“Ewww! Its guts and internal juices are dripping down the driveway!” my sister would screech in a squeaky six-year-old voice.
“Yeah, and now they’re dripping on you!” I said, while shoving half of the dead corpse in her face.
“Girls, stop playing with our dinner. We have to eat those,” my grandmom would say. My sister would be temporarily quiet and listen, while I would get the knife, hammer, and cutting board out. Ready to kill crabs.
Every summer we go down to the Jersey Shore. We do a gazillion things there. Go to the boardwalk, the beach, the pool, buy hermit crabs, go out to dinner almost every night, go for bike rides and so much more. Although the restaurants are very good and I wind up eating too much and regretting it, those meals are never the perfect meal. The perfect meal is one that is homemade. It takes all day to make it and it never lets you down. It always tastes the same, smells the same, and looks the same. I know this sounds cheesy, but it is because it really is made with love. My grandmother stands there creating the gravy all day long, adding spices, continually stirring, bringing that wooden spoon to her mouth, tasting it, and adding some more spices, and after about five hours it is perfect.
Early in the morning, on a day we’ve been waiting for, my sister, my pop-pop, and I get in his blue Escalade and drive to the fish market. The ride is long, but my sister and I sit in those large leather seats and talk about how good the macaroni is going to be and thinking of good names to give to the crabs before we kill them. After hours of driving, or at least that is what it seems to us, we eagerly hop out of the car. As soon as we walk into the store a strong whiff of sea enters our nostrils; the smell of so much salt stings our noses. My pop-pop walks to the front counter to secure our dinner while my sister and I usually play-fight with the figurines of shrimp and lobsters. After we get bored with that, we can be found pressing our noses against the glass of the lobster tanks. If one squirms just a little, we both scream. Just as quickly we are shushed by the creepy old guy in the back corner cutting off fish heads. Usually by that time my pop-pop has finished up with our “live” purchase. The hard-shell crabs are in a gigantic brown paper bag that wiggles every ten seconds and has wet splotches of what we think is pee.
The ride home is longer. Olivia and I sneakily turn up the AC and point the fans at each other and turn the seat warmers on and off. These games cause lots of laughter, which often gets us yelled at because Pop-Pop isn’t fond of giddiness. The need to be silent causes even more laughter. But we would be startled to silence when the bag in the back rustled.
This past year, when we got home, my grandmom and my mom were waiting on the driveway with a large knife, tongs, hammer, cutting board, and a huge pot. We immediately got into our positions; Olivia and I would grab a hammer, and my grandmom would get a crab out of the moving bag, sometimes bringing out several as they hold onto each other for dear life or like monkeys in a barrel. My mom gets the camera out, ready to get the perfect shot for our summer photo book. My sister and I decided to name the first crab Alvin; we always name the crabs in alphabetic order. We felt bad for the Y and Z, since we only ordered 24 crabs, leaving two crabs to share four letters. My grandmom would carefully line up the knife on the crab, right between the eyes; he knew his destiny and attempted freedom to no avail. I usually had the honor of going first, since my sister was too chicken. I smacked that hammer down like a fly swatter on an annoying mosquito, splitting the crab in half in one swoop. My grandmom would pick up the crab halves and toss them into the pot. Although they were dead they still managed to move a tiny bit, which fascinated me. We continued on killing them: Betty, Carlos, Daniel, Emma. Ryan would go run behind our mom and hug her legs while my grandmom would grab the crabs and the execution continued. Swoosh. Right down the middle. It’s quick and painless. After some time, I was brave enough to pick up a crab half. I remember being so proud. Showing it off like a badge of honor. Dancing with it and shoving it in my sister’s face, saying, “Hey, Olivia… here comes the crab!” and “Ahhh, there’s a crab on your head!” By that time, I was almost on the ground laughing, and she was crying, which only made me want to tease her more. But, as usual, I would get scolded and drop the crab back in pot. After killing our last crab, Yolanda-Zack, my grandmom would walk straight to the laundry room sink to begin the cleaning.
The cleaning takes a long time; we disappear, leaving my grandmom to do the dirty work. She has to peel the shells off and get the yuck out. Then, in a big pot she puts crushed tomatoes, oil, salt, pepper, garlic, onions, basil, oregano, a little sugar, and of course, the crabs. Being a good Italian cook, she doesn’t use exact measurements. She lets that cook, stirring when necessary. After a while, the smell in that kitchen is indescribable. She says that’s all she does but I don’t believe her, there is some culinary magic going on. The “gravy” goes on to be poured over linguini and the crabs get served up in a tempting pile of deliciousness.
While all the cleaning and cooking is going on in the kitchen, my sister, brother, and I are most likely in the pool, swimming and diving and jumping. We have contests to see who could stay under water longest, touch the bottom with your hand, and sometimes we even do shows with flips and handstands. We make up crazy jumps, like The Walking Person, where you just walk into the pool. We swim until we have purple lips, chattering teeth, bloodshot eyes, and pruney fingers and toes. Our fun has to stop when it is time to bathe and get ready for dinner.
Oddly enough, we all dress in white. It is inevitable we will all be wearing crab gravy down our shirts by the time our bellies are full. The reason for the white? That night, it’s a washing machine full of bleach. If the clothes have color, you can’t bleach the stains out.
We all pile into our chairs, the macaroni steaming from a blue-and-white bowl with a sunflower pattern on the bottom. We eat like kings. We scoop a ton of spaghetti on our plates, cover it with grated Locatelli cheese and eat and eat and eat. I just use my fork as a forklift and try to get more in my mouth than there is room for. My mom insists I twirl my spaghetti with a fork and spoon but I am too hungry for that. No time to twirl.
By the time we see that sunflower pattern on the bottom of the bowl we are all full and ready for a nap, but we have to clean up. There are piles of pots and pans as tall as the Chicago skyline. My grandmom, being the best grandmom, usually excuses my sister and me from cleaning duties to go to our room to watch TV.
My grandmom is efficient. She has that kitchen spotless by 9:30. Every evening, after we eat, she spends the rest of the night cleaning. Clearing the table, loading the dishwasher, mopping, and sweeping with her Swiffer WetJet. She will be in there alone, just cleaning, sort of like she has a bizarre cleaning disorder. She can’t go to bed unless the kitchen is spotless. Sometimes I try to help her but when I think it is clean, she gets out the Windex again.
This meal may not be for everyone, but my Italian family, at least four generations back, can close their eyes, smell, taste, and see the smiles around our dinner table as we enjoy our crabs and macaroni.