From Sea to Soil

How Dungeness crab makes its way from the ocean to your plate—and beyond.

Ten days ago, at the annual Dungeness Crab and Seafood Festival in Port Angeles, I overheard an elderly woman complaining that arthritis made it hard for her to crack and eat a whole crab. Then she grabbed a cracker, put on a bib, and took apart the big, orange crustacean on her plate with gusto. Evidently, whatever pain she was in was well worth the gain. Having emerged with multiple cuts from a battle with the crab on my plate, I knew the feeling. On the Olympic Peninsula, where Old Town Dungeness is located, most of the crab lovers I met seemed undeterred by the animal's spiky shell and the painstaking (and sometimes painful) labor that's required to get at the tender, moist, sweet-salty meat inside. A sizable percentage of the weekend festival's 12,000 attendees were out-of-towners, according to organizer Scott Nagel. Along with fellow fest director Neil Conklin, Nagel is trying to raise nationwide awareness about Dungeness crab—which, despite its name, is found all the way down the West Coast. When I asked Sequim organic farmer Nash Huber, who had a salad booth at the fest, what brings people to Port Angeles to celebrate Puget Sound's Dungeness crab season (which runs through the month of October), he replied that eating something where it's caught makes for a particularly authentic experience. Since I can't jet off to the peninsula whenever I have a Dungeness craving, I decided the least I could do was find out how it ends up on my plate when I'm in the city. According to the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission, West Coasters catch an average of 38.5 million pounds of Dungeness crab each year. At the Port Angeles festival's popular "crab derby," visitors tried nabbing the leggy creatures in big, free-standing tanks, using cages baited with squid. It was a fun re-enactment of the dangerous work real crabbers have historically done—competing in the same waters to collect as much quarry as possible in a short span of time using steel traps called crab pots. Yet Dungeness crab isn't caught in rushed, "derby-style" showdowns (unlike its rarer, costlier cousin, Alaskan king crab). Due to its wide-ranging habitat, Dungeness is nearly always in season somewhere on the West Coast; Washington crabbers do their thing in autumn, so that's the best time for Seattle restaurants to showcase their handiwork. First, however, it has to be processed. According to Jim Shefler, the owner of Port Angeles' High Tide seafood plant, this involves three steps: culling, cooking, and shipping (or, if need be, freezing). When the crab boats come in, the plant's staff inspects their haul for size and quality; crabs are then cooked and sold whole or for meat, depending on their condition, to distributors (like Seattle's Ocean Beauty Seafood), which in turn sell to grocery stores and restaurants. And though there's no substitute for the flavor and tenderness of just-caught crab, High Tide's "brine freezer" (a tank of 90 percent salt solution that can stay at zero degrees without freezing solid) ensures better taste and texture than conventional freezers provide—in other words, the closest thing to fresh. In Port Angeles, I counted over a dozen uses for Dungeness crab in the main food tent alone, and you can find an equally creative cornucopia at local seafood houses. For example, Anthony's restaurants serve crab-stuffed mushrooms, crab cakes, roasted-garlic crab, crab fettuccine, crab Louis, and—lest we forget—whole crab. "We've hung our hat on Dungeness crab just because it's right in our backyard," says Anthony's regional executive chef Pat Donahue. "It's great, delicate, sweet crab that we can get year-round." Joel Anschell, a sous-chef at Chandler's Crabhouse, cites versatility as Dungeness crab's key strength. "King crab is definitely a lot sweeter and smoother tasting," he says. "Dungeness crab you can use in any sort of dish. We use it in our crab cakes and in our soups." It also appears at Chandler's in dips, cioppino, Caesar salad, and crab cocktail. Last fall, morsels of Dungeness ended up in a Moroccan-style tagine at Lola, and Bacco Bistro on First Avenue makes a mean Dungeness crab sandwich— to name just two other local variations on the theme. A crab's journey from the sea to the city doesn't have to end on a plate. When I spoke with Huber in Port Angeles, he explained that he uses crab shells from High Tide in his compost as a nemacide (a substance capable of repelling nematodes, tiny parasitic worms that harm crops). In addition to their pest-control properties, the shells contain "a lot of nutrients," Huber says, and "they break down pretty well during the composting process." Even if you're a city slicker tending several square feet of garden rather than 300 acres of farmland, it's something to keep in mind. After all, your Dungeness crab has come a long way just to be on your dinner table—it can surely handle a trip out to the backyard. nschindler@seattleweekly.com

 
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