Will Judd is something of an eating Olympian. Not so much a competitive eater in a speed sense, the local engineer is more of a feats of strength eater. He tends to challenge himself to endurance tests. If you've read about any local hot dog crawls, taco crawls, culinary tour challenges or the like, well, Judd's been on all of them. But his latest test of digestive fortitude is possibly his most jaw-dropping yet — how many soft-shell crab dishes can he eat before softie season ends. So far, his tally is 30 in 14 days. Why? Well, we'll let him explain.
City Paper: When did you first get introduced to the soft-shell crab? Was it love at first bite?
Will Judd: I grew up in Kentucky, but my family spent a lot of time in Florida when I was younger, and I can remember having soft-shell crab during one of those trips when I was of elementary school age. My dad traveled to some pretty exotic places when he was in the Green Berets and foisted some adventurous eating habits on my little brother and me as a result. The soft shell wasn't — and still isn't — a widespread phenomenon in Florida cuisine, but occasionally places would put them on the menu for novelty's sake. I'll eat about anything out of the ocean, especially if it's been fried, so I was definitely a fan from the beginning.
CP: You seem to have a yen for endurance eating. Is this a trait you apply to all meals? What is it about seeing how many places you can try that appeals to you?
WJ: I'm not really sure I remember how that all came about. I'm a big guy, for starters, but along with that, I guess I've discovered, to quote Big Dan Teague from O Brother, Where Art Thou? that "I'm a man of large appetite." I'm not one of those competitive eaters who dunks hot dogs in water and goes for speed records, but I honestly just enjoy eating great food until I am full, and I guess people have noticed that it can tend to be a lot of said food. Before Joey Chestnut and Kobayashi, I was at a minor league baseball game that had an all-you-can-eat hot dog night promotion. I remarked to one of my friends the legend about Babe Ruth eating 12 hot dogs between games of a doubleheader and was quickly dared to eat 12 hot dogs at that game — I find that a lot of my eating "accomplishments" usually come about from some sort of dare. I guess I like to prove people who doubt me wrong?
- Jonathan Boncek
- Pier 41's soft-shell crab interpretation is fried and served with citrus aioli and pickled morels
CP: You also seem to have taken an equal opportunity approach to your softie scuttle — The Ordinary is right there alongside Noisy Oyster. Have you found any hidden gems at places that people might overlook?
WJ: When you think of soft-shell crab, you might not think of an Italian restaurant as being a go-to spot. But Chef Michael Scognamiglio at Bacco in Mt. Pleasant does a very fresh and flavorful presentation that relies on simplicity to showcase a crab that's been tempura-fried in a pose as if to mock you into eating it. It sits atop bruschetta and is topped with an aioli and arugula.
CP: How much total money have you spent on soft-shell crab plates so far this season. How much in total do you expect to spend?
WJ: These are not the most inexpensive item for a restaurant to acquire and turn around to present, so the price point might be discouraging to some people who want to gorge themselves on soft-shell crabs. I'd say on average they run about $20 per app/entree at most restaurants, so I'm at around $500 right now. I'll keep on eating them as long as the season extends...
- Jonathan Boncek
- Artisan Meat Share serves a soft shell crab sandwich with Bob Cook's Burnt & Salty chili glaze
CP: What's the best soft shell dish you had and from where?
WJ: In Charleston, we are blessed with a wealth of wonderful preparations. Really! Can New Orleans or Baltimore boast of the variety and quality of soft shell preparations that our city can? It's tremendously difficult to pick out a favorite in part because of the different preparations. I am definitely a fan of most Asian-style preparations, though. Xiao Bao Biscuit matches the crabs with their som tum salad. Bob Cook at Artisan Meat Share has devised one hell of a sandwich that now includes his Burnt & Salty chili glaze; the black pepper fried crab is also matched with a green papaya salad. The wonderful interplay between spicy heat and sweetness and the contrasts in textures speak to these wonderful compositions.
CP: What's your favorite way to eat soft shells? Fried? Butter basted? Some other wildly creative interpretation?
WJ: I'm not going to lie, a nice, quick fry in a very light batter or corn meal will do it for me. Chef Reid Henninger at Edmund's Oast butter bastes his and adds them to a garlicky, spicy spaghetti, and it's hard to beat that one. A couple places like Nana's and The Granary do a take on Nashville hot chicken, but with soft shell crabs. Chef Brannon Florie at The Granary definitely wins me over if you want some edginess. A couple years ago, he served me a soft shell-crab on a burger using two lobster rolls for the buns. Don't hate; it was delicious. Just a couple days ago, he created another heavenly burger using a soft shell crab, a slab of pork belly, and kimchi.
CP: What's the worst and from where?
WJ: Thankfully I have no one to submit for this category.
CP: What's your advice to a softie eating novice on how to approach the often misunderstood dish?
WJ: A lot of people are turned away from soft-shell crabs by either the appearance or the texture. If you love crab meat but the crab itself is grotesque to you, there's probably no way around it. The skin of a softie is maybe comparable to the Nori that is used for sushi. If you get the crab fried, that will lessen the presence of the skin, as it's concealed by the crunch, so that might be the best way to ease into them. Since it's a whole crab, you're also going to deal with what people call the "mustard," which is a yellowish mass that's part of its digestive system. This may be an acquired taste for some, so you might want to separate it from the crab meat when you cut into the soft shell crab to see first whether you like it or whether you choose to not eat it.
CP: With softie season coming to close in presumably a few weeks, what's your next food scuttle going to be?
WJ: I've heard some rumblings about some dumplings...