Harvesting It Herself
Soft-shell crabs, scuppernong grapes and the local focus of Vicki Basnight.
“Peelering crabs is the nearest to any type of perfect job you could ever have,” says Vicki Basnight as she secures a small iron weight to a chicken-wire pot before dropping it into the Albemarle Sound. “The process is just awe inspiring; this is when I feel the closest to God.”
With a sudden outburst of her trademark laugh, she adds, “Though some days it has me cussin’ every second.”
“Peelering” is a colloquial word that describes an engagement in the art and science of peeler, or soft-shell, crabs. Harvesting freshly molted blue crabs is another way to say it.
“I just love it,” she says. “I love everything about it. I love being on the water, I love bringing the crabs in and checking the shedders, and I especially love watching people put the soft-shells in their mouths.”
The Outer Banks native loves crabbing so much that it’s what she does every single day during soft-shell crab season. She pulls them from her pots and tends to them in the shedders. And when they are just the right stage of soft, she carries them to the back door of her family’s restaurant, Basnight’s Lone Cedar Cafe, to be cleaned, cooked and served the same day.
Crabbing the local waters is physically demanding work, and Basnight is no stranger to a long day. The soft-shell season is especially short and intense, and the crabs in the shedders need to be culled around the clock.
“The work is mostly non-stop,” she says, “because the blue crabs could molt at any time.”
The lifespan of a blue crab can include multiple molts, and experienced crabbers know how to read a crab to tell if it is about to molt or if it is not even close. After being pulled from the peeler pots, the blue crabs are taken to a dock lined with holding tanks, called shedders, where trained eyes and fingers separate the crabs by their physical appearances. The ones that are deemed peelers remain; the others are returned to the water.
The telltale sign of a peeler crab is found on the inside of the back fin. This is not an obvious marker; it is subtle and the color is what tells the person sorting the crabs how long it will be before the crab is ready to molt. The marker is a tiny line near the very edge of the fin. The lines start as white, then turn pink and then red. The red lines, or “rubies” as Basnight calls them, are the most desirable, as they are about to shed.
The crabs are then sorted by line color into the horizontal shedding tanks that are filled with pump-driven, circulating water. The shedders are about hip high, so the crabber can stand and reach right into the tanks after a crab molts. The whites take the longest and may take many days to molt. The pinks usually molt within 48 to 72 hours, and the rubies could molt almost immediately.
“Oh, yeah,” Basnight says. “The rubies are the best, they bust quickest.”
When the crabs are just about to molt, they are called “busters” because that is what they do — bust out of their exoskeleton. And the newly soft-shelled crabs keep growing; when pulled from the water and placed next to the shell they just discarded, it is already hard to imagine that the crab once fit inside.
Basnight likes to pull her softshells for the restaurant about three hours after they lose their exoskeleton. “A lot of the boys ask me why I do that,” she says. “They try to tell me I should pull them at four hours. To me, though, three hours and they are perfect, and mine go straight to the kitchen, so they can stay softer. When the crabs have to make it in a truck to New York, then they need that extra hour.”
Soft-shell crabs travel live. When a blue crab molts, and three or four hours have passed, the crab is removed from the water. If pulled immediately after molting, the crabs stand little chance of survival. By giving them a few hours to stabilize, transportation becomes less risky. The time allows for a new shell to begin the growth process. If you leave a crab in the water too long, however, you will have a hard-shell crab. Once the crab is removed from the shedder water, the shell ceases to grow and the crab stays soft. If a crab stays in the water for 10 to 12 hours, the shell becomes more firm and the crab is then called a papershell. Most diners prefer the softest crab possible.
The season for soft-shell crabs varies; “Everything depends on the weather,” says Basnight. The weather can be a friend or foe. In 2014 crabbing came after the full moon in April and before the full moon in May. Sometimes crab season ends in the beginning of summer; sometimes it has a second or even third big pop that can occur as late as August. All one can do is guess and work hard when they’re here.
Basnight pays attention to the temperature and migration patterns that tell her when the season starts. Molting season is also mating season, and Basnight compares the business of peeler pots to the beach bar business. At the beginning of the season, a few lone males will enter the crab pot, looking for a place to shed. Sensing their presence, a couple of adventurous females find their way in.
