Slow Down for Crabs
Our order of six blue crabs arrives just as King of the Hill starts. My daughter Julia and I are seated at a table out on the porch of Blue Water Seafood. I place the bowl of melted butter between us, and we reach for our nutcrackers. By the time the half-hour show ends, Boomhauer's brother has ruined his marriage by hiring floozies to entertain at his bachelor party, and we've barely made a dent in the crab pile. Luckily, we're in no hurry.
I learned to eat crabs from the late Phil Born of Port Arthur. He was my college roommate. Phil ate slowly. In fact, Phil's entire family ate slowly. And the whole lot of them loved crabs. Phil figured that there was no point digging into a pile of crabs unless you had at least three hours to kill. When Phil came over to my house for a boil, he would continue eating after everyone else had finished. The dishes would be done, the kids would be in bed, and Phil would still be eating crabs. The man could eat a dozen easily. After six or eight, I would just drink beer and keep him company.
To borrow the lamest joke ever conceived, the three most important things to consider when selecting a place to eat crabs are location, location and location. One of my favorites is Stingaree Restaurant and Bar (1295 Stingaree Road, 409-684-2731), a barbecued crab shack on Bolivar Peninsula that looks out over a magnificent view of Galveston Bay (see "Blue Crab Standard Time," September 6, 2001). The idea is to show up and order the all-you-can-eat crab special about an hour and a half before sunset. Then you can crack crabs in the lovely fading light and watch the sun slip into the water. If you're hungry, you may still be cracking crabs when the stars come out.
Blue Water Seafood's view of FM 1960 traffic isn't quite as engaging as the sunset from Stingaree's deck. (Although it's sort of amusing to watch the comings and goings at the Psychic Palmist next door.) Nevertheless, Blue Water has brought an authentic shack feeling to the northern suburbs. (There's another location at 4921 FM 2920, 281-288-1315, in Spring.) The wood of our outdoor picnic table is well bleached, and there's a galvanized bucket recessed in a hole in the middle of it where you dispose of your shells, with several rolls of paper towels in easy reach. There's a wonderfully crusty coastal feeling about the place. And the blaring television sets invite you to "come and sit a spell."
We watched an entire World Series game here on our first visit, starting that meal with six roasted oysters. I was absentmindedly watching the game and drinking beer when they arrived, and I ate my first one without inspecting it. Suddenly, I lost interest in the Yankees and Marlins. Wow! What an oyster! The tender mollusks were coated with garlic butter and the "roasting" was done on a mesquite grill. I myself would call these barbecued oysters. In fact, I would call them the best barbecued oysters this side of Gilhooley's in San Leon.
We also tried the fisherman's platter, a fried seafood sampler. The fried shrimp were excellent, the scallops and oysters were very good, the hush puppies and crab cake were passable -- but the fried "redsnapper" was tasteless mush. We also got a boiled dinner special that included meaty king crab claws, stone crab claws, crawfish, shrimp and a couple of soggy chunks of corn on the cob. We much preferred the boiled seafood to the fried stuff, but I was surprised that there weren't any blue crabs included.
On the way to this, our second visit to Blue Water Seafood, we stopped at a nearby oyster bar called Captain Tom's (9651 FM 1960, 281-890-8334). Captain Tom's is one of those restaurants that's shaped like a boat. The place was packed; a waiting line stretched out the front door. There aren't any tables, just two long counters in the shape of the boat running down both sides. I poked my head in to check it out. The clientele was almost entirely Latino, and according to my nonscientific survey, it seemed that half of them were eating raw oysters and drinking micheladas, the popular Mexican cocktail made by combining hot sauce, lime juice and beer.
The difference between an oyster bar and a crab shack has more to do with the attitude than the menu items. Both Captain Tom's and Blue Water serve raw oysters, fried shrimp, stuffed crabs and other seafoods. But nobody lingers too long at an oyster bar like Captain Tom's, and that's why they don't serve boiled crabs here. With all those people waiting in line, you wouldn't enjoy them anyway.
Blue Water Seafood is a crab shack. The staff expects you to come and hang out for a while. Crab shacks are disappearing because they don't turn over the tables fast enough, one crab shack owner told me. According to restaurant industry analysts, the average table turns over in 50 minutes at dinnertime. At a crab shack, the average stay exceeds two hours.
Eating blue crabs is part of an older, more relaxed Gulf Coast culture that's slowly slipping away. "It's too much work," people say. "It takes too long." When it comes to food, we have become a nation of efficiency experts. We know how long it takes to nuke a frozen dinner, and for many, anything that takes much longer is just a waste of time. In other cultures, spending several hours at the table is a normal way of socializing. But for the puritanically efficient eaters we Americans have become, sitting over a meal for hours on end seems sinfully unproductive. And as for conversation, well, if you have something to say, then just say it. We haven't got all day.
Slackers like me who want to linger at the table now have to use multitasking as an excuse. Watching TV while eating dinner was forbidden when I was growing up, but now I do it all the time. There's no reason to rush through the meal in order to see the World Series or watch a Simpsons Halloween special if you can watch TV and eat at the same time. And the way I look at it, eating while watching TV is more fun than just watching TV.
The hour-long Simpsons show came on right after King of the Hill. I was ripping into my third crab body at the time. Julia doesn't eat many bodies; she's a claw specialist. When my two daughters were younger, their mother and I would shell crab claws for them until nothing remained but the white meat sticking straight up from the red pinchers, which we used as a handle. The girls called these crab lollipops, and to this day, the crab claws remain their primary focus when a pile of crabs appears. I myself prefer the meatier bodies.
To shell and eat a crab, a certain knowledge of its anatomy is required, but after a little practice, it's as easy as eating grapefruit. As we were finishing up, the Simpsons special ended, and something else came on -- so I can say with some accuracy that it took us an hour and a half to eat our half-dozen crabs. Not bad at all, and no major injuries either. Sure, Julia's fingers were all pruney, as if she had just spent time in the bathtub. And I was bleeding slightly from my left thumb where I'd stuck myself with a sharp body part. But we won the war -- I can guarantee that not one skinny little crab leg went into the bucket unsucked.
Eating crabs can't be understood in terms of an effort-to-reward ratio. It's silly to undertake the task with the idea of getting as much out of it as quickly as possible. Rather, it's a culinary pastime, like eating nuts as you crack them with a nutcracker. The point is to take your time and appreciate the slow process of eating as its own form of entertainment.
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