This is a story of romance and tragedy, of beginnings and ends. PETA members, click no further.
Roughly five years ago, two crabs, one male and one female, managed to find each other deep in the ocean off the Northwest Pacific coast. The male grabbed the female and gripped her in a premating embrace, possibly for an entire week, while the female shed her hard exterior (I find this extremely poetic, don’t you?). Once properly molted, the two crabs mated. Even after mating was completed, the male may have held onto the female for another two days, to protect her soft exterior while it was still vulnerable. Apparently, crabs are cuddlers.
60 to 120 days later, her eggs hatched. Out of millions of eggs, possibly only a few thousand larvae hatched. To reach maturity, a single crab larva had to survive rising ocean temperatures, lower water oxygen levels, predatory worms that feed on crab eggs, and a general fouling of our planet’s oceans. To survive its four-year journey to maturity, a growing crab had to avoid predators such as herring, sardines, rockfish, salmon, flounder, sole, skates, and sharks. You’ll be hard-pressed to find something off the Pacific coast that doesn’t, at some time or other in its life cycle, want to eat a crab. Including, of course, humans. At some point, a crab fell prey to a human-laid trap, was dragged ashore, and was taken inland to Portland, Oregon.
39 years ago in Los Angeles, California, Bruce Paltrow and Blythe Danner underwent a similar mating ritual (albeit probably with fewer consecutive days spent locked together), and Gwyneth Paltrow was born. To reach maturity, a single Paltrow had to survive public scrutiny, a life of high expectations, a rushed engagement to Brad Pitt, and sardonic criticism from the likes of TMZ, US Weekly, and, occasionally, yours truly. At some point, Gwyneth wrote a cookbook, and one copy was shipped inland to Portland, Oregon.
Lifelines unknowingly rushed toward one another. Cosmic suspense built, fates aligned, two were destined to die, and not a single person nor crab was aware.
We don’t know where our lives will lead. It’s impossible to predict, and while it may be cliche to point out life’s habit of surprising you, this doesn’t make that fact any less true. Some of us will escape all the predators and hidden traps at the bottom of the ocean, and we’ll find our mate, and we’ll grip each other until our hard exteriors are shed and our lives have been fulfilled. And some of us will just get tossed in a boiling pot of water because the star of Country Strong demands it. All we can do is make the best of our own situations, and to try to keep a grasp on what is really important.
For two crabs, their journeys ended in a crowded tank at a chaotic seafood emporium in Southeast Portland, almost more aquarium than grocery store, where they were unceremoniously plucked from among their friends and family and shoved into a triple-layered bag. One valiant crab frantically gripped the edge of the bag, refusing to submit to his fate. But he was no match for his Asian wrangler, and he had no choice but to ultimately land in the bag, atop his fellow. I paid for my bounty, and we headed home. I tried not to consider what was in the back of my car, but the crinkling of the bag behind me at every stoplight was the crabs’ way of pleading, “We’re still here. We’re still alive.” I drove on, and tuned out their cries.
The victims in their paper holding cell.
Crabs placed in the freezer to cruelly dull them into submission, we drove to the grocery store to pick up a few necessary supplies. Along the way, my date comforted me by reminding me that researchers discovered crabs can, in fact, feel pain. I briefly considered ditching him at the grocery store.
The supplies required were fairly simple, although we made sure to acquire the makings for a cheese plate and a salad, just in case things went awry. I didn’t know if I could actually do it, and my date’s assertion that he may be “too chickenshit” to take over for me if my nerves fail did not give me confidence that these crabs would actually ever experience being boiled alive. As my friend Elizabeth warned me, “You’re probably just going to end up eating PB&J sandwiches and making mazes for the crabs on your kitchen floor.” Which, actually, didn’t sound like such a bad idea.
But we returned to the house, and I steeled myself for the big moment. I took my largest pot out from under the counter, and began to prepare it for the boil. My date (and let’s call him “J” from here on, for no reason whatsoever because it’s definitely NOT his initial) saw the pot I had selected, and across his face was a look that reflected amusement, with an additional hint of, “Holy shit, I’m dating a complete moron.” The pot probably couldn’t even fit a single crab without any water, let alone fully boiling two crabs. For some reason, I had failed to give this part of the process any thought at all.
So we set out a third time for supplies, a trademark of the Danny/Gwyneth Project for an experienced professional like myself, but probably a bit of a shock to poor, unsuspecting J. Fred Meyer had what I was looking for, and $30 later I was the proud owner of an unbelievably enormous stock pot. Take note: Aside from Gwyneth, the only “working mother” who should own a stock pot this big is the Octomom. For anyone else, this is just a frivolous purchase. Which is, of course, the root of this entire project.
Returning home a third time, I filled the pot with water, creating what can only be described as a small lake in a pot atop my stove. Into the water I tossed cloves, two halves of a lemon, salt, and a couple bay leaves. I don’t know why, because — spoiler alert! — these didn’t provide much flavor to the crab meat. Maybe the crabs just prefer to die in water that smells like Christmas.
