Decadence does not have to be complicated. Christmas dinner in our family consists of three simple ingredients: homemade mayonnaise, sourdough bread and crab.
That crab sandwiches have usurped ham and turkey at our table for close to a century is no surprise: The rosy-limbed crustaceans hold a special place in the heart of Humboldt County residents. Look at our beloved baseball team; we can't seem to get enough of the sideways scuttlers. With the season now open, friends and neighbors seem to be glutting themselves on the sweet, juicy meat. Local restaurants are serving crab sandwiches, some tarted up with obscene additions such as pickles and cheese. Our clan eschews such fripperies and pre-holiday indulgence. Soon Gram will hand me a wad of bills and send me to Botchie's Crab Stand to place our annual order. If Botchie Senior is there (he passed ownership to his son-in-law several years ago but still keeps an eye on things) he'll ask after her health. The middle-aged men my Gram would call boys, red-cheeked and wearing long, tough rubber gloves, will fish the crabs from their tanks, weigh and back them before handing them to me wrapped in plastic and newspaper.
Crabs are bottom-feeding scavengers. It's a fool with a gorge of steel who backs his or her own. I consider it a nod of authenticity that the men at Botchie's always ask before removing the back shells, hosing off the crud and cleaning out the tiny inner organs. What's left — the stocky legs and sides — is bursting with clean meat in all its briny goodness. We have an unbreakable rule: From age 9 to 90, everyone cracks their own. No quarter is given, no easy conquest stolen from a parent's plate. If you can't start the meal with a primal battle between man and shell, what's the point of eating it in the first place? Our kitchen on Christmas Day resounds with the crunch of shells giving way beneath nutcrackers, with rattles and gulps and murmurs of appreciation.
Like any tradition, there have been aberrations through the years. In 2011 and 2012, the season opened late and we had to substitute a pre-baked ham. We were grumpy about it, but no more so than our fishermen friends who make their year's livelihood during those short months. Last year, I spent Christmas on the Cambodian coast where crab is always in season, and I wickedly sent my family a picture of my plate along with the weather forecast. Nary a present was waiting for me when I got home.
During World War II, many things were in short supply, including vegetable oil. When my great uncle arrived with a bowl of mayonnaise everyone was delighted. Assuming that he'd found some vegetable oil on the black market, no questions were asked. The family sat down to feast. Shortly afterward, there was pandemonium and a mad scramble for the house's one bathroom. Apparently, he'd subbed in mineral oil.
The final, and perhaps greatest, benefit of the Christmas crab tradition is that you don't have to cook. Bake a couple of pies the day before, prep the raw ingredients for a toothsome crab sandwich, then spend all Christmas morning in your bathrobe oohing over presents. The leftover crab shells make a great supplement for your chickens, which in turn will lay better eggs for your next batch of mayonnaise. The circle of life in one dinner.
Makes: 2 ½ cups
Ingredients and method:
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon dry mustard
Dash of cayenne pepper
2 egg yolks
1 pint olive oil or salad oil
(Never, never mineral oil. Ever.)
1/8 cup cider vinegar
1/8 cup tarragon vinegar
Combine dry ingredients with unbeaten egg yolks in a mixing bowl and beat together until stiff.
Add part of the oil, beating it into the mixture drop by drop at first, then more rapidly, always keeping the mixture stiff. When it begins to thicken, add a little of the vinegar. Alternate the vinegar and remaining oil until blended.