Mendocino — The 100-year-old white clapboard walls of the Portuguese Assn. Crown Hall seem almost to bulge outward, swelling with the sheer joy inside on this late January evening.
A couple of hundred happy eaters are packed around long trestle tables laid with long sheets of white butcher paper. Every so often -- but not nearly often enough -- someone brings over a cafeteria tray heaped with cooked Dungeness crab.
This is crab as it was meant to be eaten. There are no fancy preparations. It is boiled plain and served straight up, with no distractions except for melted butter. Save the elaborate dipping sauces for another time. Crab cakes, salads, soups or gratins? Those are for leftovers. The menu here is elemental in the extreme: salad, cracked crab, garlic bread and for dessert -- as if you'd have any room after having torn through two or three Dungies -- a little tub of vanilla ice cream like you used to get in the elementary school cafeteria.
When a tray is brought to the table, those closest to the landing point fall on the crab in a feeding frenzy, pulling it apart, cracking legs and claws, tearing open the shells and sucking out the sweet, minerally meat.
Their faces and hands grow sticky with juice, but the more they eat, the hungrier they seem to get. Dungeness has that effect on people. The din is practically deafening, a happy hubbub of neighbors and old friends reconnecting over some of the most delicious food in the world.
If ever there was a single moment that would capture the magic of Dungeness crab, this is it. An annual feast that marks the end of the holiday crab rush, it always sells out months in advance.
What makes the dinner even better is that so many of those celebrating are the people who know the crab the best -- the ones who depend on it for their living. Indeed, Crown Hall was built in 1901 as the Catholic church for the area's Portuguese fishermen.
This food means business
Dungeness crab is much more than a winter treat up here on California's North Coast. It is a major industry, a vital part of the local economy. From Crescent City in the north to Half Moon Bay south of San Francisco, crabs mean cash -- and lots of it. And on the North Coast, where the beauty of the scenery is matched only by the bleakness of the economy, that is crucial.
The Dungeness harvest, which for all practical purposes lasts only from the middle of November until the end of January, is either the first- or second-richest fishery in California, depending on the year and the vagaries of nature.
It accounted for more than $35 million in 2003 (a huge year), dwarfing squid, the state's second-leading product, at $25 million and leaving king salmon's $12 million in the dust.
But this is anything but easy money. Dungeness are only found from Monterey north, and in winter the Pacific Ocean up here is rough, the color of dirty pavement. The water is icy, with temperatures in the 40s and low 50s. When you're out on the crab boats, the weather is often so overcast that it is hard to determine a horizon line between the dark gray of the water and the slightly lighter gray of the sky.
Sometimes you might almost believe that's a good thing, as boats sink and rise on enormous swells. If you could actually see how rough the ocean was, it might seem even worse. It's bad enough straining to catch a glimpse of the fog-shrouded headlands that appear and disappear less than a mile away.
There are no pleasure boats out on this water. The only company is a couple of passing whales and a half-dozen other fishermen.
The competition for Dungeness crab is fierce, partly because the fishery is so extremely efficient. Biologists estimate that 80% to 90% of the eligible crabs (basically, sexually mature males) are caught each season. To get their share, fishermen race in a dead sprint to take as much as they can as quickly as they can before the crabs become so scarce that it costs more to catch them than they can be sold for.
"You want to know what it's like?" says one crab industry expert. "Pile $35 million in $1 bills in the middle of the floor. Jam 600 fishermen in a circle around it and then blow a whistle and say, 'Go!' "
Actually, there are two California Dungeness crab seasons. First, starting Nov. 15, comes the so-called city season from San Francisco south. Starting Dec. 1, the rest of the state starts fishing. Between 70% and 80% of the California catch comes before New Year's Day, even though the season technically runs until mid-July.
Oregon and Washington have winter seasons that usually begin about the same time as California's and run a little longer. There is also a spring fishery in British Columbia and a summer harvest in Alaska that keep Dungeness in the markets pretty much all year round. But the bulk of the sales are done by Super Bowl Sunday.