As Americans there are certain holiday food traditions many of us share: turkey at Thanksgiving, gingerbread at Christmas. But in addition to these commonalities, regional specialties, from tamales in Texas to kalua turkeys in Hawaii, contribute local flavor to our celebrations. In the San Francisco Bay Area, the holiday table wouldn’t be complete without Dungeness crabs.
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This succulent bottom-feeder was first harvested commercially from the San Francisco/Bodega Bay waters in the mid-1800s, and Bay Area residents have been feasting on its sweet meat ever since.
The region’s commercial crab fishing season opens just before Thanksgiving and lasts only as long as the crabs do. Often, the supply runs out not long after the ringing in of the New Year. With such a short season, Northern Californians strive to eat as many Dungeness crabs as possible before they disappear — and what better time to do it than the holidays?
Unlike the ubiquitous Thanksgiving turkey, Dungeness crabs are not associated with a particular winter holiday. Some people have them for Christmas, others for New Year’s Eve, or even Black Friday.
For Joy Sterling, whose family owns Iron Horse Vineyards in western Sonoma County, Thanksgiving is the best time for crabs. “Our tradition is to start with cold, cracked Dungeness crab fresh from Bodega Bay, just 13 miles from us as the crow flies,” she said. It’s served buffet style, as a pre-turkey appetizer, along with the winery’s unoaked Chardonnay. “We like a traditional Louis dressing, which is a Northern California invention, sliced Meyer lemons, bright Rangpur limes and regular limes.”
At the Stony Point location of Oliver’s Market in Santa Rosa, people begin lining up at 6:30 a.m. on Christmas Eve to buy Dungeness crabs for their holiday feasts. Before the day is over, the store will easily sell 1,000 pounds of crab. “It takes at least an hour to get through the line,” crab-lover Kelly Keagy of Santa Rosa said, “but people are nice and in a good mood.”
Keagy’s family has been eating crabs on Christmas Eve for the last 10 years, accompanied by warm sourdough bread and salad. “When the kids were little, crab wouldn’t have been high on their list of favorite foods,” she said. “Now that everybody is older, crab and Champagne are the highlights of our Christmas Eve.”
Supply and demand
Having a family tradition of eating Dungeness crabs at Thanksgiving can be a bit risky, due to supply fluctuations. Some would even call it foodhardy.
“Three things can affect availability at Thanksgiving,” said Scott Lenhart, founder of San Francisco Crabs, which supplies live Dungeness crabs to individuals, restaurants and retailers. “One is a bad crab season, or something like the oil spill a few years ago where they don’t catch any. Second, there can be strikes, when crab fishermen are negotiating for pricing. Then you can also have horrendous weather.”
International orders can also cut into the local crab supply. “China’s taken a huge amount of crab from us, and that’s one reason the prices are going up,” Lenhart said. “There’s a huge Asian market for Dungeness crab for special occasions, and for the rising middle class.”
And because Northern California’s Dungeness crab season opens before those in Oregon and Alaska, out-of-state crabbers head south to get an early start. “They come to our waters and scour our crabs,” Lenhart said.
Even so, he always has Dungeness crabs on his Thanksgiving table. “I’ve been having Dungeness crab with turkey for a long time,” he said. The crabs are simply boiled with a little sea salt, and eaten without embellishment. “You don’t need garlic or butter. It’s good right out of the pot as soon as it’s cool enough to eat.”
Getting creative with crabs
At Nick’s Cove Restaurant, in the town of Marshall on Tomales Bay, executive chef Austin Perkins gives Dungeness crabs a gourmet twist. For the restaurant’s annual Thanksgiving dinner, as an alternative to the traditional turkey entrée, he serves up wood-fired whole Dungeness crab with fingerling potatoes and rosemary butter.
“Dungeness is a little bit sweeter and a lot milder than most other types of crab,” Perkins said. “We use it in many different ways at the restaurant, from crab cakes to our Dungeness crab mac and cheese.”
For those boiling crabs at home, he offered this advice: “After cooking, you need to remove the top part of the crab’s shell and remove all the intestines. After that, look for grayish gills on the sides and scrape those away as well.” Then the crab is ready to crack and eat, or use in a recipe.
Although Lenhart of San Francisco Crabs prefers his Dungeness crabs unadorned, he said he also likes them deep fried, or simmered in cioppino, San Francisco’s signature fish stew. “There’s nothing wrong with ginger crab at a nice Chinese restaurant, either,” he said. “But for Thanksgiving, you don’t need any sauces. You just can’t beat it.”
Nick’s Cove Dungeness Crab Cakes
Cooking Time: About 6 minutes per batch (3 minutes per side)
Yield: 6 servings
3/4 pound Dungeness crab meat, cooked and shelled
2 cups mayonnaise
2 tablespoons Old Bay seasoning
1 teaspoon salt
1/8 cup panko bread crumbs, plus an additional 1/2 cup for coating
Oil for pan frying (preferably rice bran oil or vegetable oil)
Spicy Paprika Aioli (recipe below)
Arugula and shaved fennel
1. Place all ingredients in a large bowl and combine with hands until thoroughly mixed.
2. Weigh out 1 1/2 ounce portions and form them into cakes.
3. Roll cakes to coat in more panko, and brown them on the top and bottom surfaces in a hot sauté pan coated with oil (about 3 tablespoons, enough to cover the bottom of the pan).
4. Serve with Spicy Paprika Aioli, arugula and shaved fennel.
Spicy Paprika Aioli
Yield: About 1 cup
1 cup mayonnaise
2 tablespoons smoked paprika
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 tablespoon cayenne pepper
1/2 tablespoon salt
Whisk everything together to combine.
Main photo: A live Dungeness crab. Credit: David Gomez/iStock