Monday, April 28, 2008

Oh! Those Delicious Crabs!

“I swore I’d never shovel crabs in my life!” Dennis proclaimed as he shook his head in disbelief.

At the impressionable age of 13, Dennis went crabbing and didn’t like it one bit. That all changed when he fell in love with a blue-eyed blond. Sandra’s Daddy used the powerful leverage as a father to convince Dennis he needed greater aspirations and a higher income before he married Sandra. Over 25-years ago, Sandra’s Daddy taught Dennis how to crab. Now, Dennis and Sandra Landry operate Crabs, L.L.C., as a fresh crab meat wholesale dealer, and own a restaurant called The Crab Station.

Ed and I wandered into The Crab Station after our drive from New Orleans. Our coach sat boondocked across the street from the restaurant in a large truck lot on West Main Street in LaRose, Louisiana.

Dennis sat at the restaurant counter with a steaming platter of Special #8 – three-pounds of crawfish, two potatoes, one corn, one sausage, and a container of dip. When I read the menu, I wished for an appetite. Why had I eaten a bowl of chili in the coach only moments ago? I could have dined on boiled seafood: crabs, jumbo shrimp, lobster, king crab legs, oysters on the half shell or scallops. The back wall coolers offered a similar sampling of seafood for sale, frozen and packaged to cook at home. As I pondered about seafood recipes and what I might buy, Ed engaged Dennis in conversation. Ed roused me from my food fantasy to join the conversation. Dennis immediately had my attention as soon as he offered me a crawfish from his mound of food. “Thank you!”

As a teenager, Dennis could not have predicted how crabs would become such an important part of his life. Nowadays, he wears a gold charm shaped like a crab on a necklace around his neck. His livelihood depends on crabs. Because of our curiosity about the crab business, Dennis invited us to visit his plant in Lockport, Louisiana for a private tour the following day.

On a normal day, Dennis told us his plant process 8,000 pounds of crabs brought in by local crabbers. On a small day, workers process as much as 3,500 pounds. First, they separate the crabs – bright blue males from red colored females. A select group of large size male crabs will go out via air freight to crab buyers for restaurants in New Orleans and as far away as Baltimore, Philadelphia and Destin, Florida. With the current costs of fuel, Dennis admits his product costs more to ship than it’s worth. Still, people want crab on the menu of their favorite fine dining restaurants.

The smaller crabs earmarked for packing are washed in a machine that rotates and sprays them to remove sea grass and other debris. Once they are cooked and cleaned, pickers separate the meat from shells on sterile metal tables.

“There’s plenty of work here,” Dennis tells us. “The challenge is finding workers to pick the crabs.” Each year, Dennis goes to places like Tampico and San Fernando in Mexico to personally interview workers willing to perform this tedious task. “My foreign employees have work visas… and I give them a place to live on the plant property. I become their employer, their friend, even caregiver.” Dennis showed us the workers’ housing facility. It was not unlike college dormitories I’d seen when visiting my kids at Edinboro or William Woods Universities. They have a common kitchen and living room area, separate bedrooms, bathrooms and laundry facilities.

On the day we visited the plant, we met some of the workers. Six pickers showed us how they filled containers with bits of crab meat. Some designated containers held only the succulent, gourmet claws.

We watched packers fill containers labeled “Jumbo Lump Crab”. Dennis explained that “Jumbo Lump” comes from the back quarter of the crab and is “the best” eating. The sample he offered me confirmed his testament.

The processed crab containers eventually go into a cooler to preserve the freshness. At day’s end, the containers go out for delivery or shipment. Some of the product will stock the coolers at The Crab Station. Dennis says, “The plant supports the restaurant” and that is just where we ended our tour. We returned to the restaurant where Dennis treated Ed and I to Special #5 – select male crabs, jumbo shrimp, crawfish, king crab legs, potatoes, corn, sausage, and dip - a seafood feast!

April 15 & 16, 2007

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