They look like the claws of a “Jurassic Park” creature — some kind of weird prehistoric bird. But these claws, orange-red and pale yellow and black, aren’t prehistoric and they come from the ocean instead of the sky.
About 40 percent of Florida’s stone crab harvest comes from Florida Keys waters, and the sensational crustaceans appear prominently on Keys restaurant menus.
They’re stone crab claws, offering sweet and scrumptious meat that’s among the Florida Keys’ most popular (and rightfully famous) delicacies.
Once the stone crab harvest season begins each Oct. 15, these savory claws appear prominently on the menus of top Keys restaurants — triggering a veritable stampede of seafood fans.
Typically the claws are satisfyingly large, closer in size to a Maine lobster’s claws than a blue crab’s claws. Their commercial harvest dates back to the 1930s in Keys waters, and the hard ocean floor and favorable environment support healthy local crab populations.
Stone crabs have the ability to regenerate their claws, making them a renewable resource. Fishermen generally pull the larger of the two claws and then return the crab to its ocean home.
The claws are usually cooked immediately after being brought to the dock, by immersing them in boiling water and bringing the water back to a boil. Total cooking time is around seven or eight minutes.
What’s the secret to cracking the smooth, hard shell of the claw to get at the meat inside? Forget those squeeze-together shell crackers that are supposed to work, and instead use a method approved by longtime Keys residents: gently smack the shell with the back of a spoon, and it will crack cleanly.
The traditional dip for stone crab claws is made from mustard (choose your favorite) with mayonnaise or sour cream, plus extras like Worcestershire sauce or Old Bay seasoning.
Sally Mishmash (left) and Sandra Bradshaw feed each other stone crab claws during a past Stone Crab Eating Contest at Marathon’s Keys Fisheries. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)
One of the best spots in the Keys to savor stone crab is Keys Fisheries, located in Marathon. You’ll find the super-casual eatery in an industrial region off the Florida Keys Overseas Highway, right on the waterfront and surrounded by commercial docks.
A favorite of seafood-savvy locals, the establishment has a funky atmosphere that communicates the essence of the island chain’s laidback style.
Guests sit at wooden picnic tables on an outdoor patio facing the Gulf of Mexico, and the stone crab claws have that fresh-off-the-boat flavor that can’t be surpassed.
The quintessential crabs are prized so highly in the Keys that they even star in an offbeat competition: the annual Stone Crab Eating Contest held at (where else?) Keys Fisheries.
The 2023 munch-fest is set for Saturday, Nov. 4. Entrants must crack and chow down 25 stone crab claws faster than their rivals — picking the claws completely clean and leaving no meat uneaten.
Stone crab claws with mustard sauce are vastly popular at Keys eateries and food festivals.
In the 2022 contest, Lower Keys resident Bobby Hanousek far outpaced other contenders to finish in 10 minutes and 23 seconds.
Bobby, a commercial stone crab and lobster fisherman, admitted it was his first time in the competition — but his startlingly fast finish shaved more than four minutes off the previous record of 14 minutes and 29 seconds.
Stone crabs also play a starring role in the Original Marathon Seafood Festival every March. For more than four decades, local fishermen and their families have contributed stone crab claws and other fresh indigenous seafood to serve thousands of attendees who flock to the feast.
Not surprisingly, it has become a beloved Keys tradition.
Happily for those of us who crave the tasty claws, the stone crab season continues each year until May 1. So head for your favorite Keys seafood emporium … and “get cracking” on a plateful.