Thursday, March 26, 2009

Letting the Crab Out of the Bag

The phrase “crabs in a bag” always meant one of two things to me:

1. A hot brown paper bag that fills your car with the smell of old bay while driving back from the crab house.

2. A bad joke about venereal diseases.

Then Marcy introduced me to meaning # 3. While checking out a food market in Chinatown in Las Vegas, she found a Doritos-sized bag stuffed with crabs. These things aren’t made by Keebler elves in a hollow tree – they’re real, baby crabs, each about an inch wide. Their shells, claws, and innards are all intact.

It was a no-brainer for Marcy to buy these things for me. They combine two of my favorite things: crabs and weird Asian food.

And I wanted to like them. The Japanese manufacturer, Shokuhin Company, markets them as a snack for Tokyo businessmen to eat while getting drunk after work. The bright yellow bag reads, “Let’s Party,” and, in Japanese, “A time spent with fun companions – come on now, all together!”

I was riled up and ready to party, but then I took a bite. Have you ever eaten crabs and been reminded of crackerjacks stuffed with dried fish? Me neither. These “crabs” – processed in food coloring, MSG, corn syrup, and sugar – tasted nothing like crabs. The smell was like a fish market at closing time Sunday night, or a horseshoe crab washed up on the beach. And at the bottom of the bag, no owl whistle or 3-D picture of a deep sea treasure.

Shokuhin calls them “Roasted Crab Meisaku.” According to my crack research team (Google), meisaku can either mean masterpiece, or interesting. I’m going with interesting.

The only upside of this snack food was that it motivated me to go out and get the real thing. Even though the commercial crab season doesn’t start until April 1, I needed a salt-of-the-earth crab house. I needed it immediately.

I rocketed my Civic through the sedate streets of suburban Maryland and found myself at Bethesda Crab House, the self-proclaimed second-oldest restaurant in Bethesda. Perfect. The restaurant was completely empty, and I sincerely hoped that all their customers weren’t at home getting wasted and eating crackerjack crabs. I grabbed a mallet and it wasn’t long before my back ached from leaning so enthusiastically over a pile of fresh crustaceans. Slathered in tomale, I told Frank, the weathered guy at the bar who looked more Dundalk than Bethesda, about my roasted crabs “party” earlier that day. “Sounds disgusting,” he said.

It was hard to imagine that these delicately textured, increasingly rare creatures belonged to the same species as their processed, maltose-soaked kin. Then it hit me: Shokuhin is taking perfectly healthy baby crabs, and instead of letting them flourish to their tasty adult potential, turning them into the Japanese equivalent of beer nuts.

So, shouldn’t this be a felony?

Crab-loving Marylanders would say yes. Since 1990, the Chesapeake Bay’s crab population decreased from 791 million to 260. And U.S. environmental groups have long said that overfishing of crabs is a major factor in the blue crab’s decline.

I don’t know where Shokuhin gets their crabs, but I did some research into Japan’s record on overfishing, and it reads like Saddam Hussein’s record on killing countrymen. Their legacy of exploiting fish populations goes at least as far back as the 1930s, when the Japanese all but annihilated the red king crabs of the eastern Bering Sea. In 1964, the U.S. had to arrange a bilateral fishing agreement with Japan, and the agreement notes the “historical fact that nationals and vessels of Japan have over a long period of years exploited the king crab resource.”

Although that agreement provided some protection for king crabs, other subspecies weren’t as lucky. In the mid-1990s, snow crabs got popular in Japan, and the country’s fisheries were willing to pay top dollar and go anywhere in the world to get them. They settled on the North Pacific coast, casting their nets from Washington to Alaska. Predictably, they overfished, and the snow crab disappeared.

All just so the Japanese can get their crabs and beer out of the same vending machine?

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