“That’s when we find doubled-crabs,” explains Basnight. “Then we know it is time to set the pots with jimmies.”
The “jimmy” is the big-money attraction and is highly prized for its ability to attract the ladies. He even has a stage — a little cage inside the crab pot. The magic happens when he sends out invitations and the molting madonnas start lining up at the door. Of course, what happens at the end of ladies’ night, happens here, too: the jimmy has drawn more females than he can handle, so more gentlemen come in. Then the lights come on (the crab pots are lifted from the water), and along comes a whole new reality.
“It is a wild moment,” says Basnight. “It is just so cool. I still get excited pulling every crab pot, it’s like opening a present at Christmas.”
The love of the water and crabbing comes naturally to her, and she recalls being 10 or 11 years old when she got her own little boat. “I’d go out with nets and I would set crab pots,” she says. “I started out with mom and dad, or maybe granddad, in the boat with me, but it wasn’t too long before I was on my own.”
Basnight’s shedders are on a point of Roanoke Island along the Roanoke Sound. They used to be at the restaurant on the Nags Head Causeway but she moved them to her family’s land in Mother Vineyard after the last storm.
“It was ok, though, because it was like coming home,” she says. “The shedders are now at the dock I fished when I was 12 or 13.”
The name Mother Vineyard now holds a new connotation for the entrepreneur. It is the homeland of her newest passion, the muscadine, and more specifically, the scuppernong grape. With grapes, she is tending and harvesting from the earth too.
“I was fortunate to have my Aunt Della (Basnight) introduce me to wines from around the world,” she says. “She took me with her on trips to vineyards, and I just fell in love with the whole process. I knew that we had the history of winemaking on the Outer Banks and I wanted to learn more.”
With a busy schedule and nary a nearby institute of higher wine knowledge, Basnight traveled back and forth — five and a half hours each way — to Surry, North Carolina, every Tuesday and Thursday for three and a half years to earn an associate degree in viticulture and oenology.
“Four years ago I planted two small vineyards, one in Wanchese and one on Roanoke Island, about a half-acre each,” she says. “I had great help from my professors and other students in my classes. We planted 246 vines on the two sites and we did everything by hand. The roots have established, and grapes are growing. We made our first batch of wine last year and we plan to do it again this year.”
Basnight chose grapes that are indigenous to the area. “We considered other grapes, but didn’t want to spray, so we kept it native,” she says, wearing a huge smile. “And we have a new project in the works, too, in East Lake. We are seeking permits for 17 acres and hope to plant 10 of them with grapes.”
Basnight knows that things worth the effort take time, and she savors the anticipation as much as her daily efforts to get there. Rubbing her hands together as she affirmatively nods her ponytail, she says, “Sitting down to eat freshly caught soft crabs with a glass of homemade local wine, man, that will be crazy good!”
Meet Another Local Harvester:
Nicole Spruill of Coastal Farmers Co-op
The asparagus and other vegetables used in the recipes on the following pages came from another local harvester and food collaborator, Nicole Spruill of Coastal Farmers Co-op. Since 2008 the co-op has been in the business of connecting food producers with consumers.
Spruill and her team gather all N.C. agriculture and make weekly CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) boxes filled with seasonal veggies for distribution to members who subscribe to the weekly program. Having membership guarantees the farmers have buyers for their produce and keeps the system operations flowing.
“Our participating farms are located in surrounding counties — Pasquotank, Camden, Currituck, Dare and Hyde — and each one has special needs,” says Spruill of her complex vision. “Land stewardship is especially important to us and we do not approve or promote the use of any GMO products or chemically drenching agriculture practices. We support family-owned and operated farms and try to do whatever we can to help them get their fresh food to market.”
One of the crops that Nicole grows herself is asparagus. Sometimes the wild stalks reach 2 to 3 feet in height before they are harvested. The long stalks provide more food and are remarkably tender, and there is no waste. When asked why big producers trim their asparagus to such short lengths by comparison, all Nicole can manage is, “I cannot explain their madness.”
“What I do know is that by supporting our local farmers with a solid consumer base, we will ultimately help shape a farm’s food production practices, which will be a good thing for both people and the planet.”
story by Amy Huggins Gaw
photographs by lori douglas