• Live blue crabs have pink claw tips if they are females, blue claw tips if they are males. Photo by Pat Foster-Turley/For the News-Leader

Forty years and crabs

After 40 years as a married couple, you really get to understand another person and their likes and dislikes. It was our big anniversary this year, so what could we do together to celebrate that we both would enjoy and that would feel “special”?

As usual, the planning mostly fell on my shoulders and I immediately discarded a few more traditional ideas. Go out to dinner? No, Bucko is not fond of eating out. Have a party? Worse yet. Bucko doesn’t enjoy parties, or crowds, or actually more than one or two people at a time. Take an exotic overseas vacation? No, Bucko went with me for a month-long trip to Southeast Asia just six months ago, and that’s enough of that for him for a while.

Now, mind you, I would have liked any of the above three options, but an anniversary was for both of us. So I had to think harder. And here’s what I came up with. Bucko and I both like “Old Florida,” what little of it remains, and I like to eat – especially fresh blue crabs from the St. Johns River. OK, I’ve got a plan: A weekend getaway in Welaka, Fla. Perfect.

Where we once found Old Florida here in Fernandina Beach, things have overgrown and over-developed in the 20 years we have lived here. Now we have to travel further inland to find it. Sadly, our favorite retreat on the St. Johns River in Welaka got damaged in Hurricane Matthew last year and never recovered, but with some internet searching I found another place nearby and booked our escape.

When we got there, we had two goals: We would enjoy the peace and quiet and wildlife that abounds in this rural mid-Florida town on the St. Johns River, and I would eat blue crabs caught from the river and purchased, fresh steamed, from the Welaka fish market. Simple enough, right?

Well Bucko’s part of the deal worked out great for him. Peace and quiet was there for sure. It was off-season and we seemed to be the only visitors at the riverside lodge. And the town was recovering from their own bout with Hurricane Irma. Some restaurants and riverside bars were closed as well. Closed, too, was the Welaka fish market, with a ripped sheet of notepaper on its door with a penciled note: “Closed for an operation” – whatever that means. That’s how finding fresh blue crabs became a 40th anniversary mission for us.

As with most missions, it turned out to be great fun. For starters, we quizzed everyone we met about where we could find steamed blue crabs. Locals had some ideas, but when I Googled the restaurants they mentioned, it turned out they didn’t sell blue crabs, just king crab legs from Alaska, Dungeness crabs from California, but nothing local. I wanted blue crabs from the river I was looking at. Nothing else would do.

Finally, I decided we needed to buy live crabs and steam them ourselves in the modest kitchen of our riverside rented cottage. Another Google search located the S & S Seafood Market in Palatka, a business specializing in live blue crabs and not much else. And that’s where we met “Amy the Crab Lady,” as she likes to be called.

When I told Amy the story about how important blue crabs were to our 40th anniversary, she invited me into a cooler filled with boxes of live crabs and she chose about a dozen large ones for me – all for $10, a real bargain. As she sorted them, she pointed out that males have blue claw tips and females have pink claw tips. “Pink is for girls” she said, and I learned something new.

She also told me how to cook them. “You have to put them on ice until they are ‘stunned,’ then rip off their backs, and the gonads and ‘lungs,’ wash them off, and then toss them into a pot of steaming water. If you clean them after cooking, it ruins a perfectly good bunch of crabs,” she told me. Gads. I’m used to tossing whole crabs into the water, and killing them that way, hopefully quickly. Ripping them apart seemed ghastly.

But, I dispelled my squeamishness and, back at the cottage, I got the crabs suitably cold so they were not moving, then, as quickly as possible, I did the dastardly deed. I have to say, the results were wonderful. The best crabs ever!

And, all things considered, the best anniversary too!

News-Leader

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