Editor’s note: This is part three of a three-part series from CJ columnist Nelson Paul on his unique perspective ofwhat it was like in the early 1970s when, as a teenager, he joined a cooperative shrimping operation in North Carolina internal waters. Part one can be found here and part three here.
Bending over the culling tray to sort through the slimy mass of jelly, fish, crabs, grass, and miscellaneous junk, was an intense triage. This stays, that goes, that stinks, and I don’t have the foggiest idea what that is! On it would go until somebody cleared the box. Generally, shrimp went into a 15-gallon galvanized tub; the nice trout and drum were placed on top of the shrimp (to cook for lunch or supper), and the blue crabs went into a rusty, two-peck-sized, wire basket.
The crabs would sit in the basket and produce a constant sound somewhere between the hiss of a snake and the purr of a cat. They would blow their bubbles and warn anyone who approached with upraised claws. They would stare through the bars with their stalked eyes like a bunch of really mean perps bunked up in the local jail. We would typically just give them away to someone looking for a “mess” of crabs at the end of the day. Contrasted with this group of ruffians was discovering a prized and precious delicacy; a large, intact soft crab.
Our family’s relationship to the hallowed soft crab went back many years. Grover Paul, my namesake, and grandfather on my dad’s side, was a strongman of sorts in the local area. Many feared him, but my mother described him as kind and gentle. My aunt said he lost his fortune three times, and I was an adult before it was told he spent a year in prison during prohibition for smuggling Caribbean rum in barrels of “potatoes” found on a train car up north. The incredible and outrageous true tales of his life would fill a book. But that’s another story. His soft crab venture is what ended up having the greatest positive impact on the local community during his life.
Blue crabs go through “shedding” their shells as part of their life cycle. That hard outer shell has zero flexibility, and to grow a new shell, the old one has to be discarded. The crabs in the growth stage just before this shedding event are called “peelers,” People skilled in the discipline can spot the distinctive indicators. Grover operated a fish house at the farm where he would buy peelers from the local fishermen. He would place the peelers in floating trays to shed out the soft crabs.
If you don’t believe in miracles, you haven’t experienced a blue crab shed its shell. When it’s time, the old shell will split in the back, and the crab will wiggle and squirm as it backs out. It takes a while, and as complicated as a crab is structurally, every feature is perfectly replicated, only bigger, up to and including the stalked eyes. Adding to the intrigue is a crab beginning this process without a claw or claws, having them perfectly renewed through this incredible, mysterious transformation.
The crab that emerges is only “soft” for a short period of time. If left in the water, the shell will harden completely within a couple of hours. Generally, soft crabs are too soft initially, just after emerging, and have to be left in the water for a short period of time to acquire enough substance not to fall apart when handled. Once out of the water, the hardening process stops. There is absolutely nothing better than a fried soft crab when properly prepared.
I was a toddler when Grover’s soft crab business was still operating, but in what turned out to be its final years. The memories of a child make things so much larger than they probably actually were. As I recall, Grover operated about 20 to 30 floating shedding trays tied to a giant galvanized pipe driven into the bottom of the shallow bay adjacent to the fish house. He worked these floats with a skiff he poled around with a flat dip net on a long handle. He would use this tool to scoop up the waste sheds and retrieve the newly shed crabs. I can remember the crabs packed in the marsh grass, neatly lined up in wooden trays covered with a tarp in the bed of a black pickup truck. That memory is from a scene on Evans Street, in front of the Sanitary Fish Market, in Morehead City.
The Sanitary Fish Market is not just a restaurant; it is one of those legacy institutions of the central coastal North Carolina landscape. And the Sanitary was the prime customer of my grandfather’s soft crab business. Over the pure love of soft crabs, the politics and intrigue that transpired there led to the 11-mile dead-end dirt road to Grover Paul’s Fish House on Adams Creek getting paved. And this was way back in the 1940s when predilection intersects political influence, and the world is magically transformed.
Then there was that day, at the end of our shrimping trip when the hard crab basket made it to shore but got left when we went to town to sell the shrimp. Now, dad was not keen on hard crabs. He almost died one night due to an allergic reaction after eating a large hard crab dinner. By the time we realized they had been left behind, they had been there a while, overnight, in the hot, humid coastal live oak grove. Their normally noticeable bubbling hum was barely discernible. Deciding they were no longer usable and unsafe for humans, Dad proposed we feed them to the hogs.
Now the hogs lived in a pen, about 50 feet by 100 feet in size, located across the road from the pecan trees of my aunt’s home. There were about seven or eight of various sizes corralled within the two-wire electric fence. On the northwest corner, near the road, there was a muddy depression we would occasionally water so they could get a drink and lie in the muck to get relief from the hot sun.
We showed up in the truck, backed up to the fence, and poured the crabs into the enclosure. All the hogs were at the other end of the pen but noticed the commotion and knew it was probably something they could eat. As they rambled over to check it out, the crabs scrambled across the bare dirt with claws raised. And when the pigs tried to sample this new cuisine, pandemonium ensued.
The sequels of the pigs changed to screams as the crabs became fully engaged in the fight. The image stuck in my mind is a pinkish hog lifting its shaking head and screaming in agony, with two crabs desperately holding on, clamped down with their claws, one on each ear. Even though the battle decisively went to the hogs that day, the hard crabs put up a valiant fight.
Nelson Paul is a real estate agent, former NC Coastal regulator, inventor, husband, father of four, and a grandfather of seven.