In 2014, Andrew Carmines, owner and general manager of Hilton Head’s Hudson’s Seafood on the Docks was driving three hours a day to and from Lady’s Island, South Carolina, for fresh soft-shell crab.
Previously, he ordered from local seafood purveyors, who, gun-shy about shipping the freshest, and therefore most-delicate and perishable soft-shells, would instead ship the molted crabs after the new shell had begun to form. When customers at the time complained about the papery texture, Carmines decided to change the system at his restaurant.
So, he built a soft-shell crab nursery. And, like many love stories at the beach, this one starts with a large male strutting his stuff to the ladies.
To harvest female crabs ready to molt, fisherman like Melanie Padgett of Jimmie Crab Seafood Co. puts in the center of her crab traps the largest male blue crabs she can get hold of. The large male attracts nearby she crabs that are ready to shed their shells — but will be vulnerable during the process. In nature, the male crab defends the female in its softened state.
At Hudson’s, nature is harnessed, dialing in a margin of error to less than eight hours and often within minutes during open kitchen hours, after which, the new shell begins to harden. To Carmines and his customers, “only the softest crabs are acceptable.”
In 2015 Carmines worked with Rob Roe (yes, his real name) to design and build a system of holding tanks to allow their catch of female crabs to molt. Once the hard shell sheds, the entire body is deliciously edible — for a short time.
The nursery is monitored 24 hours a day and any crabs forming a shell in the middle of the night and outside of business hours get evaluated first for lunch the following day.
The fiberglass holding tanks are about the size of a standard pool table. The water is drawn and aerated through PVC pipes from underneath the dock using pumps typically used for swimming pools. Female crabs can sit in the holding tanks for a few hours to a few days before shedding and ready to serve.
On March 12, Hudson’s received 500 “peeler” crabs — those waiting to shed — and production began. The output increased steadily to 150-200 soft-shell crab a day in the first couple of weeks with production now at full capacity at around 300-400 daily.
And this recent cold spell will extend the season — possibly to the middle of the month, according to Carmines prediction.
But like any good product, a perfect soft-shell crab can be destroyed by a heavy-handed dose of breading or lost in a dish among other flavors and textures.
“Our daily menu,” which features items from po’ boys to soft shell-topped beef filets to a classic meuniere with brown butter and lemon, “is just a suggestion,” according to Carmines. “A lot of customers know what they want. And they want it a very specific way. If someone wants it grilled, we’ll do that.”
For patrons that want to hear more about the life cycle of the blue crab as they dine, head server Teddy Elgarico or one of his protegees will answer any questions—and then be delighted when asked more.
“We’re very fortunate to have a great, diverse group of people who are passionate about seafood and love sharing that passion with our guests,” admitted Carmines.
Take advantage of the last remaining days of soft-shell crab season with a quick trip over to Hilton Head Island. If you haven’t been in a while, or have never been, I think you’ll be surprised to find an authentic Lowcountry experience waiting for you.
And if that last soft-shell just sold — don’t worry. Just be patient. The perfect one for you is minutes away and just around the corner. Good food, like love, is all about timing.
Ben Jarrell has cooked in kitchens from Charleston to The Bahamas to San Francisco to Asheville. He now uses those experiences as a lens with which to view food and spirits in Charlotte and throughout the South.