World-class chef finds Key West crabber his inspiration

May 17, 2014 

My first sight of stone crabs could have been when my mother and father took us to Joe's Stone Crab in Miami Beach when I was very young. I'm not even sure we went to Joe's. But it's likely. My parents loved the lifestyle of the island back in the 1950s, while they were still young and still in love.

I remember some of the restaurants, but I was merely a boy. I'm sure I was not likely to be digging into the claws of crabs as much as I might have sought French toast with a river of maple syrup.

When I first came to Florida to live, I went clear down to Key West. I was 21. It was much more of a working fishing town than it is today. In the 1970s, the shrimp, lobster and stone crab boats still worked the harbor at Land's End Village.

The first place I cooked in was a barbecue place, the Midget. We lived at a former saloon named the Red Doors. I met a guy with long blonde hair and fair skin known by the name of Yellow Bird. Many folks had nicknames in Key West then -- Monkey Tom, Buckets, Sideways.

I met Yellow Bird behind the Half Shell Raw Bar. He had just gotten out of jail and was eager to get back his job stone crabbing. I was curious to know about life at sea, and Yellow Bird was a great guide. We drank from cold aluminum cans and enjoyed a smoke, too. He got a kick out of the fact that I was cooking. I couldn't understand why -- I was just a low-paid grunt laborer.

I came to a barter relationship with Yellow Bird. My boss let me take home the ribs at the end of the night that hadn't sold and had sat on the grill too long to be of use. Yellow Bird was allowed to take home a few pounds of crab after each trip out. He had his fill of crabs and I'd burned out on ribs. So we swapped.

I asked him if he could bring me some greenies (crabs not yet cooked) sometime. The crabs were always fully cooked and iced on board the boats. I was curious to see what could be done if I made a flavored broth and steamed them in that. Though he seemed intrigued at the notion, I never did get my greenies. But I did get a lesson.

He told me how the crabs reproduced. He said the male crab has to wait for the woman crab to molt (another way of saying lose her hard shell) before the male can make it with her. It's amazing to see that the male will stick around for hours, or even days, to protect her.

He added, "Too bad we don't see more of that up in our world." He also told me of the creatures that eat stone crabs: "Stone crabs get eaten by more than humans, bro. Grouper and cobia love 'em. It's a trip to see a turtle snappin' one in his jaws."

I confessed that I didn't think I could handle being out in the dark water with no land in sight for nights on end like he could. He finished a fragrant smoke and slowly replied, "I thought you were smart, Norm. The ocean is our mother."

One afternoon I went to visit him on the boat. I had not realized he played the drums. His drums were the plastic buckets that were used to deliver the stone crabs to the restaurants in Key West. He played them with a fervor. He was covered head to toe in sweat, sitting shirtless out on the deck in the open sunlight.

I went down to Key West the other day, just before Thursday's end of stone crab season. I ran into my old friend. He had gotten skin cancer from the life he lived. He was still going out on the water, but he had to protect himself with a hat and goggles. In fact, every inch of skin was covered.

He carried on with his work. When I looked at him scuttling back and forth across the deck, all I could see of Yellow Bird were his eyes -- like a crab -- wreathed in its protective shell, evading life's predators.

Chef Norman Van Aken began his cooking career in Key West in the 1970s and once oversaw the kitchen at Tavern 'N Town at the Marriott Beachside. In 2012, he co-wrote "My Key West Kitchen" with his son Justin. He is considered the creator of what's called new-world cuisine. This is reprinted from the Miami Herald.

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