Since the shells harden again quickly, it’s not as easy as fishing for blue crab. Fishermen need to be able to capture them to deliver to restaurants at just the right moment. Thus enter the peeler tank or shedding tank.
Originally, they caught blue crabs in spring and then kept them in cages or enclosures in the shallows to monitor, but these days, a peeler tank is key. Fishermen go out and catch blue crabs, then place them in an open-top saltwater tank to molt. The female crabs only molt once in their lifetime, and both separating the molting crabs from the ones yet to molt, and then plucking the crab from the water at its softest point is key, so during this period, tanks are monitored 24 hours a day. It’s an extremely labor-intensive process.
Tarvin Seafood, a local seafood supplier on Shem Creek who sells wholesale to area restaurants, is one of the newest Charleston wholesale suppliers of softies, partnering with Marvin’s Seafood this year, who has been selling them retail for years. Marvin’s catches between 2,500 and 3,000 crabs per day to put in the peeler tanks, and once the crabs are completely soft, Cindy Tarvin explains, “within an hour they are removed to cool storage, which stops shells from hardening any further.” From there, it’s a quick delivery to restaurant back doors.
As for the taste? “It’s really the difference between eating a boneless, skinless chicken breast versus something like roasted chicken,” says Chef Kevin Johnson of The Grocery, who has served them seasonally since the doors opened at his Cannon Street restaurant. “The way the crab cooks in the shell, you get that sweet crab meat, the juice from the crab, and then a delicate crunch. It’s just delicious, and I love that they are hyperseasonal, a sign of spring.”
Charleston’s gone soft-shell crazy in recent years, so many, many places already have them and will continue to for the next few weeks or so. Here are our go-tos for sublime softies, when they’re available, and please note: softies are special. They sell out, are often served dine-in only depending on the day or the chef, or made to order, so please be patient.
Note: Soft shells come and go daily so be sure to check ahead with the restaurant to make sure they’re on the menu before you go.