Thursday, December 23, 2010

A Trinity of Christmas Tamales & Dungeness Crab

For as long as I can remember, my family has had a love affair with Dungeness Crab. In summertime, we crab the bay and in the winter I buy live crab via the commercial fleets. Very fresh Dungeness Crab for Christmas Eve dinner. It is one of the simplest meals for one of the busiest days of the year.

In late November and early December, I watch the reports on the fishery. I watch the price negotiations, thinking less about what I'll pay and more about the price the crabbers will get. And I watch the weather. Storms can blow a wreck on the first weeks of the season.

This year the price opened at 1.65/pound and 167.5 after December 12 for the commercial fleets. This is lower than last year with expectations for a high yield. Late this year, the Oregon Dungeness Crab Fishery joined the Oregon Pink Shrimp as a sustainable fishery designated by the Marine Stewardship Council. It is a strong and model fishery; only male crabs of 6 and 1/4 inches across the carapace (5 and 3/4 for sport fishing) are taken. Female and smaller crabs are released live, ensuring future populations. Equipment is single pots on sandy floors and thus, soft on the environment. At least in the spectrum of large scale production, pretty simple. I wonder whether livestock husbandry and production were to follow such simple, straightforward guidelines the natural world imposes on harvests, we, collectively, would pay more and eat less?

A day or two before Christmas Eve, I scatter my son's world with the words "crab", "steamy windows" "crab guts" and "summer, dock smells". I try to give him fair warning of the impending preparations with the hope that in the long run, his memory of Christmas Eve will be fond of crab. He has a sensitive nose and palate and many strong smells coming out of the kitchen have challenged him, always. I am grateful for his tolerance because he understands the importance of setting himself aside for others. As we all should.

This year the table at my parents house will be full. Full enough to warrant another table in the living room to catch the overflow. It's late on Christmas Eve morning and the day is melting away. My daughter, Austin, and I rush out to buy crab from one of the Asian markets in town. This year we get 15 large hard bodied feisty male crabs in three paper bags. The price works well; just under 100 dollars. Last year a dozen crab cost about 125 dollars. While there, I watch an entire tank of the largest crab get marked "出售". Over thirty crab "sold", to be cooked Christmas morning for the buyer. We are nothing in comparison.

The relatively small scale production in my kitchen takes close to three hours. Two pots, that hold 2-3 crabs each; boil, time, cook, cool, clean, chill. Repeat. While I cook, I think about the guests from the past and I long for them to return. Some, I am glad, have disappeared. This year, a few extra crabs are ear-marked for a new family and an expecting one. The babies bring me renewed hope. A dinner is the least I can do in return for such grace in the world.

We also had tamales. It has been awhile since I made tamales for the holidays. Anthony and Carol Boutard's new crop of corn is always an inspiration and the idea of fresh crab and earthy tamale was irresistible. As well, my friend, Mary Kay, brought me a jar of freshly rendered lard (and a couple of jars of leaf lard too). I made hominy out of Roy's Calais Flint corn from Ayers Creek Farm. The lard whipped up nicely and willingly accepted the ground corn.We, my sister Nancy, Austin, and my niece Bella, made three kinds of tamales; pumpkin with bean filling, turkey and raisin and traditional pork with chili. We talked, laughed, and struggled as our fingers tried to figure out the movements, proportions, and tensions of making the little bundles. Privately, I imagined my brother's face from across the table as he tastes the first tamale after a bite of crab.

It wasn't until New Years Eve that he told me the plate of 50 tamales disappeared out from under his reach. Cracking crab, he looked up and saw a platter full. "Later". Looking up, the platter was half empty. "In a minute, gotta get this claw open". Looking up, three left. "Better get one". Looking up. Gone.

By January 2nd, I am saturated with food, drink, friends and leisure time. For the first time in years, I am not burned emotionally or physically as the holidays end. It takes a lot of time to prepare the meals between December 24th and January 1st. Now, I know, feeding my friends and family is how I make love to them.