When Annapolis native Josh Morgan landed in New York City in 2009, he found that he missed a quintessential Chesapeake Bay summertime experience: The blue crab feasts ubiquitous in mid-Atlantic homes and restaurants. He quickly realized, though, that New Yorkers would be just as into the tradition as he is. “When I got here, I opened a Maryland-inspired kind of seafood restaurant, and we used to serve crab there,” he recalls. “I was blown away with how many people wanted the crab. It turned into a large-scale weekend event.”
And in 2011, that gave birth to Hammer & Claws, an annual end-of-the-season crab feast meant to give the Big Apple a taste of what Morgan calls “the ultimate dining experience.”
Each year, Morgan works with Shoreline Seafoods, a Maryland crab catering company, to bring hundreds of bushels of live crabs to the Big Apple via specially refrigerated trucks. Those crabs are steamed on-site in custom-built trailers, seasoned with little more than Old Bay, and then served by the heaping trayful to the masses who descend on the Tunnel at the Terminal Stores building (269 11th Avenue) for the party, cracking apart the shellfish to get to the sweet white meat within. The team estimates that it uses 37,500 crabs, 1,200 pounds of Old Bay, and 3,250 mallets over the course of the event, and that it pours 10,000 Abita beers to wash it all down.
The numbers make this a bona fide festival, but Morgan iterates that this is leagues away from the madness at events like Googa Mooga. “This is an anti-carnival festival,” he explains. “It’s a very unique dining experience. You have to sit down for three hours and really go at it. It’s very communal and very cathartic. You take the mallet and fight with the crab to get what you want. That makes the reward that much sweeter.”
For that reason, he also structured the feast as an all-you-can-eat event, because he wanted the party to be transaction-free once diners were through the gates. So a ticket nets you as much blue crab as you can prise free and stuff in your mouth plus unlimited Maryland-grown corn, Pat LaFrieda hot dogs, and beer.
This year Morgan’s added a couple of additional a la carte items, too: Attendees will be able to purchase steamed peel-and-eat shrimp–another traditional Chesapeake staple, says the organizer–and wines from the Gotham Project, the renegade kegged wine company from prolific wine-makers Charles Bieler and Bruce Schneider.
And the timing of the party, which falls near the end of the May-to-October crab season, is significant, says Morgan: “Crabs burrow in the winter, and when they come back out, they’re light and delicate. They feed, grow, and molt every 30 days, so they get bigger, fatter, and meatier. At the end of the season, crabs are the biggest and heaviest. Plus, demand drops after Labor Day, so you get good value.” Which is why he can offer an all-you-can-eat feast.
The two-day festival takes place this Saturday and Sunday, and it has three different seatings. You can purchase your $95 ticket to one of them on the Hammer & Claws website. Morgan suggests taking a gander at the videos there, too, for a primer on how to crack and eat the crabs. See one of those lessons below.