deemed Dungeness crab as superior to the rest.
What I learned that night, and have continued to hear through countless conversations for this article, is that when it comes to Cancer magister—quite literally “master crab” in Latin—it’s a personal matter. For most, Dungeness crab evokes holiday traditions with friends and family and a surge of pride for the wonders that live in these icy Pacific waters. Even an outsider (who still waves her lobster flag high) can admire that.
“When Italian fishermen first arrived, they actually viewed crabs as a ‘waste product’ and left the catch on the beaches.”
Dungeness crab was first marketed in California in the 1860s, but the earliest development of the fishery took place in the San Francisco Bay around the time of The Gold Rush. The fishery quickly blossomed and by the turn of the century protective legislation started coming into place that would allow for continued growth. Demand for Dungeness crab soared after WWII when the fishery expanded from the S.F. Bay to the entire coast of Northern California. According to the state’s Department of Fish & Wildlife, the annual statewide production before the 1945-1946 season averaged 2.6 million pounds; post-WWII season averages were four times that.
The Monterey Bay is near the southern end of the fishery and is smaller than our northern neighbors, but crab is still a vital catch for the Central Coast fishing community.
“It’s been a staple of the Monterey Bay from the 1870s to the present day,” says Geoffrey Dunn, local writer, historian and fourth-generation Santa Cruz native. “When Italian fishermen first arrived, they actually viewed crabs as a ‘waste product’ and left the catch on the beaches.”
By the post-WWII crab boom, however, Dungeness crab had solidified into one of the most profitable species in the Monterey Bay. “For small boat fishermen, Dungeness crab is one of the most important catches in terms of revenue,” explains Calder Deyerle, Moss Landing native from the multi-generational fishing family that owns and operates the Sea Harvest in Monterey. “It’s a smaller community in the Monterey Bay which can lead to some competition, but we’re all friends and the fishery is really well managed so even if it’s a slower season we can all usually make a profit.”
The Dungeness crab season generally opens mid-November (early November for recreational fishing) and runs until July with the catch significantly slowing down by late winter. It complements the other profitable seasons of king salmon and squid and also allows fishermen to still fish other year-round species. I spoke with Deyerle a few weeks before the commercial season opened and he was upbeat. “I’m just so happy we’re going to open on time,” he says. “That’s such an important factor for me and a really good thing for the starting market price.” In contrast, the past couple of seasons were shortened due to weather or toxic levels of domoic acid, which makes the crabs unsafe to consume.
This year Deyerle had his alarm set for 6am on Nov. 14, exactly 18 hours before the season officially was to open. That’s when he and other local fishermen get the green light to set their traps. When I spoke to him in late October, Deyerle said he planned to set 250 traps that would be pulled throughout the season. “It’s such a treat to be able to provide something as treasured as high quality Dungeness crab for the Monterey Bay community.”
For coastal Californians, Dungeness crab is the belle of the ball throughout the holiday season.
For coastal Californians, Dungeness crab is the belle of the ball throughout the holiday season and, for many, a steadfast Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s tradition. Hans Haveman of H&H Fresh Fish in Santa Cruz told me that last year he sold 1,000 pounds of crab on New Year’s Eve alone, while Stagnaro Bros. sells about 6,000–10,000 pounds in the days leading up to Christmas. “Seafood during the holidays is a big deal,” says Haveman. “It’s so fun being an outlet for it.”
Honestly, it’s been fun just hearing all the different Dungeness crab traditions— from the Christmas Eve classics of cioppino or Feast of the Seven Fishes to the more unique approaches like my friends who like to pair their crab with Caesar salad, tacos and martinis. There are families that prefer to do all the cracking and cleaning before they sit down to eat, and others that find delight in the festive messiness of it all.
For many, selecting and purchasing their fresh crab is an integral part of the experience. EMB staff member Kate Robbins described the first time she bought live crabs from the Stagnaro Bros. winter warehouse on Washington Street in Santa Cruz as “truly magical—like walking into a more provincial time and place. It’s an intimate scene where you feel close to the fisherman, the crab, the whole reality of the process.”
When choosing your crab, you want it to be heavy and lively (if, of course, you’re purchasing live). Crabs can sometimes be skinny inside their shell, so weight matters more than size. If purchasing a whole cooked crab, make sure the legs are curled up underneath the body—a sign that the crab was cooked happy and alive. Buying fresh, live crabs is always preferable.
Besides Stagnaro Bros. and H&H Fresh Fish, local community-supported fisheries like Ocean2Table or Real Good Fish are a great place to source this season’s crab. There’s also Fish Lady in Soquel, Monterey Fish Co. and three outlets of Sea Harvest in Monterey County, as well as many other markets that source from local fishermen all season long.
Photo by RR Jones
Lifelong Dungeness crab lover Chef Tom McNary grew up in San Francisco where he enjoyed cracking crabs with his family on Fisherman’s Wharf. He favors the combination of crab and artichokes—soft textures and strong flavors that are both a delight in an unadulterated form as well as a perfect vehicle for all your dipping sauces.
A champion of fresh, local, seasonal food, McNary began his cooking career in the mid-’80s in the kitchen of the famed Chez Panisse.
In 1989, he brought his food philosophy to Aptos where he opened Carried Away—a café and catering business that has been a staple in the community for almost 30 years. This past summer, he entered a new phase of his career by joining Soif Restaurant & Wine Bar in Santa Cruz as executive chef.
The recipes he is sharing this winter in EMB are innovative, yet balanced and delicate. The crab, he believes, should never get lost in the dish. “It doesn’t matter what the occasion is,” he says. “When there’s crab, it’s special.”
LOCAL FOODS IN SEASON
DECEMBER, JANUARY AND FEBRUARY
Apples • Asian Pears • Avocados • Grapefruits • Grapes • Guavas • Kiwis • Kumquats • Lemons • Limes • Mandarins • Oranges • Parsnips • Pears • Persimmons • Pomegranates* • Pomelos
Artichokes* • Arugula • Asparagus** • Beets • Bok Choy • Broccoli • Broccoli Raab • Brussels Sprouts • Burdock • Cabbage • Cardoons • Carrots • Cauliflower • Celeriac • Celery • Chard • Chicory • Collards • Cress • Dandelion • Endive • Fava Greens • Fennel • Garlic • Horseradish • Kale • Kohlrabi • Leeks • Mushrooms • Mustard Greens • Nettles • Onions • Orach • Parsnips • Potatoes • Radishes • Rutabagas • Salsify* • Shallots • Spinach • Sprouts • Winter Squash • Sunchokes • Sweet Potatoes • Turnips
Abalone • Anchovies • Cabezon • Dungeness Crab • Rock Crab • Starry Flounder • Pacific Grenadier • Herring • Lingcod • Rock Cod, aka Rockfish • Sablesh, aka Black Cod • Pacific Sanddabs • Dover Sole • Petrale Sole • Rex Sole • Spot Prawns
* December only ** February only
All fish listed are rated “Best Choice” or “Good Alternative” by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program.