April 10

Soft-Shell Crabs

Whales. Crawfish Branch. Consomme. Non-Smoking. Larry the Lobster. Theroux. Tuna Trap. Tequila.

Yes, We Have Some Bananas

Today in 1633, greengrocer Thomas Johnson of Snow Hill in London displayed bananas in his shop window. They were the first bananas ever sold at retail in that country. Most people in England had never seen or tasted bananas, but heard enough about them to snap them up. Bananas would not become widely available in England for another 200 years.

Today's Flavor

Soft-Shell Crab Day. Soft-shell crabs are just beginning to appear right now. The early part of the season is best, with the biggest specimens we may see all year. Soft-shell crabs are almost absurdly delectable. Every creature that eats crabs relishes these. It's a wonder any crabs make it past that vulnerable stage. Soft-shell crabs are blue crabs that have just molted their too-small shells. Almost all the ones that come our way are farm-raised. (The wild ones hide very effectively, and finding one is dumb luck.) Soft-shell crab producers can tell when a crab is about to molt. As soon as it does, it's removed from the water. Otherwise, the shell stiffens and gets "papery."A crab increases its size by pumping up its tissues with water in the minutes after it sheds. If you ever see the process, you'll wonder how that crab could possibly have been in that old hard shell. Crabs get better as they get bigger. A gigantic soft-shell crab contains, among many other wonderful things, two massive jumbo lumps of a size one rarely gets in straight crabmeat dishes. One "whale" (as the biggest soft-shell crabs are known in the trade) is better than two smaller crabs.Cleaning a soft-shell crab for cooking is a bit involved. You cut off the face and rip out the gills (the "dead-man's fingers") and the sand sac. You can then proceed, but the crab will appear to have lost some corpulence. So some chefs stuff something inside to take the place of what came out. As for the actual cooking, no method beats deep-frying. I've occasionally had broiled or grilled soft-shell crabs that were as good as fried. But never better, and usually worse. From that point, nothing enhances a soft-shell crab more than napping it with a little brown butter and a pile of lump crabmeat on top.

Gourmet Gazetteer

Crawfish Branch enters Old Mines Creek sixty-five miles southwest of St. Louis. The branch drains some thousand-foot hills to the west, dropping about 300 feet in a half-mile. Most of Crawfish Branch has little flow, although it's muddy a lot of the time--which is what draws the crawfish for which it's named. The area is a mixture of farm fields and woods. Much evidence remains of the old mines of the creek name. These are lead mines originally dug by French explorers in the 1700s. If you follow Old Mines Creek for four miles, you'll come to Cedar Creek Diner, the nearest restaurant to Crawfish Branch. Don't get your heart set on crawfish; they don't eat them much in those parts.

Edible Dictionary

consomme, [KON-soh-may], French, n.--The king of clear soups, consomme begins as a carefully-made beef stock. It's then filtered by boiling through a raft of ground beef and egg whites, which remove all the particulate matter. A well-made consomme has an elegant mouthfeel because of a large amount of gelatin in it. The flavor is good, too, but because it's so pure it comes across as too simple to many eaters. Among chefs, consomme is a test of a cook's skill. Because of that, it shows up on more menus than it deserves to grace, because it's been a long time since it was actually popular. Neither its reputation nor lack of mainstream favor have anything to do with its goodness, however. A good consomme is very good indeed. Variations made with little cubes of vegetables, or the tomato-enriched madrilene version are also interesting.

Food And The Law

On this day in 1995, smoking was banned in all New York City restaurants with more than 35 seats. From that point, laws prohibiting smoking in restaurants spread. It took a dozen years for them to come here, but we're glad they did. Right now, some restaurants are complaining that the ban has had a negative effect on business. That happened in New York, too--initially. Sooner than anyone expected, volume was back up to (and beyond) levels from the smoking era.

Food On The Air

On this evening in 1982, in a skit on Saturday Night Live, Eddie Murphy pulled a large live lobster out of a tank, held him up to the cameras, and named him Larry. He then asked the audience whether they wanted Larry boiled and eaten, or whether Larry should be allowed to live. Giving the lobster a name was what decided that one. By the end of the show, the telephone voting from around the country gave Larry a reprieve, and he went on to live until he could collect residuals from the reruns of the show.

The Old Kitchen Sage Sez:

When with your food empathy you feel
You'll begin to dread your every meal.
For you to eat, something must die
But forget it! It's already said good-bye!

People We'd Like To Take To Dinner

Novelist Paul Theroux's birthday is today, in 1941. He mostly writes fiction now, but he came to my attention through two travel books. In both, he takes trains to the farthest points tracks lead. The Great Railway Bazaar goes from London through Asia. The Old Patagonian Express starts in Boston and ends in Mendoza, Argentina. He digs into the culture wherever he goes, and has much to say about the way people eat. To an extent, it was what Anthony Bourdain did, but thirty years before.

Annals Of Fishing

Today in 1989, a number of major American food distributors stopped selling canned tuna caught in nets that trapped (and then suffocated) dolphins. The move caused the price of tuna to rise a bit, but tuna from countries that did not accept the restriction went down dramatically, and for a time its sales actually went up. Now dolphin-safe tuna is the standard of the business. Progress is all around us.

Music To Drink Shots By

Today in 1958, The Champs' recording of Tequila hit Number One on the pop charts. It was essentially an instrumental, with the group saying "Tequila!" at the end of every few bars.

Food Namesakes

Relief pitcher Dan Quisenberry signed a lifetime contract with the Kansas City Royals today in 1985. . . Kirk Lowdermilk, pro football player, was born today in 1963. . . Bill Martini, former Congressman from New Jersey, was born today in 1947. . . Jay Cooke, an early American financier, was born today in 1821.

Words To Eat By

"Soft crabs are always fried (or broiled) in the altogether, with maybe a small jock-strap of bacon added."--H.L. Mencken.