Soft Shells: A Hard Sell


As you may already know, when blue crabs grow, their shells do not. When they get big enough, and they've grown into their shells completely, they simply molt their undersized exteriors and wait for new, bigger ones to develop. However, in what is surely a cruel joke being played by Mother Nature, there's a lag between the time when the first shell has been molten and the time when the new shell grows. Unfortunately for the crabs (seriously unfortunate if they happen to live in the Chesapeake Bay), this lag time is when they're considered soft-shells and when they are a prized delicacy. Instead of requiring all of the labor that a crab normally does (all that cracking of shells and sucking of meat—who has the time?), soft-shells just need to have their faces snipped off, their gills scraped out, and their soft, nubile crab bodies sautéed in some butter. They're juicy, they have that distinctive sweet briney crab flavor, and—and it's time somebody said this—they just aren't that good.

What?, you say. Who doesn't like soft-shells?! It's blasphemous to many to even think something like that, let alone to voice such an opinion. But seriously. Let's even put aside the cruelty involved in cleaning them (I mean, you cut their faces off when they're alive). Let's instead focus on the fact that they taste like, you know, crabs. Nothing more, nothing less. But you never get to really experience that flavor. More often than not, when you see soft-shells, they've been breaded and fried and put on a sandwich. While it's cool to see a whole crab sitting there between two slices of bread, with its claws hanging out, you're not getting to enjoy the crab. You're tasting mayonnaise, and tomato, and toasted bun, and whatever the crab is crusted in (cornmeal, usually). But that's a good thing when you consider that, if it weren't for all of the accoutrements, most of what you'd be tasting is the so-called "mustard," the crab's hepatopancreas (bitter, nasty).

Yet even worse than the taste has to be the texture. Yuck. The weird pseudo shell that soft-shells do possess never gets so soft when it cooks that it's tender, and never so crispy that it creates a satisfying crunch. Instead, the texture is somewhere in between; when I bite into a soft-shell crab I can never get past the fact that it reminds me of eating cooked fingernails. Can't we just be honest and say that a lobster roll is a superior sandwich in every way to some fried po' boy crab monstrosity? Maybe you don't think that. Maybe you think I'm crazy. I hope you do, because as you're eating your soft-shells, in all their chewy, overpriced glory, I'll have the opportunity to eat something that's, um, good.

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