Young and Hungry

The General Store’s Soft-Shell Crab Sandwich, Which Wasn’t So Soft

I could have done without my first bite of Gillian Clark's soft-shell crab sandwich at the General Store. As soon as I bit through the crustacean's semi-soft outer body, I was splattered with a jet-stream of yellow-green matter, likely a combination of eggs and tomalley. My new shirt now looked like a painter's smock.

My second bite wasn't much better. I felt as if I was ripping into an old leather bag. I couldn't understand what was happening. Everything else about the sandwich was delicious: the surprisingly sweet lemon aioli, the soft buttery Gold Crust bun, the salty, beautifully fried onion straws. But the star of the dish — a genuine Maryland blue crab, Clark told me — had gone rogue, betraying all of the other ingredients in the sammie.

In all the times I have eaten soft-shells, I have never had such a tough time biting into one. This sucker, though, was a damn hard softie. A few Google searches later, I think I learned why.

According to the award-winning book, Fish Forever by Paul Johnson, fishmonger to the star chefs, all softies are not created equal:

"Because of the extremely fragile nature of a soft-shell crab, it takes only a little rough jostling in transit to kill some of them, so the greatest care is taken to make sure soft-shell crabs arrive at the marketplace alive. They are carefully arranged in straw-lined flats that are packed in shock-resistant boxes marked 'Fragile.' They are then quickly flown or trucked to market.

"But be aware that some shippers will leave their crabs in the water for a little while after they have shed, which allows the shells to partially harden. These hardened 'soft-shell crabs' are stronger and more likely to arrive at their destination alive — but they will be disappointing at the table, tough and chewy."

In other words, my leathery crab likely had little to do with Clark, and everything to do with the fishmonger who sold her those crustaceans.

  • HCC

    yeah sounds like you caught more of a peeler than a softie (although if it was re hardening then its a reverse peeler or something) but whoever cooked the crab would've had to handle it and know that it wasn't totally soft. It might not be the kitchen's fault that the softie wasn't soft but they sent it to you to eat knowing full well what it was.

    I mean you have to get personally with a softie you're cooking when you scissor off its face.

  • Simon

    Except that shopping and ingredient selection is as important as cooking and plating, in terms of what a chef's "job" is. If you were served some fried oysters where the oysters had clearly gone bad, you wouldn't say, "Oh, well, it's the fishmonger's fault."

  • Tim Carman

    I thought of that, too, Simon. But I decided to side with generosity on this one. Let me explain first by looking at your oyster comparison. An oyster can go bad from poor storage, improper icing, and other things on a restaurant's end. This particular blue crab, however, more than likely arrived this way. Could have Clark known that? Yes, if she had received leathery crabs before from the same purveyor. Or had heard such rumors from other restaurateurs who bought from the same fishmonger. Or looked at each crab as it came in the back door at her store (which maybe she should have). But it's still way early in the softie season, and the more interesting question will be this: will your next softie sandwich at the General Store be leathery, too? That will tell you more about the restaurant's buying habits than this lone example.

    I agree with you, HCC. She should have known by feeling it. But then she had a choice: not serve it and absorb the costs or take her chances.

  • Simon

    "Or looked at each crab as it came in the back door at her store (which maybe she should have)."

    That's the point. Look at it -- when it comes in; before you bread it; whenever. But for god's sake, look at it once before it goes out on the table.

  • xcanuck

    If you don't mind saying much was it? And did you notice if the Tavern portion was open?

  • Tim Carman


    It was 11 bucks, and the Tavern wasn't open. But it was also 1 in the afternoon or so.