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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.
Introducing the softshell crab
Jeff Massey owns Livingston’s Bulls Bay Seafood in McClellanville, South Carolina. The market is home to 64 shedding tanks, making it one of the state’s biggest shedding operations: Nobody knows what makes the magic happen. It's water temperature, salinity, the moon, the wind, how much rain we get, where the wind blows from. It's everything. It all adds up.
Harry Root owns Grassroots Wine, a wine distributor based in Charleston, South Carolina: The Lenten full moon is really what triggers the crabs to start to molt their skin.
Massey: It's the only way they can grow. Their shells are just packed. It's just like they've got a girdle or a suit of armor on that's about 10 sizes too small. When they finally climb out, they'll grow by at least 50 percent. And that's the only time that they can mate, so they're looking for a male to go to the prom with, as I like to say.
Root: These poor crabs are so vulnerable, losing their shells. And then these other dick crabs in the tank aren't even close to busting. They're five days away and they're going to eat that crab.
Massey: That's why we have to work around the clock. We have to be watching the tanks constantly. As soon as we hear busts, we have to move them out, so the other blue crabs don't just kill them.
Stephanie Barna is a journalist. She was the longtime editor and co-owner of Charleston City Paper, the local alternative weekly: Oh, we don't want that bully crab to get you, bring him over here. Let me sauté him up in some butter.
Root: Just a couple days ago he was that dick.
Barna: But at least we're celebrating them. I feel like we're paying respect and homage to their hard work of popping that hard shell off.
Bob Cook is executive chef at Edmund’s Oast in Charleston. After moving to town in 2007, he worked at Cypress and Artisan Meat Share: My very first experience with softshells was not in Charleston: A friend of mine from Maryland would ship them to us. And I was a younger man, and I thought that was the weirdest shit I'd ever seen in my life.
Developing the market
Christine England is the founder of Lowcountry Eat Out!, a Facebook group created to help restaurants during the pandemic. The local dining discussion forum now has 64,000 members. There is no board of softshell crab. There's no board where they're saying, ‘It's softshell season.’ This is literally a local buzz, a local thing: It's not some giant, milk mustache campaign type of thing.
Barna: We definitely made it happen. And that's why it's so funny when I read somebody being like, ‘I don't understand the hype!’ That hype started 10 years ago.
Root: All I've been working on is the hype.
Massey: Well, I mean, I'm not claiming all the credit here, but a lot of people, we all talked about it. A lot of what we used to shed here was shipped to New York and Baltimore and Boston, different places. And it was really a concerted effort by us and other growers to really develop this market. I mean, this is a South Carolina thing. Let's eat it here. There's no point in shipping everything up to New York and letting them tell us how much everything's worth.
Root: I think even lots of old locals either just took it for granted or it happened so fast that you never really thought about it. I mean, oyster season lasts for eight months. But softshell crab season lasts for one full moon cycle. That's a superfast time to turn a restaurant menu item around and have a good successful run with it.
Massey: We really pushed the restaurants to try them out. [They’d say], ‘Well, what do you do with them? How do you cook them?’ A lot of places didn't really know.
Cook: Once I moved to Charleston I worked for [chef] Craig Deihl. He was softshell crazy. It was like his number one favorite food of all time. I'm sure we probably did 30 different ways just at Cypress while I was there. We used to fry it, cut it in half, and then wrap it in a cucumber, or whatever was kind of crispy at the time.
Launching the “crawl,” an eating tour of restaurants serving softshells (usually with rosé in tow)
Root: It started at [Barna’s] house in 2012: There were chefs there and none of them had been able to eat softshell crabs at anybody's places, and we decided, next year, we're going to document what everyone did for our chef friends. And then we had to scratch our heads and figure out some way to make it work for her as a journalist and me as a wine guy, so we added rosé and made it a social media thing.
Barna: Charleston had a pretty tightknit online Twitter group, so you could do stuff on Twitter, and everybody would know. I remember walking into The Grocery, and they were like, "We've been waiting for you; we've been following your crab crawl and wondering if you were going to come see us!" Because we did not plan it that first year, we just literally went from place to place.
Root: At least in our heads, there weren't that many places to go. We were like, ‘Oh, let's go see our five or six friends that are doing this.’
Erin Perkins is the editor of Eater Carolinas. The first time I wrote about softshells was in 2014 and it was a short mention that The Grocery had softshell crabs. I think that's when [The Grocery’s chef-owner] Kevin Johnson started doing his countdown on softshell crab season on his website. And when I wrote about him, I felt the need to explain what softshell crabs were.
Root: The next three years after that became increasingly intense.
Barna: It was a live event in Charleston that was being kind of broadcast through pictures and stuff, and people were getting an insight into what was happening in town, and they couldn't wait [to participate.] People were clamoring.
Root: It was a race to see how many places we could go to.
Barna: We would start at 11 a.m. And we would have to pre-plan it, and call, and make sure they had the softies, and then we would tell select groups of people where we were going, and then one year we created teams.
