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The Soft-Shell Crabs of Vermilion Bay

Words: Jeremy Conner
Photos: Denny Culbert

For Jeremy Conner’s recipe for soft-shell crab, click here

I moved to Louisiana eight years ago from the Florida panhandle. Around the same time, I became enamored with the idea of cooking the food that was produced near me instead of the broadline foodservice distributor’s products that came from far away.

Jeremy Conner Chef to Watch Soft Shells

I began seeking out local farmers and fishermen. I put about 30,000 miles on my truck that year driving all over South Louisiana looking for farm stands. I learned that if you talk to farmers, they will tell you the story of the food they grow, and if you share those stories with the people who eat the food, they find additional nourishment from knowing the origins of their meal.

I discovered new varieties of vegetables and learned about heritage animal breeds, but the pinnacle of this phenomenon happened when I first visited St. Mary Seafood in Franklin, Louisiana, near Cypremort Point.  There, I witnessed for the first time the origin of one of the true delicacies of the Gulf Coast: the soft-shell crab.

Crabs St. Mary's Jeremy Conner Louisiana

Just about everyone has tried them in one form or another: pan fried, in a po-boy, in a sushi roll.  More often than not, the crabs served are imported frozen from other countries, but if you’ve ever had them fresh, then you know what a treat they are.

I began making weekly trips to St. Mary Seafood, from the restaurant in Lafayette.  Each Wednesday afternoon, between the lunch and dinner shifts, I’d make the two hour round trip to pick up freshly harvested LIVE soft-shell crabs.  Many times I’d arrive as the just-caught crabs were being sorted at the dock.

Soft Shell Crab in Tank

The men sorting the crabs were looking for a small red line on the rear, flipper shaped leg of the crabs.  This is an indication that the crab has outgrown its shell and is about to molt.  These “red-liners” or “busters” are separated from the rest of the crabs and moved inside to the sorting facility where they are placed in wide shallow tanks.

Skilled workers carefully watch the tanks waiting for the first signs of a molt.  When it happens, the crab is moved to another tank reserved for molters only.  The crab slowly backs out of a crack in the previous shell and begins forming a new one.  The ideal crab is one that has just begun the first hint of a new shell so that it’s not too delicate to handle, but not too much of a shell so that it is as soft as possible.

When the crabs are just right, they are removed from the water and carefully stacked next to each other in a shallow box and refrigerated.  Once I had paid the friendly lady in the office, I would walk over to the facility and choose my box of crabs.  I remember I’d lightly touch them or blow on them and watch them react with slow movement of their claws, front legs, and mouth parts.  What a wonderful indicator of freshness!

Soft Shell Crab To Go

When returning to the restaurant, the staff would usually crowd around the box as I placed it in the cooler to see the size and beauty of the haul.  The best part of that weekly trip was knowing I was bringing the freshest seafood in town back to my restaurant to serve to my guests.  A close second was knowing that while I was making a connection to the people who harvested those awesome ingredients, I was saving serious money by sourcing them myself.

Recently, I visited St. Mary Seafood with some friends and had the pleasure of meeting the owner, Mr. Daniel Edgar.  He’s been in business there for over 30 years, and has all the stories about the Louisiana seafood industry to prove it.  He designed the facility himself and even built the custom water circulation system with imported coral as a biological filtration medium.  Mr. Edgar serves on the state seafood board and really is one of the faces of the Louisiana seafood industry.  It’s a pleasure to support him and his business by eating and serving one of the true treasures of our coastal foodways.

Jeremy Conner Chefs to Watch Seafood Market

2017-01-12T13:07:27+00:00

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