Softshell crabs seize the Holy City
An oral history of Charleston's frenzied springtime seafood ritual
Softshell crab season came early this year.
In the eyes of seafood dealers from Georgia to Maryland who harvest blue crabs on the cusp of shedding their exoskeletons, that’s a problem. Crabs are smaller and scantier in the last days of winter, while the prices of everything required to usher a crab from water to plate are rising. Softie merchants have been forced to explain and explain again why they’re charging $7 wholesale for an itty-bitty specimen that’s short a few legs.
Yet most Charleston eaters aren’t complaining about their favorite holiday’s premature arrival.
While softshell crabs aren’t unique to Charleston, there is no other city along the Atlantic coast half as frenzied about the springtime food. In the span of a decade, softshells have gone from seasonal oddity to municipal obsession, with home cooks avidly snipping the faces off crabs and restaurant goers keeping spreadsheets to track the crab dishes they’ve sampled.
The local affinity for softshells makes sense. Charleston has long celebrated both luxury and exclusivity, and there are few dishes more inherently elite than one which can only be purchased for a few weeks before Easter. Plus, softshell crabs offer a deliciously sweet taste of the sea and immediacy, so they’re a stage on which the city’s accomplished chefs can flaunt their talents.
But the craze didn’t emerge organically. As a crab who’s busted free of her shell would no doubt appreciate, the breakout took some work from those charged with creating and chronicling the city’s acclaimed dining scene. Here’s how it happened, in the words of those who were there.
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