Eating crabs for the first time feels a lot like competing in the Hunger Games. When I entered Waterman’s Crab House in Rock Hall, Maryland, I was a participant who knew conceptually what was to come, just not the full extent of the brutality that lay ahead. I was visiting the Chesapeake Bay with friends from college. As our leader Sam instructed, each of us was to bring $24.99 for all the crabs and corn on the cob we could eat in two hours. But when our waitress brought out one tray of crabs, and then another tray, and then another tray, each with about 20-30 dead crustaceans on them, the reality of the Games hit me. To eat the crabs, I’d have to physically get the meat myself. My friends sensed my anxiety and laughed. I shuttered. I wasn’t going to do it.
The mutilation of innocent crabs for the sole purpose of a few pictures on Instagram disgusted me. These stacked trays represented the senseless, gluttonous eating I’ve grown more and more uncomfortable with as I’ve gotten older. A part of me wanted nothing more than to protest the barbarousness of this whole situation by indignantly throwing the crabs back into the Bay and ordering a bacon cheeseburger instead. But for all my moral outrage, I was not going to let $24.99 go to waste. The sad truth for Katniss Everdeen and myself is that, once in the arena, one has no choice but to compete. I grabbed a mallet and asked how to begin.
The process of eating crabs is tedious with very little payoff. First, rip off the legs. There is a small bone that attaches the back of the shell to the body. Remove it. Dig your fingers inside the shell and lift. Examine the insides of the crab, intestines and all. Ignore the “mustard” (aka, digestive waste) and crush the body in half. Crack the body again and pick out the tablespoon of food along the sides and enjoy the handful. Use a mallet to gather the meat in the legs. If done cleanly, small bits of shell won’t mingle with the food. The meat from the legs can then we sucked off like the end of a popsicle. Wipe your hands. Repeat.
At first, I could only grab a crab with the comfort I’d feel as if I was carrying Derek Jeter’s jockstrap. With each rip of a leg or cracking of the shell, my chest collapsed. This was not in my nature. Heck, touching anything non-human is not in my nature. For all my love of the New York Aquarium, I’ve never actually touched anything in their petting section. Growing up, I loved when my father took my siblings and me fishing. But I didn’t love it enough to ever touch the worm on the hook or touch any the fish that I caught. I had him do that for me. But here I was, digging through the remains of a crab on purpose. I asked for gloves. None were provided. It was awful.
A few locals next to me noticed my trepidation. One woman explained that they taught their kids to eat crabs with one simple ultimatum: eat every ounce of meat in the crab or be sent directly to bed. They tried to teach me how to eat crabs like a pro, which helped, but it was obvious. They were totally judging me.
I tried to distract myself with corn. That, of course, tasted amazing. But as time started to tick away I did the math. I’d eaten three crabs after 30 minutes. This meant I was on pace to eat around 10. That wasn’t nearly enough to make my $24.99 investment worth it. I needed to pick up the tempo. I got down to business.
It got easier. After awhile, I don’t think I was trying to eat crabs. I was simply ripping, breaking, separating and crushing. Psychologically, I assumed the role of protagonist in a Tim O’Brien story, emotionally disconnected from the carnage that was accumulating on my shirt and table. I don’t know what my mallet was hitting. I simply whacked away. These crabs were no longer former living beings, only objects I cared nothing about. By the end of the night, while the rest of our friends went to drink or enjoy the 60s cover band, Sam and I sat in solitude, embracing our inner blackness and refusing to let any food we’d paid for go to waste. There were no smiles. No Instagram updates. Just smashing. That day, I became a carnivore. Something died in me. It was either my squeamishness or my sense of compassion. Whatever it was, I’m convinced everyone should eat crabs at least once. If one wants to eat meat, prepare it yourself.
I doubt I’ll ever eat crabs again. Perhaps in a stew or a crabcake. Just never by hand. Maybe in the future, I will become so rich I can force my unpaid interns to break the little creepers for me while I float on my yacht drinking gin and tonics in the Chesapeake Bay. But until that day, I’ve learned my lesson. Be thankful to live in a country where a corporation does all the dirty work for me; that meat that comes prepackaged, pre-shaped, precooked, and pre-seasoned. Is it the easy way out? Of course. I’m not proud of that. But when dinnertime starts, I’ll take clean fingers over a clean conscience.