EATING ON THE EDGE #20: The Crab Chronicles I

Centolla, the real king of crabs.

Grand thinkers from well before Marcus Aurelius to long after Monte Python have pondered deeply on the meaning of life: Why are we here? For me, however, the answer came in 1975, in a clear-as-crystal flash at a seaside table facing the South Pole. We are here to eat crab.

Argentina, if short on ashrams, is happily well-equipped with restaurants. I sat at one in Ushuaia, the capital of Tierra del Fuego, and ordered my first southern king crab, what locals call centolla.

Ten minutes later, a waiter handed down my centolla with the solemn yet ironic smile God must have had when he gave Moses those Ten Commandments. I had been given the Word. I would have to devote the rest of my life being Worthy, tracking down good crab whatever the sacrifice.

My job as a foreign correspondent helped. Indochina had ugly wars, for instance, but man, those crabs in tamarind, chili, ginger, black pepper, or black bean sauce. I've had crustacean epiphanies to rival that spiritual high in Ushuaia-I'll recount some in this space as I look for new ones. But it is tough to top Mount Sinai.

That centolla's bright scarlet carapace covered a manhole-sized plate, with long fat legs and monster claws artfully arranged on top as if by Gustav Eiffel. True enough, Moses' revelation carried more heft for humanity. But those giant handfuls of sweet, juicy crab flesh sure beat stone tablets.

The centolla, Lithodes santolla, is often called southern king crab because it resembles the Paralithodes camtschaticus we know in the Bering Straits. But next to it, even the noble Alaskan king crab isn't worth jack.

Because of the overfishing and climate change that spare no part of the planet, centolla face serious threat. Boats equipped with high-tech gear push out of traditional waters seeking larger catches of smaller crabs.

The foodie in me wants to say: hurry up try this remarkable beast while you still can. But the world-saving Quixote in me adds: remember that Red Lobster commercial in which a net chases the last undersea lobster to the tune of "Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide?"

While this occasional series, the Crab Chronicles, reports on my unending quest for the perfect crustacean, it will also talk about how to be sure our future kids also get a taste. Please post your advice, observations and thoughts. If you're from Alaska, fling all the brickbats you want. But first make a trip to Tierra del Fuego.

Mort Rosenblum
is a former Associated Press reporter now based in Paris and Provence. He is the author of several books including
A Goose in Toulouse, Chocolate, and the recent Escaping Plato's Cave, as well as a frequent contributor to Bon Appétit. Here, he shares memorable meals from his recent travels around the globe.

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