Special of the Day: Soft Shell Crabs

by Jen Wanous

While upstairs in the kitchen, during a busy 7pm dinner rush, Mashama asked me to get the soft shell crabs for her. I thought this would be a simple task, like fetching the garlic chives or the Serrano peppers I had brought up earlier. In the cool recess of the refrigerator walk-in, I saw the large plastic bin labeled “Crabs; Be Careful!” with little ventilation cuts takes taken out of the top.  Seeing those, I quickly put together that these soft shell crabs were still living! Suddenly, a little guy inside the box flailed its pinchers at me. Certainly, I wouldn’t be killing these crustaceans. I would just go up stairs and let them know that they had not been prepared and someone else would do it because I hadn’t a clue of how to.

Back upstairs, Mashama told me to bring her a crab so she could show me how to prepare them. With a snip of the sharp kitchen scissors, the crab’s face, butt, some of its shell and part of its inner workings were gone. She held them with such confidence and ease that I took the box of 14 wiggling crabs downstairs, each step telling myself that it would be okay, that I just had to do it, it wasn’t a big deal. With scissors in hand, I went to grab for the first one and it grabbed back! I flinched and might have squealed out loud too. I was so glad that no one else was downstairs to watch me freak out. And there, on the sanitary, industrial steel tables, I took a deep breath and snipped the face off of the first crab. Of course, it wiggled a bunch, and I dropped it, so I had to pick it up again and cut its tail off, then the pokie parts of its shell and then pull up the flaps of its sides to scrape out the gills. Its eyeball cavities oozed grey and green gelatinous substances and even with its face off, it still was flailing about. At first I was afraid that it would pinch me but then I realized that the claws weren’t actually grabbing anything, probably because of their small, pre-exposure-to-a-rough-life-to make them hard shells.

To get through the rest of the 13, staring googily-eyed in front of me, I started things like, “You were such a good crab. I’m sorry I have to cut your eyes off now. Thanks for being so big, someone will really love eating you.”  And other things, some even in a whisper, out loud, to myself, “You can do this. Only 10 more.”  My heart was racing and tight. It was comforting to remember that the owner of this restaurant (the person who essentially bought these crabs) had recently written a book telling about her first experience killing a creature. It was a chicken and she told about how hard it was and the delicate balance of life and death. It was deep. And here I was, in her kitchen, channeling her courage and before I knew it, the 14th tail had been chopped off and I was done! I marched my way upstairs, so proud of myself, arms extended, chest puffed and Mashama took them with a quick “Thanks.” and went on, in the fiery heat of the sauté station to make the seven orders in front of her.


Prune is the restaurant where I hope to do my culinary school internship. The owner, Gabrielle Hamilton is nominated for Best Chef at tomorrow night’s James Beard Awards (the Oscars of the food world). Her book is called, “Blood, Bones and Butter”.

2 Comments to “Special of the Day: Soft Shell Crabs”

  1. I enjoy your blogs, but I may never eat soft-shelled crabs again.

    I may have to try to eat at Prune. I see that they have sweetbreads, which is one of my favorite things, and not so easy to find these days. Please don’t do a blog about how they are harvested from the cow.

  2. way to go… crustatian warrior!

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