Soft shell crabs are a delicacy enjoyed by many folks along the North Carolina coast, although they may seem unappetizing to those not familiar with this culinary delight.
Soft-shell crabs have recently molted, leaving their old exoskeleton behind. Crabs must be removed from the water as soon as they molt or a new hard shell will develop within hours. When crabs are soft, almost the entire animal, less the mouth parts, gills and abdomen, can be eaten. Cooks usually deep fry or sauté soft shell crabs.
Nowadays, commercial fishermen typically catch blue crabs, then hold them in saltwater tanks if they want soft shells. As soon as the crabs molt, they are removed from the water, which stops a new hard shell from forming.
Ellen Marie Cloud, in her book, Portsmouth the Way it Was, recounts a 1963 interview with Miss Mattie Gilgo (1885-1976) by her grandson, Julian Gilgo. While discussing the several salt water ditches in Portsmouth village, Julian remarks, "There's been a many a soft crab caught in them ditches, ain't they? On high tide they come up them ditches. I caught a many one with a rake, myself."
If you've never tasted soft shell crab, be sure to order some the next time you see them on a menu!
Our latest Ocracoke Newsletter is a history of the Ocracoke Lighthouse,
with information (and an artist's sketch) about the earliest lantern room. You can read the
Newsletter here: http://www.villagecraftsmen.com/ocracoke-lighthouse/.