Claws and Effect

Softshellin’ is their business.

The 85-year-old man pulled himself even more erect than his usual naturally dignified posture. His hazel eyes started sparkling as he spoke: “It’s still amazing to me. I don’t know how they do it. They pull their big claws out through those small joints; they shed their old gills. They even shed their eyeballs. How do they do it?”

He waved his hands for emphasis as he spoke, “They got some stuff going on that is really hard to figure out.”

After three-quarters of a century around soft-shell crabs, much of it producing them as a full-time occupation, the process of a blue crab shedding its shell is still amazing to Cultus Pearson. He’s not alone.

Anywhere soft-shell crabs are produced, the men and women who tend to them will often sit in quiet awe watching the creatures transform themselves from something that is only 15 percent edible into something that is 90 percent edible.

With the awe goes a romantic and culinary allure that is hard to put into words. In 1915, an article in the July issue of the Louisiana Grocer magazine extolled the virtues of Louisiana soft-shell crabs available for an upcoming national grocers’ convention to be held in New Orleans:

Then there are crabs, ranging from hard shell to “busters,” which includes that period when they have outgrown their old shell, and are bursting out from every seam of it, and on to the softshell, the greatest delicacy of the market.

Connoisseurs are in the habit of saying that a “buster” is really superior to the softshell itself, as the shell is pried off his back without any reference to his wishes, and he is fried in batter, and comes forth, a dish for the gods. But it is hard to imagine anything superior to the softshell, crisp and brown and lying reposefully on a bed of lettuce leaves.

The softshell is always in great demand and commands a high price at restaurants, but is worth it. Multitudes of men make “softshellin’” their business, during the season, and may be seen all along the lake shores, in boats or wading, gathering the spoils, which will be taken to Milneburg or West End at certain hours, there to be taken possession of by the general manager of the business who will bring them to the city without delay. The softshell is always in great demand, and many of the fishermen have big wooden traps sunk in the water near the edge of the lake, and into them they drop their daily catch of hardshells — to wait till they shall have become softshells, so that they may get a larger price for them.

The lake referred to in the article was Lake Pontchartrain, which forms the northern boundary of New Orleans. Cultus Pearson and his sons and grandsons are direct descendants in the tradition of those men who 95 years ago made “softshellin’” in the lake their business.

The why and how of pugnacious hard crabs turning into tender soft-shelled crabs is easily –– if somewhat unromantically –– explained by scientists. Crabs, like their crustacean relatives shrimp, crawfish and lobsters, live in a rigid shell, essentially their skeleton, which gives their body shape and support. Their shell cannot expand as the animal needs to grow, nor can the animal add on to its shell to make it larger.

When the creature has filled its shell with muscle, it is imprisoned within its shell. Nature’s solution is to allow a crustacean to shed its old shell in one piece once a new soft shell has formed beneath the old hard one. The crab will expand its wrinkly new shell as much as 25 percent by taking in water, and the shell will harden in a matter of hours –– that is, unless the process is interrupted by a watchful fisherman.

This shedding of a crustacean’s shell is called “ecdysis,” and a typical blue crab will do it 25 to 30 times in its lifetime.

On The Lake
It’s a beautiful day in late May. The totally cloudless sky is Persian blue from horizon to horizon. At the helm of the 24-foot Lafitte skiff is 56-year-old William Pearson, one of Cultus’ two sons, out of seven, who are presently commercial crabbers. At the skiff’s stern, determinedly whacking away at the still-frozen boxes of baitfish, is William’s deckhand, Raymond Achee.

And riding shotgun is the patriarch. Part of an adage says that old fishermen never die. Cultus demonstrates that they at least don’t lose interest in fishing. Officially retired since 1999, he still boils crabs from William’s catch and retails them from his home in Lacombe, which is, appropriately, home of Louisiana’s only festival dedicated solely to blue crabs. When he hangs out the sign that he has boiled crabs for sale, a steady stream of customers rings his doorbell.

After the boat pops out of Bayou Lacombe and into the big 630-square-mile lake, William calls Raymond to the controls and goes to his work area in the waist of the boat along the starboard gunnel.

It seems odd: The deckhand is captaining the boat, and the captain is working the deck. William grins and explains, “Only I can grade them the way I want them.”

Grade them?

As he arranges his work space, the amount of grading he will do becomes obvious. Around his well-worn wooden sorting box, he places four plastic crab crates. One crate is for No. 1 males, another is for No. 2 males, and a third crate is for big female crabs.

The fourth crate, he explains half-apologetically, is for factory crabs. These crabs are either too small or too skinny to make the cut for the other three categories — they don’t have enough meat within their shells to be worth keeping.

Ordinarily he tosses them back in the lake. But today is a Friday and he has a sale for them at 50 cents a pound, so he will keep them.

He also stations three ice chests within his arm’s reach on the boat’s engine box. One ice chest contains ice and soft drinks. Into this one will go the few soft-shell crabs that have already shed in his traps. The two larger ice chests have neat oval fist-size holes cut in their lids. Within each is a foam-wrapped plastic container of ice. One is for “red-sign crabs,” those that will shed their shells within three days. The other is for “green crabs,” crabs that are three to 10 days from shedding.

