Robert St. John column

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Great soft-shell crab crisis of 2007 leaves restaurateur eating crow

News travels fast, but incorrect news travels even faster.

Five weeks ago I wrote a column that opened with this sentence: “Soft-shell crab season is here. Halleluiah, amen, and pass the Remoulade sauce!” That was a true statement— at the time. By the time the column was published there were no soft shells to be found. Anywhere.

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The season’s first two shipments of fresh soft-shell crabs had arrived, and— as I usually do around this time of year— I wrote passionately of my love for the saltwater delicacy.

Typically once the season starts, we ride the soft-shell wave all the way through the fall. This year the season ended almost as soon as it began.

I knew that I might be in trouble when I walked through the dining room of our Hattiesburg restaurant during lunch on the day that the first newspaper published the column. A man called me over to his table. He had read the morning newspaper and had driven the 90 miles from Jackson to Hattiesburg to eat crab. Unfortunately, there were no crabs to be found. Even more unfortunate — he works for the U.S. Attorney’s office. Lucky for me, he was sympathetic to my dilemma. I took his business card and told him that I would call as soon as we received more crabs.

By the time all of the out-of-town newspapers had run the column, other faraway customers had made the soft-shell crab pilgrimage to their local restaurants to find the cupboards bare there, too.

Linda Nance, Chef de Cuisine at the Purple Parrot Café, began hearing from her seafood suppliers, “Robert wrote this article, and all of a sudden everyone wanted soft shells. Customers are coming in to restaurants all across the state, in Louisiana, and Mobile, too. But we don’t have any crabs.”

Another supplier commented, “Ever since Robert wrote that column, they (soft-shell crabs) have fallen off of the face of the earth. It’s the worst we’ve seen in 30 years. He put a curse on them”

Still another supplier credited me with jinxing the entire soft-shell crab industry by writing the column. Today, when I called him to check progress of the crab season, he said, “I’m glad you’re writing another article. Maybe the jinx will work in reverse and the crabs will start coming in.”

In my 26 years in the restaurant business, I have never seen such a bad year for soft-shell crabs. I have also never seen such irate customers. Soft-shell crabs bring out passion in diners. My managers have been hearing from enraged customers for five weeks. They receive several phone calls and a few uncomfortable dining-room visits every day.

The season started like all others. The crabs trickled in a few at a time, and then we got two large shipments, I wrote the column, then nothing. A select few ate crab while I ate crow.

There are several reasons for the lack of soft-shell crab production this season. First and foremost, about one-third of the crabbers haven’t returned to business after Hurricane Katrina. There are other reasons— the cold snap that passed through a few weeks back, followed by bad weather, then high winds. When it’s cold and windy crabs go into hiding. Now shrimp season has begun and many crabbers pull their traps out of the water so the shrimp trolls don’t tear them up.

If you’re eating soft-shells right now, odds are they’re frozen. The East coast season starts in a few weeks. But it’s a sad day when we look to Maryland for soft-shell crabs. The East coast blue crabs are dredged – ours are caught in traps. We release all crabs that are 5 1/2 inches and under. Our crabs are bigger, too. Maryland’s large is a Louisiana medium.

Our restaurant sells approximately 150 soft-shell crabs per week from April through October. Last week we received three dozen soft shells from our suppliers. They were the first we have seen in a month. We sold them all in a matter of hours.

We’ve had such a slow start, maybe the season will run later this year. Late or not, you’re going to have to find out about soft shells on your own. I’m not saying another word (except to my newfound friend in the U.S. Attorney’s office).

For this week’s recipe, Fried Soft Shell Crab, go to the blog on .