Yo, let's go crabbin'
It's not too often that the skills I gained growing up in Jersey come in handy in my adult life here on the Upper Left Coast. Take Granny Bogdanski's methodology for consuming hot tea. She'd brew up a pot of the finest black stuff Lipton or Tetley had to offer, pour herself a large cup, and then put some milk and sugar in it. After a while, it was on to the ritual cooling of the tea, and here's where she turned it into an art form. She'd carefully pour some tea out of the cup and onto the saucer on which the cup had heretofore been resting. Then she'd blow gently across the surface of the tea puddle until the liquid was just the right temperature. At which point, God bless her, old Granny Alice would slurp the stuff right out of that saucer.
We saw Granny do this countless times, including when she had company over, and I do believe the company would join in. Impressionable youngsters, we just assumed that that was how you drank tea. It wasn't until I was a teenager, and I nonchalantly performed this process before a stunned audience of a girlfriend and her family, that I discovered that that wasn't the way most folks did it.
Another given in Jersey that's decidedly not a given anywhere else is cooking and eating Taylor ham. If you've never had it, I'm not sure I can fully explain it to you, but "Taylor pork roll" was just that, a roll of pork, made into a large sausage about the size of a bologna or a liverwurst. Exactly what parts of the pig were in it, you didn't want to know. You wouldn't dare eat it raw -- you would surely die -- but fried up with some eggs, it was lip-smackin' good. Cousin James, still a Jerseyite to his day, has written about it over on his blog, Parkway Rest Stop, and I've mentioned it here before as well. As kids we both ate lots of Taylor ham.
When I first moved to California, I was truly homesick for a long time, and my mom would try to cheer me up with care packages, which typically included a whole Taylor ham. Now, that stuff was supposed to be refrigerated, but hey, for a taste of home I was willing to take a chance with whatever might have happened to it in its three to five days being flown across the country. If you're eating Taylor ham, you're obviously not all that risk-averse, anyway.
Some of my classmates at the hotsy totsy Stanford Law School were absolutely aghast when I fried up some Taylor ham in the dorm basement, slapped it on a hamburger bun with some Gulden's mustard, and polished it off with gusto. They had never encountered the, ahem, distinctive aroma of sizzling Taylor ham before, and they were not sure they ever wanted to again. Eventually they concluded that the stuff was made out of ground donkey genitalia. None of them would touch it, much less eat it.
After a while, I got over my wicked homesickness. And soon Taylor ham, like Granny's method for cooling tea, disappeared from my life.
Every once in a while, though, my Garden State upbringing pays a dividend here in the Beaver State. And so it was earlier this week, when, on a fantastic trip to the Oregon Coast, I demonstrated my skills as a crabber.
Now along the New Jersey Coast -- "down the Shore," as it's known -- there are two main bodies of water. You've got your ocean (Atlantic) and your bay (Barnegat). A lot of the beach towns are just a few blocks wide, with the ocean on the east side and the bay on the west. I don't know what the situation is these days, but back in the late '50s and early '60s, the bay was full of crabs, and they were good eating if they were big enough, which many were. And so part of every Jersey Shore vacation we took as kids with my parents and my dad's relatives was spent crabbing. Catching crabs and eating crabs were a big deal, as were the inevitable jokes about "crabbing," in the sense of being grouchy.
Most of our crabbing was done from a dock on the bay, where you could catch the victims with a box trap or just snag them with a scoop net. The latter technique was particularly interesting. You tied a big fish head onto a string and dropped it down to the bay floor just below the dock. Every once in a while, you'd pull it up ever so slowly until you could see it through the green bay water. If there was a crab eating it, you continued to inch the bait up as close as you could to the surface without scaring off the crab. Then you or your crabbing partner would move in with a scoop net at the end of a pole. If you caught the crab in there, you'd carefully dump it in a bushel basket, on top of whatever other crabs you had already caught that day.
This would make the crabs very angry, and you'd have to be darned careful not to get any part of your anatomy too close to those pinchers, because they would be a-snappin'. Often the occupants of the bushel basket would take their frustrations out on each other, which was pretty scary to watch. (Although nothing was as intense as watching them all meet their fate in a huge pot of boiling water that evening. The Old Bay smelled good, but the sight of the crabs meeting their maker made you want to soil your trousers.)
You could get up really early and head out on the bay to crab from a boat, if that was your druthers. You could even crab at night, with a flashlight, if you wanted.
If you didn't catch any crabs (or enough), you could always buy some at a seafood store, of which there were many. A dozen fairly large live crabs went for around three bucks in those days. You'd take them back to the beach bungalow in a large, doubled brown bag, which you'd handle with care. Every once in a while an angry claw would poke through both bags. I will never forget the time that the bag broke just as we were pulling up to the house and getting out of the car. A few crabs hit the sidewalk and made a break for it. Now, the way to catch a getaway crab on land was to step on it, but much to our surprise, a crab got its pincher around the toe of Uncle Bill's very flimsy $1.59 Vans sneakers. We all laughed, but he didn't. I never saw him move that fast, before or after.
Another time a high school buddy and I picked up a dozen in lower Manhattan and brought them back to Jersey City on the PATH train, a subway under the Hudson River. It's a short ride, but I remember thinking about what a riot would ensue if the bag broke and the dozen green-blue critters started skittering around the packed commuter car, blowing those frightening bubbles and snapping those claws at the Wall Street types in their Brooks Brothers suits.
Anyway, where we stayed on the Oregon Coast this week, there were quite a few little crabs running around in the nearby bay. There were also lots of crabs hanging out in the ocean tidepools at low tide. Since the kids are fascinated with wildlife of any kind, the Mrs. and I pulled a few out of the water each day with a sand sifting toy, and we kept them in a tiny inflatable baby pool, filled with sea water, for easy observation.
My crabbing prowess drew rave reviews from the girls, but on closer inspection of the two crabs I scooped up one day, my achievements were greatly diminished. One of the little buggers had an entire claw missing. And after a while, our oldest announced, "This one has only one eye!" Sure enough, both our specimens had survived wicked battles with undersea foes before falling into our clutches.
Anyway, the teeny Oregon crabs weren't for eating, just for watching for a little while, and as we packed up to leave the bay beach, we let them both go. Wounded though they were, they both skittered briskly along the sand when given the opportunity, and back into the bay they speedily went. Here's the one with one eye heading out:
Like so many of their kind, he and his crustacean colleague learned a lesson: Don't mess with a Jersey crabber.