Root: Maybe three or four years in, we cut the deal with the restaurants and said ‘Listen, we're going to be here within this 15-minute time slot.’ We had a list of demands: We wanted water service, an empty wine glass, no upsells, no callouts, no extra dishes brought out. We want one order of crabs. We'll bring $5 in cash per person and walk out and leave. And that's how we did 20 in one day.
Barna: We would just throw our money and leave. We didn't have time to wait for a bill.
Cementing the custom
Perkins: 2015 was the first time I put together a map [of restaurants serving softshell crabs]. It had 53 places on it.
England: It creates such a whirlwind buzz that everyone's like, "Oh my God, I need to get one.’ People make reservations, and in the reservation notes, they're like, ‘Please save me a softshell crab.’
Cook: You're going to sell 1 million of them. We prep less of other things during softshell season because we sell so many softshells. We're selling less burgers right now.
England: People right around St. Patty's Day this year were like, ‘Where are they? I need them.’ It’s an addiction.
Barna: I'll never forget the year Shep from Southern Charm really wanted to go [on the crawl] and I was like, ‘It's just me and my friends eating softshell crabs. We're not the beautiful people.’
England: It's people being like, ‘If you are local, if you live here, this is what we do. This is our season. This is what we do. You must eat one. Give it a whirl. And if you don't, that's fine, because there's more for us.’
Sixty people a day are moving here, and they get to say, ‘OK, we're going to go try this. This is what we're going to go do. We're going to go be like the locals. We're going to do softshell season and we're going to go blend in.’
Preparing the crabs
England: A lot of people [in the Facebook group] are like, ‘How the heck do I eat this?’ One lady said, ‘You crack the shell, and you take the meat out.’ I was like, ‘No, no, no. It's a softshell. You can just eat it.’
Perkins: The most common preparation I see is the deep-fried softshell crab on a sandwich in a BLT style. In the high-end restaurants, they just sauté it in a pan with a light sauce to highlight that soft exoskeleton. Then we've got the cornmeal covered; we’ve got the tempura covered. I know one year Charleston Grill tried a Vietnamese style with a nuoc cham dipping sauce, but you see it works in every which way.
England: This is always the biggest debate in the group. You have tried-and-true locals who are like, ‘It's sautéed. That's it. Don't cover it up. It is what it is.’ Then you have the ones who are like, ‘No, no, no, no. It's fried. I like it fried. I want it on an eggs Benedict.’ I went to Kanpai, and [chef-owner Sean Park] had one on a steamed bun in tempura batter with truffle on it. Honestly, that was the best one I've had over all the years.
Cook: We fry the softshell in tapioca starch, which makes this really nice, light crust. We finish it with Filipino barbecue sauce that's banana ketchup based, with lemongrass and chiles and black pepper, and some garlic.
Perkins: [Chef] Brannon Florie was doing softshell crabs on a burger.
Massey: At the end of the season, one of my guys who’s a chef will cook up a bunch of crabs just for the crew. And he did something last year that was really, really crazy. He took the little aprons that's on the belly of the crab. Lot of people just cut those off and throw them away. We cut them off a bunch of crabs, and he fried them up like the potato chips. And we put some Old Bay on them, and they were fantastic.
Massey: A lot of people, I always tell them to just get a sandwich. If you haven't had one before, get a sandwich, get it fried. Don’t open it up. If you open it up, they look like a spider sometimes.
Perkins: After all these years, I'm not sure if I even enjoy eating them anymore. I will have my one and that's about it. I think it's almost an acquired taste: You wouldn't think people would like to eat the gooey parts of a crab but they're out there doing it.
England: I know someone who eats softshell crabs every year, because it's what you do when you're here in Charleston. Every year she has one, and every year she tells me, ‘I don't know why I eat those. I don't really like them that much.’ She goes, ‘I close my eyes and just pretend it's fried chicken.’ I'm like, ‘Why do you do that to yourself?’ To her, she's born and raised in Charleston. To her, it is what you do as a Charlestonian. I get it. That makes sense.
Barna: Harry and I have eaten hundreds of softshell crab preparations.
Root: We can do 20 in one day.
Barna: We've done 40 in one day.
Root: I will say I only eat softshell crab on the softie crawl.
Barna: I will never voluntarily order or eat one ever again.
Root: Well, they're not very good for you.
Barna: They're very rich. They're usually full of butter and crab have guts and it's all very, very rich. So, for several days afterwards, we would not be able to really... It was like we had gout, we gave ourselves gout.
Massey: I haven't shipped any softshell crabs to New York in three or four years.
Barna: The City Paper, Eater, and The Post and Courier all put out softshell crab lists, so our job here is done as far as we're concerned.
Massey: Now I’m trying to turn people on to clams. If all they've ever had are clam strips and you ever get them to try fresh clams, a lot of people like them and it's something that we grow here locally and they're delicious and they're available year-round.
Root: We’ve got to find the next thing. Shad roe. Who's got shad roe?