Food & Drink

Southern Secret: The Pea Crab

For many oyster lovers, this small orange crab is a happy surprise

So you wrenched open a fresh, local oyster and out peeked an orange crab the size of a small house spider. If you don’t know what’s going on, the experience might be enough to turn you off shellfish forever. But for many oyster lovers, the pea crab is a happy surprise.

It isn’t so bad for the oyster, either. Although the gill-dwelling crab is a parasite that steals food from its host, oysters in plankton-rich waters can handle eating for two. “We’ve never once opened an oyster with a pea crab in it and seen less-than-stellar meat,” says Travis Croxton of Rappahannock Oyster Company in Topping, Virginia. “Oysters are living animals in living ecosystems, and pea crabs are actually a sign that everything is healthy.”

Some areas are friendlier to pea crabs than others, of course. “Crab Slough oysters, from North Carolina, might’ve gotten their name that way,” says Rowan Jacobsen, author of the upcoming reference, The Essential Oyster. “You’ll sometimes get a bushel where every one has a crab.”

A freshly roasted oyster—and pea crab.

A freshly roasted oyster—and pea crab.

And if you toss that crab aside, you’ll miss out on a sweet, crunchy treat. Edible raw or cooked, they deserve better than a flick into obscurity.

“A lot of the industry guys eat them,” Jacobsen says. So, once, did such gourmands as George Washington, who reportedly liked them sprinkled over his oyster soup. An oft-cited 1907 New York Times article dubbed the crustacean a marine delicacy, opining that each one has “all the sweetness and delicate salt flavors of the entire crab family concentrated in its tiny body.”

“Old timers around here will save the crabs and cook them all at once when they get enough,” Croxton says. “I’ve been thinking we should start saving our pea crabs and do a nightly special: one bowl of crabs.”

Still, it’s policy in many restaurants to toss them in the trash for fear of scaring customers. That’s a shame.

“When you sauté them in butter,” Jacobsen says, “they taste like popcorn crabs.”