On Christmas, crab, and carousing
Membership in my family comes with a crash course in the local food vernacular. There’s no printed thesaurus (yet), but it all makes sense in context: “strawbuzzy” is synonymous with “strawberry,” “dee-doc-doc” with “chocolate milk,” “cheenies” with “raisins,” and “on-tream” with “ice cream.” And when San Francisco is our holiday meeting place,
“Christmas” means “Dungeness crabs.”
Of course, Christmas also means plenty of other things: feigned suspense as we peek into our stockings, four-hour one-person-at-a-time present-opening marathons, occasional “sad attacks” and stories of those no longer with us, a full afternoon in the kitchen, and the much-loved and much-dreaded Mannheim Steamroller Christmas album (keeping us cringing since 1984). But in San Francisco, crabs come before all else.
Christmas Eve begins with an elaborate table-setting ritual. First comes a layer of plastic garbage bags, finished with a generous topcoat of newspaper. A roll of paper towels is placed at one end, and nutcrackers—pinch-hitting as crabcrackers for the night—are strewn around. A clear plastic bag full of cracked and cleaned crabs makes an impressive centerpiece, candlesticks glowing on either side. We steam bowlfuls of green beans and cut thick slices of Acme bread, and glasses of chilled white wine in hand, we gather.
The carnage begins. Fingers sticky with shell shards and juice, we eat as though there weren’t a second to lose, as though we were afraid the crabs would reassemble themselves and sneak away if we let up the pace. It’s not for the timid, and die-hards have been known to go to great lengths to ready themselves. Witness Katie, in the foreground above, who, nursing a frightening Xacto knife injury this year, Saran-wrapped the finger in question so as not to be handicapped or unduly slowed. The crabmeat is sweet, delicate, falling-apart tender.
Our family being predominantly female, talk tends toward stories of false labor, unseemly gynecologic reactions to tetracycline, and late-night emergency trips to the hospital. [Jim and Andrew, this year’s token men, took refuge in each other and in manly, expansive gestures and grunts about football.] The wine flows freely, and we laugh and sigh and lick our fingers. And when the last shell is wiped clean, we roll up the newspaper, shove it into bags, and carry it out to the garbage. It’s as though nothing had happened at all.
But we linger at the table, united by a passion for sugar, surely genetic. This year, inspired by Clotilde, I cobbled together a pear-banana-hazelnut crumble, which we served warm with soft, spoon-coating vanilla ice cream. We laughed and sighed and licked our spoons.
Thus begins Christmas, full-bellied and rosy-cheeked.
And now, as we draw it all to a close twenty-four hours later, there’s no special lingo–just a raised glass and a very hearty and belated “Merry merry!” from this little house in California to yours.
Eat up. There’s more to come.
I’ve always adored the crumbles I’ve eaten in France (where they’re pronounced “crum-bel,” somehow more exotic and suave), and I set out to do my best imitation. Crumble toppings in France, as in England, only rarely contain oats or other rustic grains, unlike the usual American version. This one contains only butter, flour, sugar, and salt. It’s rich and buttery—a knobby, crunchy, golden crust over barely sweet, wintery fruit.
For fruit filling:
About 7 large Bartlett pears, peeled, cored, and cut into 1” chunks (about 6-7 cups)
2 or 3 ripe bananas, sliced
3 Tbs sugar
3/4 tsp ground cinnamon
3 tsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
For crumble topping:
1 cup plus 2 Tbs unbleached all-purpose flour
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 tsp salt
1 1/2 (6 ounces) sticks cold unsalted butter, cut into chunks
Two handfuls of hazelnuts, coarsely chopped
Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
Place pear chunks and banana slices in a 9- by 13-inch baking dish. Mix sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl, and sprinkle, along with lemon juice, over fruit.
Mix flour, sugar, and salt in a large bowl. Add butter and toss to coat with flour. Using your hands, rub the butter into the flour mixture, smooshing until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs and butter pieces are between the size of a pea and a dime. There should be no loose flour. Toss in hazelnuts. Spread crumb mixture over fruit.
Bake roughly 40 minutes, or until fruit is bubbling. If the topping is not golden, place the crumble briefly under the broiler, watching closely so that it doesn’t burn. Let cool at least fifteen minutes before serving.
Serves 8 to 10.