Meet three locals who know the Lowcountry’s favorite decapods inside and out.
Story by Barry Kaufman + Photography by Lisa Staff
When you think of enduring symbols of the Lowcountry, there are a few that have clearly benefited from some extensive PR. Dolphins? Sure, they’re pretty and it’s always magical to see their fins knife up above the water, but they’re really creatures of the open sea with limited forays into the inland waterways that define much of our area. A golf ball? True, the Lowcountry is something of a mecca for hackers and pros alike, but ask anyone local about the last time they played golf and odds are good you’ll hear more sputtered excuses than solid answers.
But the crab, now there’s a symbol of the Lowcountry we can all get behind. Whether skittering among the spartina stalks in a marshy field of pluff mud, emblazoned in vivid blues on a piece of locally produced art, or steaming in succulent flavors on a plate, the crab is truly the symbol that unites us. This month, we introduce three locals who have devoted themselves to these amazing crustaceans.
Let’s get crackin’…
Researching crab ecology and evolution
To some, a crab is the elusive bounty of the deep, skittering about in its realm and just waiting to be captured. To others, a crab is the key ingredient to a seafood sensation.
To Dr. Joe Staton, dean of science and math at USCB, the crab is an enigma, a puzzle of tightly entangled genetic markers just waiting to be solved. Throughout his career, Staton has made unraveling these mysteries his driving focus. And through his efforts, we’re closer than ever to unlocking the puzzle box that is the crab.
“We have three species of fiddler crab out there. The East Coast is one of the few places that has three that co-occur within the same estuaries…. If you look at their larvae, they’re indistinguishable from one another,” he said.
That posed a problem for researchers who were attempting to track the movement of different species of fiddler crab larvae after they make their way to the water column. “The question was, ‘How do they get back to where the adults are?’ You have different habitats, so do they come back and seek out those habitats? Do they land everywhere and are only successful in the one where the adults already are? We can do some real ecology on the larvae, figuring out where they went and how successful they were in becoming adults back in the new habitat.”
To do this, Staton leaned heavily on his background studying marine life at University of Maryland and University of Louisiana at Lafayette. One of the techniques he’d seen used to great effect was BLASTing, extracting DNA from marine life and comparing it against a national database of DNA strands. “This approach had never been done with fiddler crabs,” he said. “We were the first ones to use it wholesale for an ecological study anywhere.”
Executing on this meant developing an assay that could extract DNA from a fiddler crab larva – no small feat, since they were less than 1 mm large. “Based on that, you could tell what species it was because it’s the same DNA as in the adult. We could look for certain regions of that gene, markers that were consistent within species but different between species. It was essentially a DNA barcode.”
The development of that barcode allowed for more precise monitoring of fiddler crab populations, letting researchers know which were more robust and diverse and which were more isolated and vulnerable. “If some oil spill came and wiped them out, they might repopulate, but they wouldn’t be the population they were before.”
It’s a small step to unlocking a larger mystery, but it’s one that has been solved thanks to the Lowcountry’s own crab doctor.
Melanie Padgett Reynolds
Crab girl of the Lowcountry
If you’ve ever seen the pink markers that dot the Lowcountry’s waterways, you’ve born witness to a great local crabber at work. Those pink balls, chosen specifically because “no man would want a pink ball,” mark the spot where Melanie Padgett Reynolds drops her crab pots.
It’s a seafaring tradition she carries on from her father, Racine Padgett. “He used to say I’m his only boy,” she said with a laugh. “I loved shrimping; I was on the back of my dad’s shrimp boat every summer growing up… My family’s been selling to Hudson’s since I was 5. They used to sell to Benny. I remember when Andrew was little.”
She moved from shrimping to crabs, but she still delivers to Hudson’s, pulling her catch right up to the dock, where she enjoys a sweet tea and a burger and the staff all call her “crab girl.”
“This is probably the furthest thing from what my parents ever thought I was going to do,” she said. “I did great at school, I just wasn’t an inside kind of person.”
Starting at 20, she began crabbing professionally in the waters around here, eventually growing her operation to the point where in 2005 she was running her haul, as well as crabs purchased from other crabbers, up and down the eastern shore with stops in Pennsylvania, Maryland and D.C. These days, she’s narrowed her territory to the waters around here, from Lemon Island down around the Calibogue Sound and into the Colleton. “I just like to keep my circle small. I don’t stretch myself too thin.”
Throughout the year she’ll transition from stone crabs to softshells, crabbing six days a week in the winter and then for 47 days straight during softshell season. “I take a month off after that and sleep for about a week.” She buys her softshells from exactly one other crabber, her husband Jim. While they work the same job in adjoining waters, you won’t see much teaming up from the couple. “You can’t put two captains on one boat,” she said. “To stay married, we stay on different rivers.”
For her, it’s not just a job. Whether she’s fending off shrimp boats that destroy her pots, competition from crabbers who come in from out of state, raccoons pilfering her catch or hailstorms that catch her by surprise on open waters, she pursues every day’s catch with the same enthusiasm today as she did at age 5 on her father’s boat.
“It’s a hard job,” she said, “but you have to love it.”
Inside scoop on she crab soup
Over the course of his lengthy culinary career, there have been several pivotal moments for Hank Yaden. There was his first job in a kitchen, making sushi and prepping dishes at the age of 13. There was his hiring at Charleston’s The Fish Market, his first job in the South. He’d moved here to chase a Southern belle named Wanda Sue, and had married her. There was the shock of losing his restaurant, The Queen Street Seafood Inn, to Hurricane Hugo.
But perhaps no moment was as pivotal as the day in 1985 he was handed a recipe. At that point he’d taken a job as a sous chef in a restaurant in Mount Pleasant, and thus did not have the seniority to make changes to what was, by all accounts, an appalling She Crab Soup recipe. Made of evaporated milk from a can, machine-picked claw meat and lacking the necessary crab roe, this was not so much a soup as it was a liquid tragedy. “Two ladies called me out into the dining room and told me it was the worst She Crab Soup they’d ever had. It wasn’t even close to She Crab Soup.”
They then handed him a family recipe that changed his life, even if he didn’t know it at the time. “It sat on my dresser for a month.”
The recipe, as Google search years later would prove, was the original recipe as set forth by the creator of She Crab Soup, William Deas. Boasting ingredients from heavy cream and sherry to crab roe, the recipe was so authentic it didn’t even include Old Bay, since the spice hadn’t been invented yet. “I didn’t even know what I had all those years.”
But once he discovered the historic roots of his She Crab Soup recipe, he took it on the road. “We had an opportunity to sell my soup at the local farmer’s market,” he said. “The first Saturday, I made eight gallons and we sold out in an hour and a half. We were very happy with that, so the second week I made 14 gallons of soup. By the time the market ended we sold out… Every time we went back, we sold more and sold more.”
And thus, Hank’s Lowcountry She Crab Soup was born. A staple of the local festival scene, it quickly gained a following at farmers markets from Beaufort to Bluffton to Hilton Head. Within a few months, both Hank and Wanda Sue were able to quit their jobs and devote themselves full time to their burgeoning soup empire.
That empire will gain its next stronghold this summer with the opening of a full-fledged restaurant in Beaufort. “(The restaurant will be) all locally sourced ingredients, and I’m going to be using 3-4 local farmers in the area,” he said in late May. “We just finished the flooring and drains so they’re picking up momentum.”
In the meantime, you can still enjoy Hank’s She Crab Soup at the farmers markets on Hilton Head, in Bluffton and in Port Royal.
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