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How I cooked my first crab


Of huge extent somtimes, with brazen Eyes
And hairie Main terrific, though to thee
Not noxious, but obedient at thy call
-- Paradise Lost: Book VII, 496-498

[Picture of North Sea Crabs]


I had been toying for a while with the idea of cooking a crab. Saturday we went to the local fish market in Leiden. We found a guy selling dozens of North Sea Crabs, still alive and frisky. They had large, tawny carapaces, turning white on the ventral side, two hefty claws with black endings, and four pairs of hairy paws ending in sharp, horny brown nails. The claws had not been tied up: the guy told us to be careful not to put our fingers between them, the crab's claws being strong enough to snap them. We chose a large and lively crab, about 30cm large, enough to serve two. The guy wrapped it in a sheet of paper, then in two plastic bags, to prevent it from moving.
We came home, unwrapped it and took a close look at it. It was heavy and reacted vividly to touch. I had hardly ever seen such a beautiful and terrific creature in my kitchen. It was rather docile when I laid it on its back. When I raised it in front of me, holding it in one hand with my thumb on the abdomen and my other fingers on the carapace, it started spreading its two claws, as in a gesture of threat. At the same time, the eight lower paws were quickly contracting towards my thumb, and I felt the nails reaching for my skin. I shuddered, wrapped it quickly in the paper and the two plastic bags and put it back in the fridge. I thought perhaps we should let it free to crawl around the kitchen during the night, but Emma dissuaded me. I went to bed, had some anxious dreams and slept very bad.
This morning I took the crab out from the fridge and prepared a large pot with boiling water. My brother told me water has to be really hot so that the crab does not cook slowly, but boils rapidly: it seems this is essential to keep the flesh tender and juicy. After one night in the fridge - I could hardly believe my eyes - the crab looked still alive, but reacted more slowly, it seemed to have lost its grip and the ability to contract or rapidly stretch its paws, so I thought I'd have no problems tossing it in the boiling water. Which, actually, was less hard to do than I had thought: crabs, as opposed to lobsters, do not scream when you toss them in water, nor do they resist by thrusting their paws against the top edge of the pot (which was my main concern). Still, the feeling of inexorability in the gesture of tossing a crab in boiling water - much as for any other voluntary movement that turns something alive into something to eat - was quite repelling. Now it was lying there, completely still and covered with water: in a couple of seconds it had turned into some strange-looking inanimate object.
A large North Sea crab takes about 9 minutes to boil. You then take it out from the pot, it shouldn't be too hot, so you can grab it by one paw (it shouldn't react any more; if it does, you might seriously consider putting it back in water for a few minutes, just to make sure your guests won't be annoyed by something still squirming in the dish). Find then a strong butcher knife with a thick blade, a hammer might also be useful if the carapace is particularly hard to break. Point the blade in the middle of the abdomen, where the paws are attached to the body, and with an accurate and firm movement (don't hesitate right now) split it into two halfs. You'll have to remove the yellowish organs and the gray gills, before serving.
The ceremony is almost over. Prepare some ice-cold, dry white wine, some half-lemons to squeeze, crab forks and nutcrackers to break the shell. Remind your guests there is delicious and delicately tasting flesh not only inside the claws, but also in every single segment of the paws and between the cartilaginous concavities of the abdomen, even if this might take some extra effort. Serve the dish, put on some appropriate music (my choice, a smooth and nervous "Blue's crib" - Isaac Hayes, 1974) and start gnawing. Mind the ceiling and your guests' eyes during the whole operation.

[Leiden, The Netherlands: July 11, 2004]
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