Crab feast: From the Chesapeake Bay to Julia Child's kitchen

"If you can't eat that, then you ain't hungry!" These are the words I heard from my internship supervisor (in a Maryland accent, mind you) as I looked down at the fresh meat I had just pried out of a steaming hot Atlantic blue crab (also known as Callinectes sapidus, or "beautiful swimmer").


A crab feast, by Flickr user enigmachck1 via the Creative Common's license
A crab feast, by Flickr user enigmachck1 via the Creative Common's license

As an intern at the National Museum of American History this summer, I work with Paula Johnson who was the project director and co-curator of the new food history exhibition (featuring Julia Child's kitchen) that is currently on display at the museum. Because Paula is from small-town Minnesota and I am from small-town Iowa, she knew I would appreciate a weekend free of Washington, D.C., hustle and bustle. So, Paula invited me to her home near the Chesapeake Bay for Fourth of July weekend.

After a walk along the beach, we decided that I should have a true Chesapeake experience—a crab feast. Paula explained the affair and,  anticipating a somewhat messy meal, I promptly changed into jeans and a t-shirt.

Once we arrived at the restaurant, located on a creek off the Patuxent River, the meal unfolded as promised. The waitress covered our table in thick, brown paper, and I waited in suspense, and honestly a little anxiety, for the steaming crabs to appear. (Remember this was a foreign experience for me, because in Iowa people consider themselves lucky if they get a chilled snow crab leg or two at a Chinese buffet). Then, a large tray holding a dozen hot crabs covered in a salt/hot pepper/paprika mixture called "Old Bay" (which I learned is a must-have condiment on the East Coast for seafood) was placed on the table, along with sharp knives, wooden hammers, and metal nutcrackers. A crab feast, indeed.


Molly with her crab feast
Molly with her crab feast

Paula taught me, step-by-step, how to take apart a crab and find the meat inside. (I later learned that this is called "crab picking" and that professional pickers can extract the meat from one crab in mere seconds).

My main tool for picking the steamed crabs was a seamless, stainless steel crab knife. It is important for crab knives to be seamless, and without wooden handles, because you don't want bacteria growing on the knife. The knife blade, tapped with the wooden mallet at just the right place, was especially helpful to get the crab meat out of the claws. When I finally uncovered a nice chunk of flaky crab meat, Paula leaned over and quoted a popular saying among people in the region, "If you can't eat that, then you ain't hungry." Well, I ate it and it was delicious.

When I returned to work Monday, Paula brought it to my attention that the museum's Julia Child collection included several kitchen tools for dealing with fish and shellfish. These tools are not on view in the exhibition because Julia stored them in her kitchen drawers. I located them in museum storage to share here.

Among the different tools Julia Child kept for preparing and consuming shellfish in her kitchen are a lobster claw cracker, two shellfish shucking knives, five fish scalers, a shrimp deveiner, a shrimp sheller, a shrimp knife, three oyster knives, and my favorite, a stone crab claw cracker. It may sound like a lot of unnecessary clutter in the kitchen, but I now know that the tools make all the difference.

Here are some behind-the-scenes images of some of Julia Child's tools that are not currently on display at the museum:


Left: Lobster claw cracker, a tool that works like a nutcracker. It can be used to grab, hold, and crack the claws and legs of lobsters and crabs. Right: Lobster tool, a multi-purpose tool can be used to break through tough lobster shells and cut the length of a claw.
Left: Julia Child's lobster claw cracker, a tool that works like a nutcracker. It can be used to grab, hold, and crack the claws and legs of lobsters and crabs. Right: Lobster tool, a multi-purpose tool can be used to break through tough lobster shells and cut the length of a claw.

Left: These fish scalers were engraved for Julia Child and her husband, Paul. Simply scraping one against the surface of a fish cleanly removes the scales. Right: This oyster knife aids in the task of shucking oysters. Oyster knife blades are usually short and narrow with blunt tips to make shell penetration easy without cutting the meat. This knife is rigid, giving it prying strength.
Left: These fish scalers were engraved for Julia Child and her husband, Paul. Simply scraping one against the surface of a fish cleanly removes the scales. Right: This oyster knife aids in the task of shucking oysters. Oyster knife blades are usually short and narrow with blunt tips to make shell penetration easy without cutting the meat. This knife is rigid, giving it prying strength.

Left: Shrimp deveiner, used to remove the vein-like intestine from a shrimp and pop off its shell. Right: A general purpose shellfish knife.
Left: Shrimp deveiner, used to remove the vein-like intestine from a shrimp and pop off its shell. Right: A general purpose shellfish knife.

Finally, my favorite shellfish tool of Julia's is her stone crab claw cracker, which can be seen on exhibition in her kitchen. I make sure the area around Julia Child's kitchen is good to go each morning before visitors arrive to the museum, and I had seen the stone crab claw cracker many times, never knowing what it was (my best guess was some type of nutcracker). Apparently I am not alone, as it is one of the most asked about items in the kitchen.


Stone crab claw cracker on view in Julia Child’s kitchen
Stone crab claw cracker on view in Julia Child's kitchen

As I examined Julia's stone crab claw cracker, which resides on her countertop to the left of the sink, I was reminded of the knife and mallet approach to extracting claw meat that I used while enjoying my crab feast. Though Julia’s tool is much different, it seems equally easy to use. Simply place the stone crab claw under the metal bar, and pull the lever down until the claw cracks. This tool is designed to be used on stone crabs, a delicacy in Florida.

Molly Franta is an intern in the Work and Industry Division. She is a senior at the University of Northern Iowa. Read Chef Allen Susser’s memories of catching, cooking, and eating stone crabs with Julia here or here. Our Food in the Garden summer series continues on August 15, 2013, with an evening dedicated to Child's 101st birthday. 

Posted at 7:41 am EDT in Food History,Intern Perspectives

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