- The Crabfather of Colington
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[End Page 118]
Murray Bridges, the proprietor of Endurance Seafood, was in his sock feet. He was sitting on a burgundy recliner in the den of his brick ranch house in Colington, North Carolina, near Kill Devil Hills on the Outer Banks. Bridges, now in his mid-eighties, specializes in soft-shell crabs, but he wasn't working on the water that day. He was able to receive visitors on this mid-April afternoon in 2016 because a nor'easter was pummeling the pollen-laden pines and blooming dogwoods outside. The sun was bright and the sky was crystalline blue, but the temperature was in the low fifties. Roanoke Sound was roiling with white caps all the way back to Mann's Harbor, on the mainland.
"We always get excited a little bit too early," Bridges said, in his Outer Banks brogue that made excited sound like "exsoited." "I set out pots to catch peelers a couple days ago, but if we have any in there, they won't be shedding now." He was referring to the coming season for soft-shell crabs, or "peelers" in the local parlance.1
Photographer Donna Campbell and I had come to the coast to witness the annual ritual of harvesting soft-shell crabs. This, our first visit to Endurance Seafood, was part of a year-long project to document local traditions that have developed around a dozen native foods—including scuppernongs, ramps, shad, and oysters—that help to define North Carolina's culture and culinary history.2
Usually in early May, North Carolina's blue crab population begins molting. These crustaceans—Callinectes sapidus, two Latin words meaning "beautiful swimmer" and "tasty"—outgrow their shells many times during their lives. When the molting process starts, the crabs help it along by taking additional seawater into their bodies so that eventually their shells crack. Then they slip slowly out of their old armor and begin at once to grow new, larger exoskeletons. In this soft-shell phase, the crabs are considered a delicacy. In many Asian kitchens, they will be prepared as sushi. In kitchens that serve traditional North Carolinian fare, soft-shell crabs are more likely to be pan-seared or breaded and deep-fried.
In a report published in 1985 from a national symposium on blue crab, experts admitted that they weren't quite sure when the soft-shell blue crab was first harvested and sold commercially in North Carolina, but landings of the creatures are recorded as far back as 1897. In the biennial report of the North Carolina Department of Conservation and Development from 1937, the government stated that Carteret County was the only place south of Virginia that produced soft-shell crabs in quantity, employing "significant numbers of people during the months of April and May." Most of the crabs harvested in those days were sold to vendors in Maryland. According to Bridges, the soft-shell business really didn't begin to scale up in North Carolina until some forty years ago.3
These days, North Carolina soft-shell crabs appear on menus statewide. Harvesting [End Page 119] and shipping techniques have grown much more sophisticated. For a long time, only coastal folk bothered to seize the moment of the crab's transformation and make a sandwich of it. Bridges said that people used to run across soft-shells in their crab pots or find them in the shallows and bring them home for dinner. Murray Bridges's wife, Brady, said that when she was a girl growing up in Colington, she would sometimes kick soft-shells out of the seagrass and sell them to Old Nags Head cottagers. But North Carolinians didn't catch them in quantity until Bridges and others learned that their counterparts in Virginia and Maryland were turning an especially handsome profit on soft-shells in the month of May—normally a slow period in the seafood cycle, when fishermen are waiting for the shrimping season to begin.
"I learned about soft-shells from the government's Sea Grant program," Bridges said. "They were going...