More Italian-American than Italian, crab gravy is a way to turn a few days at the beach into a gigantic pot of sauce.
If you looked in the freezer in the garage at my parents’ summer place in Ventnor City, New Jersey, you’d think they were preparing for a post-apocalyptic dystopia where the primary currency would be Cool Whip. But within the plastic tubs—the rows and rows of them—you won’t find industrial whipped topping but rather brick-red blocks layered with frost, smelling like the ocean. Crab gravy.
You might know it by other names, like crab sauce, but gravy is what Italian-Americans call it in my neck of the woods, which stretches from South Philadelphia to the lower barrier islands lining the Jersey coast like a splintered shipwreck. This is where you’ll find Ventnor, a low-key beach town that shares an island with Atlantic City. A latticework of waterways separates Ventnor from the mainland, bearing storybook monikers like Whirlpool Channel, Duck Thorofare, and Turtle Gut. This is, collectively, what we call “the bay”—and it’s where the blue crabs live.
Every summer from the early 1980s through 2014, my paternal grandfather, Mikey, rented a basement apartment with my grandmother, aunt, uncle, and cousins two blocks from the bay, a channel that cuts crossways through Ventnor like a watery gash. On Thursday mornings, he’d walk to the bay with his rusted metal trap and round wooden bushel. He’d bait the cage, hang it off the bulkhead, and wait for a hungry crustacean to skitter in through the trap door, locking it inside. Over the course of the afternoon he’d repeat the process a few dozen times and return home with a full bushel by 4 o’clock.
Crabs were sorted by size. Large crabs were kept whole. They would be steamed on Friday night, spread out on the Press of Atlantic City, blasted with Old Bay, and devoured, Mikey popping open the bellies like remote-control battery covers and scooping out the green guts and golden “mustard” with tanned, spidery fingers. The small crabs were for gravy. He’d pry off their backs and hose out their innards at the bulkhead, pre-prepped for Sunday.
Mikey’s parents (my great-grandparents) were from Campania—a part of Italy that’s not particularly rich with crabs or a tradition of cooking them. But my grandfather, who grew up with 15 siblings and worked different jobs all his life (barber, shoemaker, greeting card salesman), was just working with what was plentiful and cheap—or even better, free. And he wasn’t alone. Many other cooks in my extended family make crab gravy, and where we live in South Philly, it’s on menus at Italian-American restaurants like Mr. Joe’s Café and Palizzi Social Club and for sale in jars at pungent delis and bakeries like Iannelli’s and Pastificio.
My uncle, Tom, is now the steward of Mikey’s recipe, still cooking crabs in the same basement apartment on the same white stove on Baton Rouge Avenue in Ventnor. Tom and my aunt, Cookie, will set out the spread on a plastic flower-print tablecloth in their backyard, with long squishy rolls of Atlantic City bread and tumblers of Aunt Cook’s famous iced tea—a formula of freshly brewed Lipton charged with powdered mix from the Acme grocery store, where she’s worked for 48 years. Sometimes we’ll go there for crab gravy. Sometimes they’ll go to my parents’ place, in which case my mom will pull a Cool Whip out of the doomsday freezer before we head to the beach.
While my family eats crab gravy mostly in the summer, my mom’s freezer stockpile gets its start around Christmas Eve, just in time for the Seven Fish feast (a seafood-filled Italian Christmas tradition). It starts with searing the crabs in hot olive oil, which both adds color to the crabs and forces the sweet crustacean flavor into the fat that will carry through the rest of the ingredients. When their claws’ cobalt blue tint turns reddish coral, she pulls them out and adds garlic, onion, and red chile flakes. As soon as the aromatics are soft and fragrant, the crabs go back into the pot, where they’re smothered with canned tomatoes and left to simmer for an hour or so—this isn’t a high-maintenance, cook-all-day thing.
At first it just smells like regular marinara, but around halfway through cooking, the crabs release all their locked-up tidal liquor, infusing the gravy with the flavor of the sea, and the whole house smells sweet, heady, marine. You can’t get that intensity by just dropping a few nuggets of jumbo-lump on a pile of pasta.
She portions off what she needs for Christmas Eve dinner, then the excess is packed in Cool Whip tubs for a five-month freezer nap. In May, when it’s time to open the beach house, my parents truck the frozen crab gravy down the shore. Sometimes she’ll add cleaned frozen crabs when she brings the sauce back to life in the summer, so the old batch has a bit of new, like sourdough bread in reverse proportions.
Everyone loves the Christmas Eve crab gravy, but there’s almost too much going on to accord it the proper attention. In the summer, when nights move like honey through an hourglass, the gravy doesn’t need to compete against a Whole Foods sushi tray or a great-aunt who’s not supposed to be drinking that much scotch. And it tastes better, sitting around the table in a backyard, sometimes still in our bathing suits, air seasoned with salt and citronella, beach chairs drying in the driveway, concrete damp from someone’s outdoor shower, one of my dogs trying to eat the fluff of shampoo collecting like seafoam at the edge of the potted tomatoes.
Over the years, we’ve added to the table: wives, husbands, another set of cousins who moved in across the street. We’ve lost the grandparents, and the crabs are more often bought than caught. But the gravy remains, carrying us from summer to summer, in a Cool Whip container.