Crustacean Crush

Recipe: Vintage Crab Cocktail

I lived on the East Coast for seven years, but I never really fell for lobster or lobster rolls. They’re good, particularly in Maine, along the coast, but they just never made me swoon. It’s not just a West Coast bias – I still dream of the fried clams on Cape Cod, for instance.

But when it comes to crustaceans, I am a Dungeness crab-girl. It’s a treat I will forever associate with trips to the beach as a kid, and the taste of the summer. The Washington coast Dungeness season typically runs from December through September.

Dungeness crabs are named for a bay on the south end of the Strait of Juan de Fuca – but their habitat ranges from California to Alaska. And they are just as prized at the southern end of their range as they are here in colder northern waters. Seafood Watch lists Washington, Oregon and California Dungeness crab as a ‘best choice’, while the Alaskan Dungeness unfortunately only rates a ‘good alternative’ label due to laxer management practices.

So, I’m careful that my crab is truly local.

For my parents, trips to the ocean had two important food rituals; the three hour drive was always followed by crab cocktail, eaten on-site at the roadside fish shack out of a plastic cup. And on the way back, a stop in Olympia for oysters. While they were never able to convince me to try the latter, I loved the crab doused in cocktail sauce and lemon juice. I loved it so much that I think I barely noticed when my Dad started slipping the classic horseradish into his homemade version.

My grandparents were dedicated clam diggers, and occasional crabbers. And while I didn’t mind going along on these trips, I quickly learned that a foraging trip to the Westport, (early risings, mist, rain and fog) wasn’t as much fun as the Oregon coast in July. But I loved it when my grandparents supplied us with fresh crab – a little bit of summer in the dead of winter.

My mother and I always did the plier intensive job of extracting the crab meat. But Dad always made the crab cocktail. And it’s still my favorite way to eat crab (with the addition of a couple green chilies) – the perfect formula, no matter whether the crab is served on bread, with crackers, rolled in greens, or in a cup.


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