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Cooking with Rebecca Bent

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Crab Picker Extraordinaire!

Hazel Cropper Hey, all you crab lovers! Here's a question for you: Who is the World Champion Crabmeat Picker of all time? None other than Crisfield's own, "Hurricane" Hazel Cropper. Hazel, who now picks crabs part-time for, has won the Crab Picking Contest at the National Hard Crab Derby more times than any other competitor since the contest started on Labor Day weekend in 1963. She has won eight years in a row, plus five more times, for a total of thirteen wins. Her personal record was picking 4.9 pounds of crabmeat in 15 minutes in 1991!

Born and raised in Crisfield, Maryland, known as The Crab Capital of the World, Hazel started picking crabs in 1947 at the age of nine. Taught by her grandmother, Meinne Bishop, picking crabs was a family affair, and she joined in with her sister, her aunts, and many other family members. In 1961, Hazel started work at Byrd's Seafood in Crisfield picking crabs, and continued on there for thirty years. "We were just like one big family," she said. "Every day at 9:00 AM, we'd stop work and sing The Lord's Prayer. While we worked, we'd laugh and talk, but we kept on picking." In fact, Hazel believes in giving a good day's work for a good day's wages. "Some people duck work, but I dive right in," she said with a smile. In fact, she worked two jobs for many years, picking crabs at Byrd's during the day, and then making corn fritters and onion rings at Mrs. Paul's Kitchen at night until 1991 when Mrs. Paul's closed. She entered her first crab picking contest in 1989 and won, and she's been winning and winning ever since.

Hazel Cropper"There were others who picked crabs fast when the crab picking contest began, people like Bernice Banks, Carpathia Miles, and Grace Ward. When I win, I honor them as well. I like honoring them as well as myself. And I feel good to still carry on…" Hazel is also grateful for the healing of a hand injury she suffered while cutting soft crabs. It left her unable to compete in the Crab Derby crab picking contests from 2001 until 2007, when she returned and garnered her 11th win. She's racked up three more wins since then.

Hazel said the secret to picking crabs fast is based on how you learn from the beginning. She had a sister that was fast, and Hazel used to watch her. She was taught to pull the claws off by hand, and then pull off the back. Next she would take out the belly and the eggs, cut off the legs, and skim the crab knife across the top, pulling the meat out with her knife. She does these processes over a trash can, so the shell can fall into the trash, not into the meat. Hazel is known not only for her speed, but also for picking the crab clean while leaving little or no shell in the crabmeat she picks. Although some places pick crabmeat by machine, Hazel has a strong opinion about that: "The human hand is still the best tool for picking crabs," she said.

Winning the crab picking contests has gained her a certain amount of celebrity and the opportunity to travel and display her talent. For example, she has given demonstrations at the Baltimore Aquarium and at Sunfest in Ocean City, Maryland. She also traveled to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to a food emporium there for several years, where she taught adults and school children about Maryland crabs and how to pick them.

Hazel Cropper"I like what I do," she said proudly. "It is God who gives us gifts. I thank Him for the gift I have been given, and each time I win, I acknowledge Him. I enjoy demonstrating my way of life, and also I am able to shed light on Crisfield, the town I hail from. I feel somewhat blessed to be able to do that." And Crisfield is blessed to have her. We are proud of her accomplishments and, most of all, her kind and generous spirit. May her legacy live on long after she's gone. And meanwhile, stop by and say hello to Hazel at The Crab Place in Crisfield. If you're lucky, she'll show you a thing or two about picking crabs!

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Monday, April 1, 2013

Crisfield Waterman, Philip “Moose” Labo

Moose Labo What's it like to make a living going out in a boat to catch crabs on a daily basis? For waterman Moose Labo, it's a labor of love. He started with his Dad when he was six or seven years old. He couldn't do much at the time, but by the time he was seventeen or eighteen, he was running his own boat and has been crabbing for over twenty years since then. During crab season, which starts April 1st each year, his day starts at 5:00 AM and ends around 2:00 PM, six days a week. When he first started crabbing, he had 200-300 crab pots. Now he has 900 that he has set out into the Bay, and each day he, and his two nephews Kris and Kam, and sometimes his Dad, go out to pull up the pots and bring in the catch for the day.

Moose said he loves being on the water and being his own boss. And, he added with a smile, "I really love it when I'm makin' money." "Makin' money" can be tricky for watermen. It's hard to know what to expect, and there is a great deal of risk involved for their investment in their boat, pots, and fuel. Sometimes they catch a lot of crabs and find that the price has dropped because crabs are so plentiful that they don't have much left after they cover their costs. Or crabs can be scarce, and they get a good price for the few crabs they catch, but not enough to make it profitable. "That's the hardest part," Moose said. "You put all the money you saved the year before into getting ready to crab again, not knowing if you're going to make it back." But then there are times when things align so that the catch is abundant and the price is good. Those are the times Moose enjoys the most!

Crabs in NetStarting out at daybreak, Moose also enjoys watching the sun come up from his boat. "There's some beautiful sights out there. You never know what you're going to see. Some mornings, eagles swoop down and pick bait out of the water. It's amazing to watch," he said.

Watermen also find some unexpected "treasures" in their crab pots besides crabs. "The other day we were clear off shore, and we found a golf ball in a pot. Sometimes we find balloons. When I was young, I pulled up a pot, and it had the ugliest creature I've ever seen in it. I liked to jump overboard! To me, it looked like a Chinese eel. I still get scared when I think about it," he said with a grin.

Moose Labo and CrewLike other watermen, Moose has had his share of scares out there besides the "Chinese eel." His biggest scare was when he almost sank his boat when a pot got caught in the wheel. The boat started taking in water, and although he managed to get the pot out, by then he had taken in a lot of water and "liked to lost 'er." The one thing that saved him was the false floor in the boat which was full of air. That kept him afloat until he could bail the water out. He was out on the water by himself with no cell phone at that time, so the situation could have been tragic. As he said, "I was young and dumb and didn't care then. I've got more respect for the water now."

When he's not getting pots ready for crabbing season or busy with life as a waterman, he works at the local Salvation Army Youth Club in Crisfield, overseeing programs and mentoring the kids. He said he loves it there too because he really enjoys working with young people. It's a good balance for him. Part of his life is out on the water making a living and part is on land making a difference. Either way, when it comes to Moose Labo, life is good.

Crabs on Dock Moose Labo

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