Day of the Dungeness
A phobic foodie faces her fears
First published in Portland Monthly Magazine, December 2005
he stainless steel cauldron hangs on a rack over the fire, water bubble-bubbling, toil and, yes, troubling, for inside a conflagration of crabs are scritchy-scratching against the sides. They claw so hard, in fact, that they tip over the pot and swim the tide of boiling water onto the sand. There, they shake themselves off and give me the evil eye. Then they grow, and grow, until they are giant red angry crabs, chasing me across the beach, snapping at me with their huge freaking claws.
I was four years old when this recurring nightmare entered my psyche, living with my family in Maryland, land of blue crabs. On summer weekends, the male members of our extended family went crabbing on Chesapeake Bay. I later learned that "crabbing" meant drinking at some dark hole-in-the-wall, then picking up a crate of crabs at the fishermen's dock on the way back to Nanny and Granddaddy's house in time for dinner. There, the women and children waited, cauldron bubbling. Perhaps I was an overly sensitive child, but I chose hot dogs at mealtime.
As a Portland newcomer in her first Dungeness season, I still had an uneasy relationship with crustaceans. A foodie Portland newcomer, I might add, enamored of all things North and West. On my first trip to the farmer's market, the sheer bounty of produce astonished me, a radical upgrade from the meager offerings I'd gotten used to in Denver' high desert for the previous 35 years. I knew then I would do whatever it took to become a real PortlanderI would educate myself about cooking with regional ingredients, foraging for mushrooms, digging clams. I would become a seasoned veteran with all manner of things from the Pacific. Yes, even crabs.
On the day of our first New Year's Eve in Portland, I drove to New Seasons Market to purchase my first-ever whole crabs for dinner with the few new friends we'd made. Sure, my husband and I had bought plenty of gigantisaurus crab legs in the past, the odd pair of lobster tails on Valentine's Day. Disembodied this way, they seemed harmless.
New Seasons was a-bustle with holiday shoppers intent on finding the right ingredients to usher in the New Year with a full belly and a smack of the lips. After shaking off the rain and weaving through the crowd to load my cart with crusty loaves of bread, butter, lemons, and a few bottles of St. Innocent Brut, I took a deep breath and headed for the seafood case. Don't be a baby, I mumbled. When in Rome, you have to buck up and boil some shellfish.
Passing pink and white slabs of passive fish filets, I wondered why I couldn't have chosen to poach cod, or smoke salmon. At the sight of the mollusks, I swallowed. It wouldn't be long now. In between Gore-Tex and fleece torsos, I spied mounds of bay shrimp, frozen lobster tails, and huh? What were those piles of pre-cooked red-shelled Dungeness doing on the ice? Where were the tanks of the scritchy-scratchy condemned?
I continued on until I was at the meat case, then turned back, observing the crowd in its holiday frenzy. Many shoppers were ordering crab, but not a one was asking where the live ones were. Knees nearly folding with relief, I gripped the cart handle tighter, thanking Neptune for my good fortune, and took my place in line.
Driving home, relief turned to disappointment. I'd pictured myself finally getting over this ridiculous childhood trauma, adopting the verve and grit of hardy Northwesterners and dropping those little babies into the pot with no thought other than, "Mm mm, pass the butter!" Here I was with a bundle of dead crabs in the back seat, checking far too often in the rearview mirror to make sure they didn't do that Hulk thing and break out of the brown paper wrapping.
When it came time for cooking, I made a gorgeous wild mushroom strudel, sprinkled roasted hazelnuts and goat cheese on the salad, shimmering with Jim Dixon's heavenly olive oil, then stood back and admired the Northwest-ness of it all. As the minutes counted down to seafood submersion time, though, tiny beads of sweat surfaced on my upper lip. I took a deep breath and tore the brown paper, releasing the brackish smell of ocean into the kitchen. Craving a hot dog, I pulled the folds of paper further apart. Coral colored shell winked out at me, the curve of a claw.
"Are you okay?" my husband asked, coming into the kitchen to grab a fresh bottle of champagne. "You look funny."
"Mm." I nodded. "Mm hmm."
"I'll do that," he said, handing me the bottle. "You've been in here too long. Go out and mingle."
I thanked Venus, my second deity of the day, for landing me such a compatible mate, then whisked into the other room to pop the cork, refresh glasses and chug one myself.
Later, drunk on candlelight and conversation and the possibilities of a new year in a new city, I twisted crab claws from legs, legs from bodies, sucking sweet buttery meat from the shell without an ounce of trepidation. The conversation was interesting, the mood somewhere between seriously stimulated and giddy. We would be happy here in this city of friendly neighbors, I realized, this town of glorious food and long rainy nights perfect for simmering hearty seafood stews and drinking Pinots Noir and Gris.
Cleaning away the pile of discarded shells at the end of dinner, I pondered my seemingly permanent aversion to boiling critters, dead or alive. Would it really be that terrible if I never got over it, especially if someone else in the house was willing to do it? Maybe to be a true Portlander, all I really needed to do was appreciate the bounty.
Jennie Shortridge is the author of Eating Heaven
, a foodie novel set in Portland. She recently relocated to Seattle, Washington, where she is contemplating geoduck.