Catching lunch with the crab tycoons

By Jim Keeble, Daily Mail

Last updated at 15:34 22 July 2002


Friends in Washington DC suggested that I should travel to the 'Crab capital of the world'. The small port of Crisfield lies three hours' drive south-east of America's capital, on the shores of the vast Chesapeake Bay.

'You'll find the best crab in the world,' said my friends, licking their lips. I was intrigued. I'm not a huge seafood fanatic, but perhaps the best crab in the world could convert me.

The first signs are promising. There are crabs everywhere - on every street sign, adorning the water tower, painted on buildings.

There are wind-up plastic crabs, crab flags, even crab-shaped biscuits and garden ornaments. It's as if I've come across a lost country where everyone worships the mighty crustacean.

Crisfield has been ruled by crabs since the late 1800s, when John Crisfield built a railroad to the dock so local fishing fleets could send their catch directly to lucrative markets in Washington and New York.

I head off on a walking tour with local guide Jack Paul, who describes Crisfield's Twenties heyday, when 19,000 people crowded the streets and there were 150 different crab and oyster packing houses on the quay.

Today there are only four, specialising in 'soft-shell' crabs, the local delicacy.

Jack explains about soft-shell crabs. Crabs, it seems, shed their shells about 12 times a year. If you can catch them while they're shellless, they're much tastier to eat and therefore command a higher price.

The bay around Crisfield is perfect for finding soft-shell crabs, as it's shallow and contains sea grass, which they hide under as they discard their 'armour'.

We tour the Metompkin crab factory, where 30 packers are stacking live crabs into iceboxes.

Many will go to New York, but some are destined for Japan.

Thirty-six hours after being plucked from Chesapeake Bay, these jet setters are in Tokyo, 98 per cent arriving alive, which says a lot about crustacean endurance.

The crabs are packed according to their size, from 'jumbo' down to 'pee wee'. The best, according to Jack, are the mediums, known as 'hotel' crabs (no one knows why).

I ask him where the best crabs come from. He points out into the misty bay. 'Tangier Island,' he says. 'The spiritual home of the blue crab.'

There is one ferry a day to the island, 11 miles from the mainland. It got its name from British explorer John Smith, who landed in 1608 when, legend goes, he saw broken Indian pots which reminded him of the Tanja cooking pots of Morocco.

It's a tiny island - just over two miles long and one mile wide - but boasts 700 inhabitants, and a school with 115 children and 14 teachers.

As the ferry nears the thin lip of land, I see what looks like a small village built on stilts in the sea. On closer inspection, these are wooden shacks, lined with fishing pots. Inside, fishermen lurk.

Crabs, it seems, are as important to Tangier as oil is to Texas, or sheep to New Zealand, with 95 per cent of the population live off crabbing.

Most of the men are known as 'watermen' for obvious reasons.

At the dock we are met by a gaggle of golf-carts. There's little use for a car on such a small island. Instead the locals speed around in electric buggies, ignoring threatening signs that read '15mph - speed controlled by radar'.

'Hoie yar doein'?' asks Wallace Pruitt, owner of Shirley's Bayview Inn in a drawl reminiscent of Cornish trawlermen.

The Tangier accent is thick. Some academics claim it derives from the original 17th-century Cornish settlers, and has been preserved because of the island's isolation. If anything, there are more crabs on show than in Crisfield.

A fence is lined with plastic cups offering 'Ten Crab Recipes for a Dollar', including crab dip, crab cocktail, crab cakes and crab crackers.

That afternoon, I accompany James Eskridge, whose father and grandfather were watermen, to his 'crab shanty' on the bay.

Beside the wooden hut are rows of shallow basins where the crabs are kept at various stages of shell-shedding.

You have to survey them constantly. When the crabs shed, you have three hours before the shell hardens. Therefore 'crab-watch' takes place four times a day, including one shift at 3am.

'I'll sleep in the winter,' smiles Eskridge, tiredly.

Such dedication is worth it. Soft-shell crabs sell for $26 a dozen, (they fetch three times that in New York City restaurants). On a good day Eskridge could make over $7,000. 'I do pretty good,' he says gently. 'God has blessed me.'

It's perhaps little wonder Tangier Island is a highly God-fearing place; so dependent are its citizens on the vagaries of wind and current.

When catches are down, the watermen go to church to pray for crabs. They also pray for deliverance from bureaucratic regulations passed by the state government.

'Fish and crabs mean more to the watermen than to environmental groups and politicians,' says Eskridge, pointedly.

I ask him for his favourite crab recipe. 'Steamed, simply, with a bit of seasoning.'

He recommends I eat at Fisherman's Corner for the ultimate crab dinner.

You have to dine early on Tangier. The three restaurants close by 7pm (when the watermen retire, in preparation for their 3am crab-watching).

Also, don't expect a nice white wine with your seafood. Tangier is a teetotal island.

Fisherman's Corner isn't fancy. There are plastic-backed chairs, and Formica tables. But it's packed at 6pm.

I order the soft-shell crab dinner. It comes lightly breaded, with a hint of seasoning and melts in my mouth.

Others are tackling the famous crab cakes, or flounder stuffed with crab.

Is it the best crab I've ever eaten? Quite possibly, although, like drinking Guinness in Dublin, the setting definitely improves the taste. But chef Noel Marshall has no doubt.

'If there's one thing we know on this island, it's crab.'


Jim Keeble travelled with British Airways ( Tel: 0845 77 333 77) which operates three flights a day to Washington from £394 plus £66.50 tax.

Car rental with Holiday Autos from £194 for a week's rental in July booked online at

From Washington DC, take Highway 495 east to 95 South, then Highway 50 south to Salisbury, then 13 south to 413 west to Crisfield. Approximate driving time: three hours.

By boat: Tangier Island Cruises run from Crisfield from May to October. Depart at 12.30pm and return at 4pm. £13 return, children free. 001 757 891-2240. Crossing takes approx an hour.

Accommodation: Shirley's Bay View Inn, PO Box 183, Tangier 23440 Tel: 001 757 891 2396. Double room with breakfast, £55 a night.

Fisherman's Corner Restaurant: 4419 Long Bridge Road, Tangier, Tel: 001 757 891 2900. Dinner for two: £33.

Tangier Island Information:

For more information call Virginia Tourism on 020 8651 4743 or for a free Washington DC And The Capital Region USA Guide, call 01234 764553.

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