How to Eat Crabs with Your Mother-in-Law

3 min

Kaitlin Barker Davis is a writer from Portland, Oregon, where she lives with her husband and daughter. Her essays are mostly curious about what it means to travel through the world as a woman, whethe  [+]

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Originally published in Creative Nonfiction magazine's Sunday Short Reads series

© Short Édition - All Rights Reserved


At exactly 5:50 p.m., your mother-in-law will anxiously announce, "Someone needs to go get the crabs right now!" When you first met her, shortly after meeting her son, you called her by her first name, an accidental faux pas for which you reluctantly apologized. These things happen when you drop a West Coaster onto the Eastern Shore of Maryland. You recovered, achieving first-name basis soon after. Accompany your husband to pick up the half-bushel of steamed crabs from One Fish Two Fish, the local seafood shop. Note the sign scrawled in red marker behind the cashier: Not responsible for orders picked up 15 minutes late! Now you understand her urgency.


Your father-in-law will dump the crabs—dusted with Old Bay Seasoning that looks like crumbling rust—in a pile on the newspaper-covered kitchen table. Except for crab night, dinner is almost always in the formal dining room. Take your seat beside your husband, across from your mother-in-law. Adjust your tank top so your small tattoo of the Pleiades isn't showing. It's been pretty easy to hide, since you live on opposite coasts. Tear off a few paper towels; pass the roll. Take some saltines; pass the sleeve.


"Oh my dear," your mother-in-law will trill as she watches you struggle with your crab, "you'll go to bed hungry tonight!" Smile because it's true. Maryland blue crabs are intimidating, and you only get to the good stuff—the lump meat—if you do your pickin' just right. This is only your second time partaking in this summer ritual. The first time, the summer after you started dating her son, her coral, manicured fingernails picked out every bit of crabmeat you ate. Ask her to remind you how to dismantle a crab. Let her pass on her wisdom. "I can't help it," she'll say, excusing her momentary lapse in refinery, "I just love crab!" She digs in, wielding her picking knife with an artist's expertise.


First, yank out the legs. Your mother-in-law will demonstrate, holding a handful out to you. Suck the meat out and toss the legs on the discard pile. Twist the claws off last. Give those to your father-in-law. He's the master claw meat remover, the perfect job for a retired judge: quiet, meticulous, gently tapping his wooden mallet along the legs. He won't mention that the last time you saw each other you were seven weeks pregnant. That one month later, you weren't.


Separate the top shell from the bottom. Keep the top nearby so you can dab your fingers in Old Bay dust. Flip the crab on its back to find the apron, the narrow triangle running halfway up the underbelly. Wedge your knife under that. Peel it back. Your mother-in-law can complete this whole step in one deft motion.


Clean the crab out. All that soft yellow stuff—that's fat, don't eat it. More dangerous are the gills, the devil's fingers. "Never eat these," your mother-in-law will remind you. She'll scrape the gray lungs out, flinging them atop the mounting pile of shells.


Crack what's left of the crab in half. Divide the halves, exposing the soft, delicious meat. Now you should dig that out with a picking knife or a fingernail, but you are still fumbling with your quartered crab, hungry and staining your hands orange with Old Bay. "There you go," your mother-in-law will say, pushing her crab toward you. Let her split open crabs and drop the meat in front of you. Even though you've been married to her son for five years, you want to make a good impression.


But you also want to show her that you can pick your own crab. It's a common dynamic, the assertion of identity and autonomy. When you wanted your husband to take your last name like you were taking his. When she let you know she didn't approve. When she later apologized for calling you a women's libber. Grab a crab from the pile, rip off the legs, suck out the meat. Remove the apron, scrape out the devil's fingers. She will laugh when you ask if you'll die from accidentally licking your fingers.


You need to break the shell just right to expose the lump meat. The best part of the crab. A delicacy. A few days ago, while boiling ears of corn, your mother-in-law brought up your miscarriage, told you everything was going to work out. Tears stung your eyes first, then hers for upsetting you. You'd never cried in front of each other. Peel back the remaining shell to reveal the tender meat.


Announce your victory. Your mother-in-law will drop her crab and reach her uncharacteristically messy hand across the table for a high five. She will give your fingers a quick squeeze, then let go to pick up her next crab.


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Image of Marie Quinio
Marie Quinio · ago
When dismantling a crab helps you stepping forward in a non-communicating family (small talks around the table hide deeper thoughts, though), technical automatic gestures you have to learn to belong here and to cope with what happened, as action helps healing... The mother-in-law may have gone through the same sad experience and shows the path to overcome it, while guiding her...? Motherhood/sorority magic, when you need a hand (from the crab legs to the high five ;)
Nice metaphor for an empty shell like her belly... love the way you write!

Image of J. Raynaud
J. Raynaud · ago
DELICIOUS ! Congrats for these words !

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