Finally, he fills six plastic 5-gallon buckets with lake water and stations them near one of his legs. Into these go “buster crabs,” those with cracked shells that mean shedding is imminent. During small breaks in the action, William will move cracked crabs from the buckets to an aerated drum to help them shed their hard shells.

Soft-shell crabs are the cash cows of his crabbing business. One large soft-shell crab can be worth $4.50. No. 1 males are the next most valuable crabs, worth substantially more than No. 2 males and big females. Factory crabs bring up the rear.

As the boat nears the bobbing float that marks the first trap in the first line of crab traps, the big arm-like stainless-steel pickup rig mounted on the bow of the boat swings out to snare the float. The boat doesn’t slow down, and its forward momentum forces the trap to the surface of the water, exactly at William’s workstation. Only when William has the trap in hand does the pickup rig release the trap’s float.

The trap holds a dozen good crabs. “It’s going to be a good day,” he tells his father with a big smile
With the float trailing the boat, William goes to work. He shakes each trap with an almost unnaturally frenetic motion to dislodge the stubborn crabs’ grips on the trap wires and bounce them out of the unlatched door of the trap into the grading box. Having fast-twitch muscles is an asset to a crabber.

Almost in one motion the trap door is relatched, the old bait is removed and fresh bait is dropped into the trap’s bait box. In the moments remaining before the pickup rig snatches the next trap’s float, William uses a pair of aluminum tongs to grade the crabs into one of the 13 buckets, ice chests or crates surrounding him.

As soon as the pickup rig grabs the next trap’s float, William nudges the previously run and freshly rebaited trap overboard in its place. He will do this 600 times before the day is over.

William’s hands move in a blur. The only pauses occur when he has to measure the occasional crab or closely inspect the rear flipper of a crab to see how close it is to shedding. A crab near molting betrays its condition by the appearance of a new shell beneath the old one. Its outlines can be seen through the thin translucent paddle-like flipper.

Cultus watches his son work and grins. William has inherited his father’s work ethic. Reared in South Point, a tiny roadless community on the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain that no longer exists, the elder Pearson began crabbing at 8 or 9 years old when he and his brother Ishmel ran drop nets from a rowboat.

The brothers sold their hard crabs for 20 cents a dozen and soft-shell crabs for a dollar a dozen — big money for the early 1930s.

Cultus’ innovations in the fishery are legendary, but he is probably best-known for the role he played in perfecting the recirculating soft-shell crab shedding system, now the gold standard for shedding crabs. Before their invention, soft-shell crab shedders kept their crabs in boxes floating in natural waters or, at best, in tanks located near natural waters so that water could be pumped through them.

Because shedding crabs must be checked every four hours, day or night, rain or shine, the life of a soft-shell crab shedder was physically trying. Cultus became tired of leaving home several times a night to wade into the dark lake waters to check his crab boxes. When it the lake was rough, the waves beat him up. When it was calm, the gnats and mosquitoes ate him up.

After Harriet Perry, a researcher with the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory in Ocean Springs, Miss., explained the concept of a biological filter to him, Cultus took off with the idea. Once freed from the natural waters of lakes and bayous, a crab shedder could set up a system at home, wherever he lived. “It became a pleasure to shed crabs in a closed recirculating system,” he says modestly.

The Crab Shedding System
After William sells his hard crabs, he accelerates his truck in a cloud of dust in the direction of his crab shedding facility, located in one wing of a large well-used building. He must get his busters, red-liners and green crabs in the system’s tanks before they weaken or, worse yet, die.

It is also time to remove the crabs from the system that have shed their shells. An hour’s delay can turn a $4.50 soft-shell crab into a near worthless “paper shell,” a crab whose soft shell has begun to harden.

Entering the shedding room is like descending into a grotto. The noise and bustle of Lacombe’s vehicular traffic is hushed by the hiss of water being sprayed into more water. The intense humidity in the room is somehow more soothing than oppressive.

After one’s eyes adjust to the low light levels, it is easy to see the many shallow rectangular fiberglass tanks, set in two tiers, that dominate the room. All the tanks are filled with crabs — lots of crabs.

Most still have hard shells and are frisky and active, jostling with their tank mates for elbow room. Some lie still, almost motionless, gathering strength after their stressful shell-shedding ordeal. They are waiting for their baby-soft shell to harden.

With Cultus peering intently over his shoulder, William removes the soft-shells from the tanks. Taking them from the water stops the process that hardens their shells and degrades their value. He carefully counts the number of soft-shell crabs that he has gathered and compares it to the number of empty cast-off shells that he has retrieved. Every soft-shell crab that is overlooked is lost money.

William carefully packs the live soft-shell crabs in trays and places them in a refrigerator. Only now can he go home to shower and change clothes. But his day isn’t over. In four hours he will have to return to again remove soft-shells from the system, and then near midnight, he will be back to do it again.

After watching his son work all day, Cultus offers an epitaph: “The best thing was that I was doing what I liked to do. Although you were working your tail off, it didn’t seem like work. The worst thing was when I got too old to do it.”

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