Cracking Crabs

Ryan Scott
→ EFS 2026

↥ Ryan Scott (EFS 2026), Red When Boiled, acrylic paint and Old Bay spice

When eating chicken nuggets, can you even decipher any structure of the animal? Is fish on a plate just a faceless slab of meat? Today, the distance between creature and consumer has been stretched so far that there hardly remains a connection to the animal itself anymore. The meat we eat in the West seldom comes to us in its original form and shape, rarely resembling once living beings. Feathers are plucked, heads are removed, and most often limbs are divided into plastic-wrapped containers to be sold in separate pieces; it is a dead, marketable product. However, one sphere of food consumption has remained the same since its discovery—crabs.

Coming from Maryland, I have grown up witnessing my state’s culture dominated by crab iconography. Stickers, T-shirts, coolers, hats, sports logos, and almost anything else you can think of features crabs in some form. Additionally, the flag of Maryland itself and the famous seafood spice “Old Bay” envelop much of our identity along with our relationship with the Chesapeake blue crab. We deify the animal, but at the same time, we love to eat them.

“Cracking” crabs is a truly barbaric practice. While you might just take a bite of chicken or a slice of ham and so on, eating crab is a far more complex process, one that cannot be mechanized. In this tradition, you have to take in the image of the crab as a whole and systematically dismantle it, limb from limb. Your hands become the tools that transform this living body into an amorphous, consumable product. Every part of the animal is important and must be taken care of in a certain way as to not waste a gram of meat.

The tools of the trade: wooden hammers and metal crackers, reminiscent of medieval torture devices, are used to split claws and snap legs. After pulling out what little crab meat is in the legs, next comes the main attraction, the body of the crab. Using a fork, knife, or sometimes a finger with a long nail, you “pop” open the bottom of the body, separating the soft underbelly from the hard upper shell. At this point you remove the sex organs and other miscellaneous guts that would be harmful to digest. Next, the body is flipped over, and the entire top shell is ripped off like the lid of a soup can. Then the gills are removed along with a mysterious yellow head gunk that is affectionately referred to by Marylanders as “mustard.” Then with your thumbs on either side of the hollowed-out body, the whole thing is split in half and the meat inside is free to be picked clean. The technique and strategy needed to successfully crack a crab exists in an interesting dichotomy between calculated cracks and snaps contrasted with animalistic scraping and digging in search of edible meat.

In the end, the meat extracted from a blue crab never equals the amount of effort that went into harvesting it. Other species like Alaskan king crab yield much higher volumes in crab meat, especially in the legs, but smaller ones have much less return on investment. So, as I have often asked myself, why do we do this?

To me, it seems that while you may be ripping out the guts and snapping the legs of a boiled crustacean, you are almost always doing it surrounded by a group of friends or family. For as long as I can remember, my family has bought a couple bushels of blue crab every summer and celebrated a nice warm evening with crabs, beer, wiffle ball, and familial bonding.

The act of cracking is less about a desire for nourishment and more about the generational  tradition and practices you learn from others. Where on a claw is ideal for a soft crack, what order to eat the legs in, and what parts not to eat are all things older family members teach you when growing up learning how to pick crabs. The iconography of the crab embodies what my childhood and Maryland is to me, so through a strategic and respectful dismantling of this image, the connection to the meal transcends what’s on the plate.

Furthermore, much of the food industry today, from harvest all the way to packaging, is done by machines. Cold metal and rubber tubes have replaced the hands of small-town milk farmers. Assembly lines and conveyor belts with twisting robotic limbs package cans and frozen meats with little to no input from a human being. However, no machine can pick a crab, and probably none ever will. The act of delicately cracking crab legs is so intrinsically unique and varied from crab to crab that only human hands will ever be able to interact with crabs in this way and gain something more than scraps of white meat to be packed into plastic tubes.

So, if ever granted the chance, pull up a chair to a newspaper-covered table, soak your hands in butter, cover your fingers in spice, and learn how to crack a crab. As macabre as splitting animals in two is, anyone can share the experience of gathering to indulge in a practice that defines who we are, not only as Marylanders, but human beings, yearning to grow closer together and closer to the animal through an intimate exchange of tradition. Residing in a balance between mechanical, violent labor and communal tenderness, what makes us who we are is defined by this dichotomy. We are aggressive, strategic, and hungry by nature yet capable of forming strong bonds through community and shared practices. By examining this heritage, the meaning of cracking crabs transcends the table and infuses itself into true human connection through something as common as sharing a meal.

Ryan Scott has too many movies on his watchlist.