Last week, I visited the San Juan Islands.
There was family, there were friends. There were ponds and oceans and boats and gardens. There were harbors and docks, slow mornings with bottomless cups of dandelion tea and evenings lying on blankets rolled onto thick, damp grass.
But most importantly, there was seafood. Overwhelming and glorious amounts of seafood.
We had oysters from Westcott bay, pried open with dull kitchen knives and served naked on bright blue plates. We had clams, tightly wound in their shells, then lured out by the seductive smells of curry powder, ginger, and coconut.
And finally, we had crab. Caught in the afternoon, boiled whole for 15 minutes with handfuls of rock salt in the evening. Shells that turned from dark purple to bright red when splashed into the outdoor pot large enough to hold upwards of 15 crabs at a time. Shells that split open cleanly, revealing lungs and a yellow "crab soup" that we spilled into the sink instead of drinking. Shells that cracked quickly under the wooden mallet, wielded deftly against each leg and claw before being they were tossed into large silver bowls.
Crab is a wonder creature. Direct from the sea and with simple preparation, it's a food that is not shy about showing you its origins: if you want claw meat, you crack open a claw. Brutally, and without fuss or hesitation. In other words, this is no unidentifiable mush-from-a-can operation. But once you reach past that initial squeamishness, little lovely bites await you behind each crackable limb. Sweet yet savory, fresh yet rich...indeed, a wonder.
I have this memory: my mother and me (perhaps 17 or so), at home. A crab to share, a perfectly crisp baguette, and a bottle of white wine. We sat in front of the television on old newspapers so as to not dribble crab juice on the carpet. The meal seemed so summery, and yet it was January, and raining outside. The whole evening was somehow separate than the rest of everyday life, as we ate with our fingers and spilled drops of wine on the newspaper. One shared crab was enough to satisfy.
Here in California, though I live just a few miles from the ocean, seafood seems so much more rare. On the island, the veritable glut of crab, clams, and oysters was dizzying and pulled me into the feeling that summer had finally arrived.