Sheila McCaffery Celebrates the Season with an Annual Crab Feast

Boiled with Old Bay Seasoning, the Maryland Blue Crabs are ready for eating and nicely presented in an antique wooden bowl from Lillian August

have always loved the beach and the smell of the ocean. As a child, during trips to City Island with my parents, we would sit by an open window, gaze out at the water, and feast on steamers, clam chowder and giant lobsters. I was a natural at finding every morsel of lobster from every claw, tail and leg. One summer, we visited a friend on the New Jersey coast who took us crabbing—it was my first experience on how to catch, clean, cook and eat crabs. I’ve been hooked ever since. I love, love shellfish and wherever I am, it wouldn’t be summer without seafood and beach-fare entertaining.

Even though we now live in the hills of Woodbury, one of my favorite alfresco meals is our annual crab orgy. When planning my menu, I take a cue from seaside dinners I’ve enjoyed, but I like to add something unexpected, such as pasta with crab sauce. The rest of the menu remains a quintessential crab-fest with accompaniments like all-American salads and dessert.

For my first crab orgy 10 years ago, I invited restaurateur and chef Michael Tarantino to dinner along with 12 other friends. Michael started the ritual of making a crab sauce with pasta as a first course. (The crab shells give the sauce flavor when cooking. The meat is removed from the shells and added to the sauce.) 

Jeffrey demonstrates his mallet technique

Setting the table is all about eating the crabs. For easy clean-up, I cover the table with butchers paper topped with paper placemats. From my entertaining closets, I pull out all of the things that give a feeling of coast, beach, water and sand. Essential tabletop tools consist of wooden mallets, lobster crackers and picks.

Part of the fun of eating the crab is the sheer messiness. I let everyone know beforehand that they will be eating hands-on and not to wear couture. It’s a time to relax and have no cares for the day. Among the guests, there’s always one expert who instructs everyone on how to crack, pull apart and suck out sweet morsels. Last year, it was Jeffrey Banks. “Born in Washington, D.C., and with a father who was born in Baltimore, I am no stranger to crabs and Old Bay Seasoning,” says Jeffrey. “When I saw Sheila’s big tub of hard-shell crabs, it was just like being back home. I knew exactly what to do with that hammer!”

Guests enjoy a white wine and blackberry sangría mixed in and served from a glass beverage vessel from Lillian AugustFor liquid pairings, I start with a sangría cocktail made of a fruity combination of White Silo Farm & Winery’s Sweet Blackberry and Upland White wine in a 50/50 mix. Then, a crisp dry blended white from Walker Road Vineyards has a flintiness that partners wonderfully with the seafood. To close the meal, we toast chocolate melt pie with a fruity, semi-dry raspberry sparkling wine. 

As the evening progresses, we light votives, listen to music and sing along. “My mom’s crab celebrations are always a roll-up-your-sleeves, pound away, let the meat and shells fly event filled with laughter and great conversation,” notes my daughter Paisley. “Family, friends, food and song on a hot, star-filled summer’s night—priceless!” 

 

 

 

 

A version of this article appeared in the June 2014 issue of Connecticut Cottages & Gardens with the headline: Get Cracking.

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