For Mom, Picking Crab Meat Wasn’t About The Money

In the ’70s, a lobsterman’s wife had a lot of obligations and little autonomy.

Mom's Hammer | Down East Magazine
By Angela Waldron
From our June 2021 issue

Bang! Bam! Thud.

Bang! Bam! Thud.

The impact from Mom’s hammer reverberated throughout the house. At the ungodly hour of 7 a.m., she stood at the kitchen sink, facing the window that overlooked our yard and the road that snaked along the shore of Seal Cove, turning to dirt before dead-ending in the woods. Tall and slender, like the spruces outside, she wore flared jeans and a button-down shirt rolled to her elbows. With her moccasin-clad feet planted on the brick-patterned linoleum, she brought her hammer down again and again, her oversized glasses — stylish for the ’70s — sliding down her nose.

Bang! Bam! Thud.

For years, each summer and into the fall, my mother picked meat from the crabs that my father caught alongside the lobsters in his traps. Some weeks, he barely caught enough to make a pick worthwhile, but most weeks, she spent three or four days at it. When she was through, she filled a brown-paper grocery bag or two with 8-ounce containers. Sometimes, she brought them to the wholesale dealer in Spruce Head, who paid her $2.50 a pound, but often, the dealer picked them up at our house, making the rounds to fishing villages up and down the coast, where countless other lobstermen’s wives waited to sell their weekly pickings. On a quiet morning, in any given nook or cranny of Penobscot Bay, you could almost hear the staccato rhythm of their hundreds of hammers.

The money was my mother’s to keep, and she often spent it on the antiques she collected, minus anything she paid us kids for helping.

My father mainly caught rock crabs (we called them “grass crabs”), orange, tank-like, beady-eyed monsters that seemed to lust for human fingers. But the jackpot for Mom was what my father called “dummy crabs,” lumbering brutes with big, thumb-crushing claws — packed full of sweet, easy-to-pick meat — which made them appear top-heavy, like a crustaceous Popeye. When the crates where he stored them were full enough, Dad took whichever of us four kids went sternman with him to retrieve the crabs from the mooring, where they were submerged. We quickly snapped off claws and tossed each crab back in the water, to grow more.

Mom was an introvert at heart, but picking brought out her competitive side.

Mom typically cooked the crab claws on Sunday, in preparation to start her week’s picking on Monday. With a sigh, she filled our 21½-gallon, black-and-white-speckled canner nearly half full of claws, adding just enough water to cover them before boiling. Sometimes it took her two or three boils to get through them all. The air in the kitchen grew moist and steamy. When the kitchen timer went off, its startling buzz interrupted the sleepy monotone of the Red Sox game but had no effect on the snores coming from the living room recliner.

Mom’s economy of motion, work ethic, and ability to multi-task landed her a reputation as one of Spruce Head’s finest and fastest pickers. She averaged around 70 boxes each week that she picked, but her personal best was 90. Mom held her hammer in her right hand and the crab claws, against a white marble cutting board, in her left. First, she brought her hammer down to separate the claw from the knuckle. Next, she struck the claw again, precisely this time, to open it with a clean break, never letting it shatter into pieces. Then, with a thud, her hammer dropped to the marble, replaced in her right hand with a narrow metal picker, to excavate the claw until it was clean of meat. She repeated this process until an 8-ounce container was full and ready to be weighed, wiped, marked with the date, and stored in the fridge, where the stacks towered like high rises. She stopped working only for her clockwork vice breaks: coffee, an illicit Benson & Hedges, and Days of Our Lives. Before you knew it, it was time to fix supper, do the minimum of chores that couldn’t wait, and then fall into bed.

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As the week progressed, Mom’s posture seemed to deteriorate, until, when the last claw was out of the canner, she looked almost hunched over. Even during the best weeks, picking created a kind of tension in the house, since it interrupted Mom’s usual routine and kept her from the tasks she’d normally be doing. On any given picking day, the sound of her hammer was our barometer of her mood. When the day was going well, its rhythm remained consistent, almost hypnotic. An irregular rhythm signaled distractions. If the day was going badly, Mom could make that hammer curse worse than a sailor, make it say things you wouldn’t dare think. Worst of all was when the hammer fell silent when it shouldn’t have. That meant one of us kids had fallen off our bikes again, or the twins were coming down with something, or a headache had blindsided her.

Mom was an introvert at heart, but picking brought out her competitive side. As the week progressed, she and the other pickers in her circle vied in a passive-aggressive contest, measuring one another’s progress by phone or during quick porch or kitchen visits. I sat, all ears, in the living room. It was like a squabble of gulls. Who had picked the most that week? Who had been paid $3 a pound?

I sat, all ears, in the living room. It was like a squabble of gulls. Who had picked the most that week? who had been paid $3 a pound?

In addition to picking, Mom still needed to do housework, prepare meals, schlep around four kids, and deal with a dog always on the wrong side of the door and an aloof black cat forever trying to steal a morsel of crabmeat. Sometimes, when she was behind or just plain tired, Mom would offer one of us kids the dreaded knuckles to pick: “Anyone need some money?” It was part offer, part plea, part implicit promise: I won’t get grumpy if you’ll help me — maybe we’ll go to Rockland later for ice cream? One of us almost always volunteered, keeping in mind the cardinal sin for a picker: leaving any bits of shell or cartilage in the finished product. Mom prided herself in the quality of her pick and didn’t appreciate a reprimand from the dealer — never mind word getting around in the community that she was a sloppy picker. She warned us in no uncertain terms that anything we picked “damn well better not have any shell in it!” Then she went through our boxes for quality control, making damn well sure it didn’t.

Like most of her fellow pickers, Mom was a traditional housewife who didn’t question her role. She loved being a mother, worshipped her own, and expected the same from us. Picking crabmeat gave her an opportunity to establish some financial independence outside of her household allowance and some standing among her peers. Seeing her eyes sparkle at the stack of green notes on payday made my heart smile. The day her pay increased to $3 a pound, she was on cloud nine, and she hadn’t even asked for the raise. Seeing her trounce our neighbor by 20 boxes or more always felt good too.

Making money was its own reward, but it was only part of the equation. A few years ago, before Mom passed away, she confessed to me her modest desires of that time: a modicum of independence and the opportunity to make her own decisions, to have her voice heard. Picking crabmeat had laid the groundwork for her — a young housewife who’d married at 17, totally dependent on her husband — to enter the world on her own terms. Eventually, after we kids were grown, Mom worked full-time, purchased her own home and car, and even sold antiques at flea markets from Maine to Florida. But even when we were kids, she showed us what a strong, determined woman could accomplish with hard work, grit, and stamina. She may have felt silenced when she was picking crabmeat, but I believe her voice was there all along. I heard it in her hammer.

When Mom had filled all her boxes, if some crabmeat remained, she transformed it into the simplest and best meal of the week: crab rolls. Crabmeat mixed with Miracle Whip in grilled Nissen hamburger buns next to Humpty Dumpty potato chips made for the finest kind of feast. The crisp-buttered-toast smell of the rolls on the grill wafted outside and announced “supper’s ready!” before Mom had a chance to yell it. The smell also heralded the end of another week’s pick, when we could relax around the table overlooking Spruce Head Island and watch Mom leaning back in her chair, laughing as she savored the fruits of her labor, down to the last crumb.


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Down East magazine, June 2021