My new behemoth.
The water took ages to boil, which is where the cheese plate came in handy. Meanwhile, I removed the bag of crabs from the freezer. “I think they’re dead,” J suggested. “Better for you!” I gingerly stuck my hand in the bag. The top crab flinched. I wasn’t sure if this was good or bad news.
While the water slowly, slowly climbed toward its boiling point, I prepped the sauce. Mere melted butter is not good enough for Gwyneth, so I had to mix Vegenaise, ketchup, mustard, horseradish, chives, and cornichons. At this point, J was definitely wondering what he had gotten himself into. However, a dipped finger in the odd-looking sludge revealed the sauce to be quite tasty. Who would have thought?
Finally, the water was boiling, and I had hit a crossroads. My moment of truth. No turning back. Could I kill an animal? For that matter, could I even touch one of these disgusting crabs? J on camera duty, I ripped the bag open, steeled my nerves, and grabbed the first crab from behind, as I had seen the seafood store employee do. Half-frozen, it sluggishly waved its arms in protest. I probably screamed, although I don’t remember. Everything went hazy, and I seemed to watch the proceedings from above, completely removed from my body. I dashed across the kitchen to the stove, the two-foot walk seeming to go on for miles, and tossed the crab into the boiling water in a blind panic. Scalding water splashed up across my arm, leaving me with a nice welt. “Sorry sorry sorry sorry!” I shouted at the now-closed pot. Within seconds, the crab lay curled and dead at the bottom of the water.
There was no time to reflect on what crime I had committed against nature, because a second crab needed to meet its fate. And this one, sadly, appeared to be female. For some reason, this made me more uncomfortable. I suppose I could rationalize this as a step forward for crab gender equality. I’m an equal-opportunity crustacean killer! And many of you will be proud to know the lady crab put up a much stronger fight than the fellow. Still sluggish from the freezer, she managed to weakly scratch at my wrist with her back two legs, as if trying to grab my arm and pull me in with her. I chose to pretend she was patting me on the wrist, as if to say, “It’s okay. I forgive you.” I eased her into the water, we covered the pot, and I laughed like a maniac, my adrenaline sky high. I had the bloodlust. I wanted to kill something else. I was ruined.
I consider the plan of attack.
At this point, I believe I’m saying, “Oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck.”
The manic face of a murderer.
If you look closely, you can see the new lack of a soul behind my eyes.
Fifteen minutes later, our victims were beautiful, red paragons of crab perfection. I gingerly removed them from the boiling water using a pair of ill-equipped tongs, a dangerous affair that almost left my arm scalded for a second time. The crabs cooled down, and then it was time to get to work.
I’ve never disemboweled a whole crab before. For one, I didn’t expect to be able to just peel the tops of their shells right off, as if unscrewing a person’s scalp. But it turns out you can. It’s satisfyingly gruesome. A mixture of guts, water, and god-knows-what-else spilled across the tray. We prodded the carnage and tried to decipher what was edible. Google was consulted. I felt like an intern left in charge at Area 51.
Dead! Still kind of terrifying!
OH MY GOD THIS IS NOT WHAT I PAID FOR.
OHMYGODOHMYGOD HOW DO I EAT THIS MONSTER?
Ultimately, we decided to simply eat the claws and legs, because nothing inside the body looked appetizing. If I had to guess, I would suggest both crabs had terrible cases of diarrhea when they were murdered. But I’m not a crab doctor. (Yet.) And anyway, we already had far, far too many crab legs for two people, and no idea how to extract all the meat.
With the aid of a mallet, we set to work smashing, crushing, and splitting the crab legs, to extract as much meat as possible from the multitude of extremities splayed about my kitchen table. It was a brutal, messy affair, and within minutes our shirts, pants, arms, and faces were absolutely soaked with crab guts. We smelled like a fisherman’s balls, and our fingers were raw from crab spikes.
But it turns out this is a really, really fun way to eat. We ate our dinner standing over the table, hunched over two steaming alien corpses, ripping and tearing at our meal like cavemen, trying to eat every last bite of meat we could find. Because, dammit, I killed these crabs in my own kitchen just so I could eat them, so it better have been worth it. And it was. It was so worth it.
Like I said, you never know where life is going to take you. I never would have thought my first premeditated killing of an animal would occur because Gwyneth Paltrow told me to do it. And I highly doubt the crabs — or their crab parents, locked in a week-long embrace all those years ago — expected to end up dismembered on a kitchen table, two men hunched over their corpses and licking their fingers. It’s just the luck of the draw. We’re born, we live, we die, and who survives and who dies doesn’t make any sense. Sometimes, the best one crab can do is to find another crab out in the ocean and grab onto them for as long as possible, before the time comes for you to hit the boiling water.