Jonah Crabs Claw Their Way Up in Culinary Credibility
BY SYLVIE BIGAR
The Anna-Mary is just a dangling light far out on the ocean where water and sky join at this dark hour. Only the sound of the motor alerts the seagulls on the dock. It’s 4 AM in Montauk, and as most fishermen busy themselves preparing to launch, the Anna-Mary, skillfully led by its captain, “Little Anthony” Sosinski, is coming home after two days and two nights spent suspended over the waves, about 50 miles south of Block Island, a nine-hour journey.
Heavy with living cargo, the hull of the 45-foot fishing vessel sits low in the water. As soon as the boat docks, a bundle of energy and muscle jumps out of the cabin. Long blond hair with piercing blue-green eyes, Sosinski, 44, could have sprung from the pages of GQ if his orange PVC overalls and cutoff T-shirt were being spotted on the runways at Fashion Week. “Don’t get bit,” he yells to the shadows of the taciturn men who wait patiently, drag on their cigarettes, and lean on the well-worn wooden railing that frames the pier—like albatross about to pounce. Twice a week, they drive their rickety truck all the way from New York’s Chinatown, for an encounter with the captain of the Anna-Mary.
And suddenly, the three tanks carved under the deck of the ship come alive. Hundreds of humongous Jonah crabs, their ferocious claws red and black with fury, start crawling away, but the fishermen are faster. Armed with long hand nets, Sosinski’s partner John Aldridge and “Stretch,” an almost seven-foot-tall crewman scoop out the crabs, perhaps 15 or 20 at a time and transfer them to plastic bushel baskets. With an elegant and powerful swing he has perfected since he bought his boat six years ago, Sosinski balances the baskets on the dock to meet their fate in steam kettles around Manhattan.
A few years ago, Sosinski would not have given Jonah crabs the time of day. He was a bona fide lobsterman; today, he is a crabber. As fish and shellfish numbers continue to steadily dwindle, some fishermen drop out altogether, but others refuse to imagine another life and find creative ways to adapt. “You see, Jonah means bad luck,” he explains. “In the past, if we found Jonah crabs in our traps, it meant we caught crabs instead of lobsters and we were losing money.” Other sources believe the name “Jonah” came from the fact that the crabs have been known to survive the stomachs of whales.
Born in Brooklyn of Italian and Polish descent, Sosinski doesn’t remember when he first stepped onto a boat. But he remembers decades of abundant lobsters swarming in his homemade traps. He is convinced that the fluctuations in lobster population are due to pollution. “Every single person is responsible,” he says. “It drips from the lawns, the laundry, the septic systems. And we saw a huge drop in lobsters when the authorities started spraying against the West Nile Virus.”
On this recent trip, the Anna-Mary brought back 5,000 pounds of male crabs (females are tossed back) and 700 pounds of lobster, and as usual, the whole load was sold before the boat left the harbor.
Jonah crabs (cancer borealis) are indigenous to North America and regularly harvested off the coasts of Maine, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts. Sosinski claims he is the only fisherman off Montauk who specializes in this crab. “Today, we get 85 cents per pound for crabs and $6.50 for lobsters, but when we switched to crabbing in 2006, crabs were 40 cents per pound,” he explains.
What’s driving the price up? Chefs and diners.
Seafood lovers have been eating crabs for centuries wherever the spider-like creatures roam, but many die-hard addicts claim that the history of crab claws in the United States starts down South—in Miami Beach to be exact. Today’s restaurant-revelers may feel that there’s always been a Joe’s Stone Crab in Miami Beach, but plump claws full of white, sweet meat were only added to the menu in 1921, when a Harvard ichthyologist pushed open the door of Joe’s, a hip seafood restaurant on the beach, and asked owner Joseph Weiss if he’d ever thought about serving local crabs. Not even sure how to prepare them, Weiss answered, “No one will eat them!”
