September 14, 2011
Trying to be truthful.
One of my island pals recently learned that I’d never been crabbing. If the view out your NYC window is another NYC window directly across a dark sooty air shaft, or, if it’s a billowing wheat field somewhere in the Midwest, then you may have no idea what “crabbing” is. I certainly didn’t, prior to moving up to this island with the theme from Green Acres in my head, as I pondered Eva Gabor’s wardrobe choices for that all-important transition from Park Avenue to the farm. That about sums up my life.
Upon hearing of my deprived and clearly uneducated existence, my aforementioned island pal immediately invited me to come along on his sunset paddle to retrieve the crab pot he’d lowered to the sea floor earlier that day. As keen as my awareness was of the pile of work that had to get out the door, just as keen was my awareness of the now balmy but fleeting summer. That latter keenness won my internal debate, and instead of the work getting out the door, I did.
Notice the hi-tech driftwood boat ramp for superior launching.
Gleefully settling my 116 pounds into the very front triangle of the dented 1948 Grumman aluminum canoe, I was to be both the on-board photo journalist, and the ballast. My friend mostly paddles solo, and usually dumps a pile of stones where I now sat. Matter-of-factly, he declared that I was “prettier than a rock.” I was touched. We were off to a fine start.
The wind had picked up enough to offer small waves that bounced us along as we spotted the markers where his pot was sunk. In it dangled the bait of turkey legs; a Thanksgiving meal (or, last supper) for the Dungeness crabs that entered the one-way metal cage. Females are lucky; they get a free dinner and are returned to the sea. But males are fair game. As my friend hoisted the pot, many, many sets of legs (each crab has ten) waved in the air; it appeared that he’d thrown a rave party with a great buffet. But that wild bash turned out to be a sorority meeting: crab after crab he picked up was a female.
I called this one Houdini.
One lucky girl-crab, headed back home.
Morty was impressively large– at least 16 inches across. An elder statesman, at probably over six years old. He was wise. He was beautiful.
And he was about to be my dinner.
We returned to shore just as the full sun sank and the full moon rose above the trees, and loaded the truck back up with pots, paddles, seat pads and PFDs. Last to get in and buckle up for the bumpy ride back to my house was the guest of honor, sloshing in a plastic bucket filled with a mixture of seawater and hard cider. Yes, you read that right. My friend insisted that the alcohol would calm the crab down and, mercifully, make him a little drunk. It seemed to me that we’d need a few more shots of bourbon in there to do the trick. Peering down into the bucket, I asked in my best New York accent, “Hey, Morty– you want another round? How ’bout a slice to go wit dat beer? Maybe a pretzel or sumptin’?”
“Don’t converse with your dinner.”
My friend was cautioning me, even scolding me. He knew that I’d never cooked a live creature before.
I looked up at him with a very mixed emotion of delight for having caught a meal without a shopping cart, and remorse for my catch-of-the-day’s immediate future.
He added, “You would have made a lousy 4H kid.”
For the uninitiated reading this: those are the sweet farm children who lovingly raise Bertha the pig for years and then send her off to slaughter, presumably without shedding a single bacon-flavored tear.
My friend, growing increasingly impatient with me as I made cute faces at Morty, warned that talking to the crab was not going to make this easier. Nor would it result in particularly engaging conversation, for that matter.
Back at Shapiro Kitchen Stadium, we readied some lavash bread to create a pizza that would support our secret main ingredient. Well, at least it was a secret to Morty, who floated around patiently in the bucket as I grated fresh mozzarella and chopped organic basil. A large pot of water boiled. And finally, it was time.
I was right about needing more booze. Not just for Morty, but for me.
My friend reached into the bucket with woefully small tongs that were intended for tossing a small garden salad rather than the Loch Ness monster. Morty was not about to go gentle into that good pot. He flailed. My friend flailed. The whole thing soon became reminiscent of the lobster scene in Annie Hall, complete with me grabbing my camera. Then Morty, in defense of what little honor he had left, finally reached up with his big long claw and solidly nabbed my pal on the thumb, clamping down on it for quite some time until being released back into the bucket, along with the set of tongs he was now grasping like a hard-earned trophy.
