George Washington’s Favorite Parasite

noaa / noaa

If you shuck and eat a lot of oysters, you might eventually come across a tiny crab hanging out inside one. It could be a pea crab. It could be an oyster crab. Either way, it’s a parasite that lives off of little bits of food that its oyster host filters into its shell. I’ve found a few of these little critters myself and tossed them aside, not realizing what they were. Thanks to science writer Carl Zimmer, I now know that I’ve been throwing away a delicacy with a long history in American cuisine. 

Finding a sizable parasite in your meal—or in your mouth after slurping back an oyster on the half-shelf—might turn you off to seafood, but oyster crabs have long been a highly prized treat for some eaters. In 1913, the New York Times called them “as dainty a morsel as the gourmet can have at any price.” The Times also mentions that one diner found out the hard way that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. When he discovered one of these crabs in his oyster stew at a restaurant, he sent it back to the kitchen to be replaced by steak and onions. He was laughed at by his waiter and called a “hayseed” for not realizing the treat he had found. 

I guess that makes me a hayseed, too, but I’m going to try and change my ways and cook up the next oyster crab that comes my way. I don’t know that I’ll go as far as to build an entire dish around them, though, as 300 Ways to Cook and Serve Shellfish suggested in 1901. Among the cookbook’s recipes are an omelette loaded with 25 to 40 of the little crabs, and something called Canopy a la Lorenzo, which calls for 50 oyster crabs, a quarter of a truffle, chicken and crab meat and a cream sauce to be cooked, cooled, molded into a bell shape and then cooked again on top of a large crouton. 

That dish sounds like it would have been right up George Washington’s alley. The first president was a well known fan of the oyster crab, and Wonders and Food Luxuries of the Sea mentions that an “extraordinary effort was made to procure a half pint of these for his repast, to his great surprise and delight” by a female admirer who hosted him for dinner. Author Alan Davidson, in North Atlantic Seafood, also says that the president so enjoyed them in his oyster stews that they were sometimes known as “Washington crabs.”