Any guy that Guy Alexander’s daughter, Meghan, was going to bring home to meet dad couldn’t be afraid to get his hands dirty peeling and eating the meaty goodness inside a stone crab claw.
So, when the all-business Guy Alexander was introduced to Meghan Alexander’s boyfriend, Brian Roby, for the first time Sunday at the Sixth Annual Cortez Stone Crab & Music Festival in the parking lot of the Swordfish Grill and Tiki Bar in Cortez, he paid close attention to how Roby would handle a half pound of stone crabs.
Stone crab meat is a little less dense than lobster meat. Lobster tends to be a little sweeter, depending on whether it is a warm or cold water lobster. But stone crab is very unique.
Paul Moore, longtime Anna Maria stone crabber
Would the Indiana-born boyfriend rush up for napkins and be afraid to suck the butter off his fingers and thumbs, or, worse yet, not be able to figure out how to get at the crab meat or, the very worst, turn his nose down at the taste of stone crab?
The big moment came when the claws were placed before Roby, who had never been to a stone crab festival or even tried a stone crab.
The big moment was possible because, between October 15 and May 15, stone crab claws can be legally harvested in Florida, and stone crabbers out of Cortez and elsewhere are experts at taking the crabs out of the crab traps they are caught in, quickly removing the claws if they are over the legal length, then putting the live crab back into the Gulf of Mexico to regenerate its claws.
Roby had met Meghan Alexander when they were both employees at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa. He now works at Blake Medical Center while she is a State College of Florida student.
Roby got the test going when he popped the brownish shell off a cooked crab, revealing chunks of white meat in several joints, which he then dipped in drawn butter and popped into his mouth.
Roby did not hesitate to shun napkins and lick his fingers and thumbs after every buttery bite the way Guy Alexander did and the way other people were doing Sunday while listening to live festival music, which happened to be, when Roby was getting his test, the duo TH&C playing Hank Williams Jr.’s totally appropriate,“Family Tradition.”
Roby also loved the taste of stone crabs.
“He’ll do,” Guy Alexander said of his daughter’s new beau, who works resterilizing medical instruments at Blake.
“Can I get a copy of the part where he said I’m OK,” a smiling Roby said when told he had passed muster.
As for the stone crabs, Roby said, “I was expecting more of a fishy taste, but it tastes fresh. The comparison with lobster is accurate. I like this whole festival. The crowd is nice. The music is good and the food is terrific.”
A proud history
The festival annually pays tribute not only to the stone crab but to the four or five generations of families that have fished the waters around the town of Cortez, said John Banyas, owner of Swordfish Grill, N.E. Taylor Boatworks and Cortez Bait & Seafood retail fish market. He’s also the driving force behind the festival.
“We started six years ago and we have gotten a little bigger and better every year,” Banyas said of the fest, which dodged rain drops Sunday but still drew big crowds. “We’ve got more room, bigger tents, better bands, more vendors.”
The festival went through roughly 1,600 pounds of stone crabs Saturday and Sunday, Banyas said.
The festival menu, besides the live bands that played past 6 p.m. and vendors who sell art and other items, included stone crab claws, peel and eat shrimp, fried mullet sandwiches or nuggets, blue crabs and corn on the cob, among other dishes.
There were also plenty of stone crab experts around Sunday such as Paul Moore, who now works for Banyas but whose family has been in the stone crab business for 80 years.
“My grandfather, Jack Moore, was one of the first stone crabbers in Florida, here on Anna Maria, back in 1937,” Moore said. “Then my father and mother opened Moore’s Stone Crab Restaurant on Longboat Key and ran that for 47 years.”
The Moores sold the restaurant a few years ago, and now Paul Moore helps Banyas out every stone crab season by cooking at the festival or working on the fishing boats, whereever he’s needed.
“When the crabs come in off the boat they are what we call green and uncooked,” Moore said. “They have to be cooked immediately. They can’t be cooled while they are green or it will ruin them. They are boiled for eight to 10 minutes, then cooled in an ice bath and put on ice, where they are good for five to seven days. In the restaurants, diners can get them hot or cold and they are cracked and sent to the table.”
“You eat the meat out of them with drawn butter or mustard sauce,” Moore added.
“Stone crab meat is a little less dense than lobster meat,” Moore said. “Lobster tends to be a little sweeter, depending on whether it is a warm or cold water lobster. But stone crab is very unique.”