The legendary art of crab picking

Story by Kerry Peresta

Crab Picking
Although some think crab picking is a barbaric tradition, crab feasts can be fun when you know what you’re doing. Lowcountry crab connoisseurs (aka old salts) only require one thing … a good knife.

Enjoying steamed or boiled crabs, often referred to as “crab-picking,” involves skill, diligence, tactile coordination, an ability to ignore the more indelicate aspects of crab innards, and a fiendish delight in pulling appendages off crustaceans. Some might call it an art form. Observing a crab-picking enthusiast in action is inspiring, and Hilton Head Island enjoys a hearty infusion of these folks year-round.

Identifying the avant-garde crab picker — as opposed to the amateur — is easy. It is worth a look if you stumble across one, as it prods the amateur to new heights of finesse. A beginner, especially, might want to cling to the shirttails of one of these connoisseurs to soak up his or her methods. Here a few tell-tale signs of the crab-picking elite:

The skilled and experienced crab connoisseur exhibits perpetual pruny fingers, a small canister of Old Bay spice stuffed prominently in his/her back pocket at all times, and the harsh complexion of someone who spends time on piers or boats staring with expectant, salivating anticipation at crab pots baited with fresh chicken neck or bull lips. (Bull lips? Yes. Gross.)

The crab connoisseur also carries a crab knife and crab mallet on their person. In the event said person happens to be in the vicinity of one of the many legendary fresh seafood restaurants of the Lowcountry, they will simply wave their hand nonchalantly when offered the restaurant’s crab-picking tools and give them a pitying stare. Then they will gracefully extricate their personal (often monogrammed) mallet and knife. The crab connoisseur enjoys the sideways glances and murmurs of admiration when exhibiting personal crab-picking tools. Humility is called for on such occasions.

In practiced movements, the crab connoisseur first flips the crab on its back and inserts the knife, carefully prying up the “tab” (whatever that is) in order to loosen (not break) the “lever” (whatever that is). And voila! The top shell pops off. A few unleashed breaths of admiration puff from other tables around them, but they pretend not to notice.

Next, with their tidy little knife, they scrape off white feather gills, careful to avoid the yellowish, greenish, icky stuff known as “mustard.” It goes without saying that crab connoisseurs suck this stuff up like toddlers suck up the last of their squeezy yogurts.

The next few steps proceed with measured concentration, and are a true test of crab-picking finesse. Using tools is one thing, but when it comes to uncovering the rich, meaty depths inside the shell, it is all about finger dexterity and practice, practice, practice.

The crab connoisseur proceeds, with great panache, by breaking the crab in half with their bare hands. Then they tear off the back around the legs and skillfully pick out the meat. Halfway through this part, the fingers begin to tingle from the sharp pricks of shell. Pruny fingertip syndrome accelerates. Crab connoisseur’s mouth starts to water. Their eyes glaze.

Next, they deftly twist off the claws and snaps off the pinchers. Gently, tenderly, crab connoisseur lifts the crab mallet and whacks each piece to perfection. Fresh crab meat is now displayed and ready for full-on picking.

By now, diners all over the restaurant have stopped eating. A few hardy souls walk to their table and ask if they can watch them crab-pick the next one. Another bends down and asks for a selfie. Crab connoisseur picks up the fresh crab, holds it beside their face, and poses. They understand that the price of their skill is often celebrity.

The carcass pile grows, and soon, crab connoisseur rises in preparation to leave. A few diners clap, then return to their dinners. One rangy young man grabs crab connoisseur by the arm before he walks out. “Dude,” he says. “Teach me how to do that.”

Crab connoisseur smiles. “Some things can’t be taught, son,” he says, and walks out the door.