I grew up in New England, where my family spent about a month each summer on the shores of Connecticut and Maine, and where I ate sweet bay scallops like candy; developed a taste for Connecticut-style lobster rolls, served warm with just butter (not to be confused with the mayo-bound Maine rolls); and devoured crab in any form possible.
Then I moved to Maryland to go to graduate school and further honed my passion for crab through the crab feast, which I ate both in Chesapeake Bay-hugging restaurants and standing up in friends' kitchens. To have a crab feast, you need to first cover the table with newspaper. Then order more crabs than you think you can eat. Also, you'll want a pitcher of beer. Finally, use a mallet to shatter the shells on the Old Bay-encrusted crabs and go to town.
And then I moved to Chicago, and I wondered where I would get my seafood fix. Thanks to modern transportation, it's not difficult to dine on seafood not long out of the ocean, even in the middle of the country. But I still wondered how exactly the crabs got here, so I called up Mark Palicki, vice president of marketing for Bensenville, IL-based Fortune Fish, to talk about sourcing crabs for Chicago restaurants.
"Every morning our buyer talks to the people that catch the soft-shells, and she'll say, 'what do you have?'" he says. "They'll check their traps and let her know what they have in terms of crabs in different sizes. She'll order based on our needs and they'll pack them live in a box of straw and air freight them to us the next day."
So when the crabs arrive at restaurants, they've been out of the water just one to two days. Since soft-shell crabs are so delicate, they have to fly, but hard-shelled crabs are much stronger and can stand up to being transported for two days in a truck that arrives at Fortune Fish three days a week.
As for other types of crab you'll see in Chicago, Palicki says that blue crab is what most people eat, and that 50 years ago all crabs were coming out of the Chesapeake.
"Now a lot of that comes from Asia and there's domestic crab from Louisiana," he says. "There's still some from the Chesapeake, but demand for crab has increased and now the Chesapeake is not what it's been" in terms of water quality.
Plus there's also some Dungeness crab that crops up here (and in a few dishes here!), but Palicki notes that it's much more popular on the West Coast. Fortune does source some Dungeness, but they mostly focus on the legs, and not the whole animal.
When I was eating crabs around town, most were blue crab, but there were also some Dungeness and soft-shell crabs. I could have eaten crab cakes for the rest of my life without exhausting all the options in Chicago, so I only wanted to include a couple that had really notable preparations. I also wanted to include some dishes in which the crab was the star, and others in which it was an accent, to see how the seafood can be used in a variety of different ways.