KQED’S STEPHANIE MARTIN: Around the country most agree that a Thanksgiving meal isn’t complete without the turkey. But in the Bay Area many families say the same about Dungeness crab. The buttery sweet crustacean usually hits the market in November just in time for the holidays.
Angel Cincotta grew up in the family that runs the historic Alioto-Lazio Fish Company, which specializes in crab. We met up with her at San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, where she says customers have been lining up since the crab season opened last week.
ANGEL CINCOTTA: They’re bringing their families, their families are coming in, and so therefore, they want the crab on the table because this is our Pacific Ocean treasure – Dungeness crabs.
MARTIN: When the season opens locally, what is your typical day like here?
CINCTOTTA: When opening day actually comes, you are waiting for that first load, and what we found this year – because last year there were no crabs for Thanksgiving – so this year what we found is lines out the door, and every time you look up, that line’s not getting any smaller. The phones are off the hook, which is all very positive for the business – there’s just not enough of us to figure out how to do every thing!
MARTIN: What are some of the dangers of handling live crabs? I understand that not only can they pinch you, but there’s also poison.
CINCOTTA: Well, it’s actually it more of a type of natural toxin that’s at the edge of their claws. So, imagine if you’re a fish swimming by, they would grab. As they grab they pop the skin of the fish, letting off this toxin, which is a natural stunner. They are strong enough to break a pencil. For a human, when they nail you and puncture your skin, again, they’re letting off that toxin. It’s technically not harmful, it’s just inconvenient and uncomfortable when your finger starts swelling up, that if you haven’t gotten it all out – there’s a problem.
For 20 years I was nailed every year, but it never broke the skin, and this one day it broke my skin, and I didn’t know. I’d always heard the men say, “to bleed like a pig,” and if I had not bled at all, I would have been in the emergency room trying to be spliced to get that poison out.
These guys aren’t going to kill you. You’re going to be able to enjoy THEM first.
MARTIN: Looking at your live tanks, I can see the crabs are very active. They’re crawling over one another. You can really see them moving in there, and some of them seem to be wanting to escape. Do you ever have escapees?
CINCOTTA: Every once in a while – 99 percent of the time, no, but we’re really diligent about watching that. Normally they will do pull-ups, and then they just give up and drop back in.
MARTIN: Do crabs have personalities?
CINCOTTA: I have to say they’re smart. We only harvest the males. It’s illegal to take a female. When you see them climbing around in the tanks right now, when we go to stick our hands in, they are nasty. They are not happy, and they let us know it. So, to a certain extent, you could say they have personalities – kind of like really bad teenagers.
A crab tank at the Alioto-Lazio Fish Company on Fisherman’s Wharf, San Francisco.
MARTIN: We’ve talked a lot about the difficult parts, but there’s got to be something fun about it.
CINCOTTA: Oh, the whole thing’s fun. Interacting with our customers. Interacting with our skippers. The family is always together.
MARTIN: And I notice you’ve got crabs costumes and crab hats and you kind of get into it, don’t you?
CINCOTTA: Oh absolutely. It’s all about what you can do to make it all enjoyable, and because you’re doing 24-7, you can get so focused on the work that you lose sight of the laughter.
MARTIN: When people sit down for Thanksgiving dinner and enjoy these crabs, what would you like them to understand about what goes into catching these crabs and processing them?
CINCOTTA: It’s all of us – it’s not just the fishermen working 24-7 and not going to sleep at night, or never leaving their boats – it’s times when we’re not leaving the building either. There’s a lot of work amongst all of us to make this happen for the people. And so, that everyone just appreciates every level of the business, because it’s a ladder that you climb, and successfully we all work together.
MARTIN: Well thank you, and Happy Thanksgiving.
CINCOTTA: Thank you. Happy Thanksgiving to you and all of your listeners.