But after he was convinced to boil a few, he cracked the claws and tried one. He changed his mind. And the crab claw fad was born.
Weiss and his descendants did extremely well both in terms of sales and marketing. It’s fair to say that he promoted the crab claw from a backwater crustacean to literally, a golden ticket. According to Bart Molin, CEO and partner at Gra-Bar Fish, a key seafood distributor in Westbury, Long Island, “Today, stone crab claws sell for about $24 a pound—wholesale!”
Enter superstar chef Todd Mitgang of Manhattan’s Crave Ceviche Bar fame and South Edison, the haute seafood shack in Montauk now helmed by executive chef Roy Wohlars. “We had just opened South Edison, and Melanie, one of our favorite waitresses kept badgering me, ‘You know, my dad is a fisherman here. If you ever want to meet him, just let me know.’” Mitgang kept saying no, explaining with a little condescendence perhaps, “We already have a fish purveyor, Melanie.”
In reality, Mitgang loved connecting with local farmers and fishermen, but he had recently been “burned,” attempting to work with nearby purveyors who couldn’t deliver consistently. However, the waitress kept at it, and he finally agreed to meet her father, Little Anthony. “He was so charismatic, so full of passion,” said Mitgang. “He dropped a bucket full of crab claws and we loved them—so sweet and meaty.” Also, because they were so much cheaper than stone crabs, the chef was able to offer them for a reasonable price, and diners were thrilled.
To honor Sosinski and his boat, the chef devised a sort of Bloody Mary and named it Lil’ Anna-Mary’s Mary. The list of ingredients is too long to print, but as in all the food that emerges from that kitchen, it is unique and made from scratch, plus, in honor of its namesake, the cocktail comes with a steamed crab claw hooked on the glass.
But the story doesn’t stop there. All the way east in Montauk, Mitgang was having trouble convincing some of his purveyors to deliver to him on a regular basis, so he introduced Sosinski to Molin, who also fell in love with the Jonah crabs and became a regular customer. He would drop the fish to Mitgang and pick up crabs from Sosinski. Molin, a graduate of the prestigious Johnson & Wales University College of Culinary Arts, knows great food when he tastes it. He started his business after being constantly dissatisfied with the fish offerings on the market, so with his wife as a partner, they vowed to raise the standard. “In Manhattan, Jonah crabs are not yet considered a premium product, but I am working on it,” he says. He is constantly coaxing his clients to try them. “In my opinion,” he adds, “In this economy, you like crab? This is the one to eat.”
“There really is no downside to choosing the Jonah: reasonably priced, sustainable, and now local,” says Wohlars as he prepared to steam the 10 pounds of crab claws that had landed in his kitchen that very morning.
One recent Friday evening at Dish in Water Mill, the daily menu featured Jonah crab served with bagna càuda and crudités. “I get them fresh, of course, but already out of the claw, from Maine,” says chef Peter Robertson, co-owner with his wife, Merrill, of the 16-seat restaurant. “But I didn’t know there was someone getting them in Montauk. Can I have his number?”
Robertson first tasted Jonah crabs at Aquagrill in Manhattan. “I loved the texture,” he says. “It’s extremely flaky but holds the moisture.”
Back on the dock, just as daylight started blinking, the men from Chinatown explain, “We make soup with them, or we just boil them in a broth and go at it.”
In France, large crabs are often the stars of the royal plateau de fruits de mer, eaten whole of course, so perhaps what the Jonah crab needs is a consortium of creative chefs who will reread James Beard’s American Cookery, first published in 1972, and remind gourmands that there’s more to crabs than claws. Or perhaps, what the Jonah really needs to walk the red carpet (sideways, of course) is a Madison Avenue advertising genius who will foresee that, as Sosinski keeps repeating, “The world is ready for it.”
PHOTOGRAPHY BY GREG CLARK PHOTOGRAPHY LLC (JOE’S STONE CRAB); THINKSTOCK.COM (NETS)