So you think you know how to eat crabs? Sure, you do. You live here, right? But there is a better way to do it, says Chef Nancy Longo, owner of Pierpoint Restaurant in Fells Point and a cooking instructor who has led summer classes for kids for close to two decades. Here are Longo’s 10 steps to taking apart our state’s favorite shellfish.
1. Cover your table in newspapers or brown paper. Paper grocery bags split open and laid flat will work as well. Assemble crab mallets. “Start feeling around the pile for the heaviest crab,” Longo jokes.
2. Place a crab with its shell side up and apron side down. Most people open a crab at the apron, but “I find that to be the most useless thing on the planet,” Longo says. “It seems to work better to pull it from the corner. It just works faster.”
3. With one hand on the back fin, take the corner of the shell and begin to lift it away from the crab body.
4. Remove the fat and the yellow matter known as mustard. Remove the lungs. Place these things inside your discarded shell.
5. Take off the two claws and put them in a pile. “I’m one of those people who eat them last,” Longo says.
6. Take the body and break into two pieces. Take one piece, smash it down with your fingers and pull the top shell away from the body and the legs. Pull the crabmeat from this piece.
7. Take the bottom section of the body and twist each leg so when you pull it away from the body, a piece of meat comes with it. “The meat comes out with each leg and you have these little empty chambers,” Longo says. Also, this method is more kid friendly, as it does not require knives, often a staple at the crab table. Repeat with the remaining portion of the crab.
8. Now, the claws. “There are a couple little tricks with claws, too,” she says. Break the claw in half. Take the half with the pincher and crack each side and remove the shell so the meat comes out in one piece.
9. Repeat with the bottom half of the claw. “This is an old Baltimore thing: If you had a friend you liked, you picked and shared a claw with them,” Longo says.
10. Eat the crabmeat and then grab another crab.
Our Expert: Chef Nancy Longo
Despite a Baltimore pedigree that includes a diploma from the Institute of Notre Dame and 30 years of restaurant ownership in Fells Point, Chef Nancy Longo did not grow up eating crabs at home. Her father, the son of Italian immigrants, had Crohn’s disease, and because of that, they kept a kosher home.
The owner of Pierpoint Restaurant recalls eating her first crab at Glenwood Gardens with her grandparents when she was about 8 or 9. This would have been in the early 1970s.
Did she like them? “Absolutely!”
Longo admits her method for taking apart a crab is unconventional, but it’s also befitting of a chef because she doesn’t use a knife. “Knives are a reverent thing,” she says, and chefs only use them when they really need them.
Plus, there’s her family heritage.
“I grew up in an Italian family, and we joke about always using our hands,” she says.
Longo got her start in the cooking world with her older sister who ran a catering business. She attended the Baltimore Culinary Institute, ate her first soft shell in the mid-’80s at a Fells Point spot called Something Fishy and worked for six months for Anthony Bourdain in New York. “That’s all I could take,” she says.
She then returned to Baltimore and opened her Aliceanna Street restaurant in 1989. Pierpoint is known for its crab cakes — the meat is smoked over apple or cherry wood for 20 minutes to give it a sherry-like flavor. It’s flavored with mustard and mayonnaise and held together with gluten-free cracker crumbs. As anyone who’s from here knows, no bread is used, because no bread is ever used in a crab cake.
For that reason, sometimes their crab cakes fall apart, she says. “But I’m not going to apologize.”
Pierpoint is rowhouse cozy with a yellow telephone box of an entrance that juts onto the sidewalk. Inside the walls are yellow and purple, and quirky signs decorate the bar. “How Do I Take My Coffee? Seriously, Very Seriously,” one says. Above the bars are photos of Longo’s parents and Sister Hildy Sutherland, the longtime IND educator and champion of students who died earlier this year.
There is also a tiara, rhinestone studded and outfitted with a shiny pink crab. It’s an accessory that Longo wore to a Royal Wedding party last year but looks perfectly at home in the restaurant. All of her friends wore tiaras, too, but only Longo’s had a sparkling crab. Of course.
Photos by David Stuck