Atta boy, Morty. You show ’em!
“I want to thank the Academy…”
With the crab now firmly in control of the tongs, we went for Plan B: two equally under-powered plastic serving spoons. Geez, this was becoming pathetic. Despite his valiant efforts, Morty, not nearly drunk enough for all these shenanigans, ended up in the pot. It was a quick demise, thankfully.
I promise, dear, gentle reader: it was instant.
I was about to start another conversation with the fella.
I almost didn’t post this since it’s a tad cruel. Yet, truthful.
As I Neosporin-ed and Bandaid-ed my friend’s digit, we both agreed that Morty’s attack was entirely justified, and that we would have tried to do far more damage had it been us being prodded with stupid kitchen utensils.
Dinner was, of course, delicious, and we thanked our crab for giving us this meal. But I couldn’t stave off a sadness and a lingering feeling that, given my numerous supermarket choices, his passing was avoidable.
After doing the dishes I walked outside with the shell and leavings of my crustacean acquaintance. I respectfully scattered Morty’s remains on a rock on the other side of my desk window and thanked him for feeding me, my friend, and whoever now may come along. When I awoke, shell pieces were strewn and it was evident that others shared the supper leftovers. In the morning as I sipped my coffee, a crow was eating crab’s legs. Morty’s legs.
“Now this is what I call a decent brunch!”
And that evening at sunset, after I put out the last bits of shell from the crab leftovers I enjoyed for lunch, a fox demonstrated his appreciation for the seafood platter.
I even tossed out the last crab-infused edges of the pizza the following morning, thus expanding the culinary horizons of one very pleased seagull:
This all made me happy. I wanted to make sure every bit of ol’ Morty was put to good use.
I have not eaten meat or birds in over twenty years, not out of any overriding moral dissent, but due to my revulsion at factory farming. I take no issue with hunting what you need to feed your own family; that’s how it used to be and that’s the proper balance for the planet. Humans are omnivores; we have these sharp, powerful teeth for a reason and it’s not just because broccoli stems can be a little tough. We are designed to consume other animals.
I continue to eat seafood. So why is it that I wrestle so deeply with the concept of willingly ending another creature’s life? Why did I weep a little last night before falling asleep? Living in the spot I do, I observe animals killing and eating other animals virtually every day. Right in front of me, through my desk window, as I compose. An interesting juxtaposition, to be sure.
A sampling of my daily visual fare? Ducks and cormorants pop up to the ocean surface stuffing writhing fish into their gullets. Seagulls flit around with urchins and crabs dangling from their beaks. Bald eagles swoop down before my eyes and carry a young gull away in their sharp talons. I watch foxes trotting along with limp baby bunnies clutched in their jaws. Seals voraciously devour large Pacific Red octopus, ripping apart the beautiful tentacles. The resident orca whales consume vast numbers of Chinook salmon, and yes, the transient orcas eat sea lions (I’m happy to report that I have not witnessed this. Yet.). Indeed, they are known to the public as “killer whales.”
And all this time as you’ve read my bucolic blog posts over the years, you thought life here was just comprised of adorable critters and gorgeous sunsets.
Not one of these creatures shows any mercy, nor do they show a hint of remorse. Of course not. Why would they? This is how they, like us, are naturally designed.
What separates [some] humans from animals is a particular layer of empathy; for unknown reasons, we possess the DNA for squeamishness and regret. I’ve always referred to myself as a food hypocrite: I eat lots of fish and seafood that I purchase in a neatly cleaned and cooking-ready format, but have never been able to bring myself to hook and clean a fish, or dunk a lobster in boiling water.
So now I’ve experienced my first kill.
And I’m still squeamish, and regretful.
And I will still continue to eat fish and seafood.
Humans are a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.
Which is then stuffed into a crab shell.
I am uncomfortably contradictory, and besieged with the oxymoron of being a “pescaterian”: a fish-eating vegetarian.
Thank you, Morty, for so, so much. You encouraged deep thought, in addition to making one helluva pizza.