Softies: They're back, y'all. Back like last year and the year before that. Back like every year. That's the thing about life cycles, until we destroy our waterways with plastic bags and off shore drilling, the soft-shell crab cycle continues.
Did I mention that they're back?
The stuff of fast/casual think tank dreams, single serving crunchy, buttery soft-shell crabs are available for a limited time only. A scrumtrulescent seafood popper so good you can't eat just one, for five years now I've watched the return of "peeler" season usher in a kind of delirium Charleston only surpasses when discussing cruise ships and parking.
I'll go ahead and credit the most recent mania to former editor Stephanie Barna. In 2013 she ran a story on Kimberly Carroll'
s soft shell crab business which inspired Barna's first soft-shell crab crawl — a one-night, invite only, dozen-plus restaurant tour with guests consuming upwards of 20+ crabs. From there, the soft-shell frenzy has only grown. Last year we interviewed one local softie enthusiast who ate 30 crabs in two weeks
. And like the bottomless appetites of soft shell fanatics, local food writers feel the pressure to sate the masses' hunger for softie stories with heatmaps and dish recommendations, recipes and reviews.
But has it always been this way? Has our love for panfried molted goodness always been so strong?
If David Shields' The Culinarians: Lives and Careers from the First Age of American Fine Dining
is to be believed — which some may question based on P&C's recent blockbuster report on the allegedly mythologized Nat Fuller Feast
— Charlestonians have been loving on some softies (er, that doesn't sound right) long before now.
According to Shields' chapter on Charleston Chef William G. Barron (1847-1900), soft-shell crabs were the dish du jour when in season in 1880s. Barron, you was given the honorary title of Colonel for his distinguished fine dining service, made a point to get daily seafood shipments from Charleston when serving out of town. One such instance was a dinner in 1888 for the Bivouac of Charleston Battalion at Greenville. It was reported that Col. Barron did all he could to acquaint the men with the best of Charleston's cuisine. To that end, "the mountaineers will have an opportunity of feasting on fricasseed shrimps a la maitre d'hotel, clam chowder, broiled whiting, fried porgie, shoft-shell crabs and other seaside delicacies served in the most appetizing style," a July 7, 1888 report in the Charleston News & Courier
Eleven years later, the same paper reported that the soft-shell phenomenon had only increased in a story titled, "Novel Ideas of Propagating Crustaceans.
" The story reports that by 1899, the demand for soft-shell crabs was so great that the "producers regularly get two cents apiece for them at first hand, whereas the price paid for hard crabs is only about 50 cents a hundred."
That price has, of course, jumped significantly in 120 years. Mt. Pleasant Seafood says that area seafood retailers don't have softies in yet, but they expect them next week and they'll sell for around $7-$9 a piece.
Capitalizing on soft-shell season has long been a farming opportunity for local fishermen. In 1933, William H. Magwood set up soft-shell "floats" off James Island, "in the Lighthouse inlet between Morris and Folly islands." The area allowed the shredders, as they called them, to peel in a safe place before the company distributed them locally and beyond. The News & Courier
wrote, "The soft-shell is esteemed a delicacy and finds a ready market in Charleston and elsewhere."
By 1975, local writers were weighing in on softie preparation with one News & Courier
with one critique turning in a not so hot review of Mt. Pleasant's The Lorelai
. Apparently the soft-shell crabs there were so over battered as to make "the crab seem to appear to have regained it's shell." Writer Karen Amrhine goes on to say, "the manner of preparation was appalling."
Today it's another story.
Given the number of soft-shell entrees in local restaurants nowadays, you're far less likely to hit upon such a crummy dish, however does our appetite for the panko-crusted crustaceans still pulse with the same energy as a softie trying to exit its exoskelton? Readers, do you crave another definitive annual guide to softie eating? If so, we're happy to oblige, just let us know.
If not, well, there's always ramp hysteria, right?