Food & Drink

In a Pinch

J.M. Clayton Seafood Company celebrates 125 years of crab picking on the Eastern Shore.

The first day of crab-picking season at the J.M. Clayton Seafood Company in Cambridge this year was the morning after your tax returns were due. That’s April 16, a little later than usual, thanks to a long winter’s freeze.

The crack of the first claw at Clayton marked the start of eight months of processing crabmeat on the Choptank River, a season that almost exactly parallels baseball season. And, just like the national pastime, the big prizes come in September and October, the month of the greatest blue-crab harvests in the Chesapeake Bay.

Autumn—far removed from the imaginations of those who equate steamed hard crabs with Fourth of July cookouts and vacations downy ocean—“is when the crabs are migrating,” says William “Bill” Brooks, whose great-grandfather, John Morgan Clayton, known to all as “Captain Johnnie,” founded the company. September and October, says Brooks, 62, “is when the crabs are moving.” The same can be said for five generations of the Clayton family and many thousands of employees over the years, who, since the late 19th century, have moved ton upon ton of oysters and crabs from Maryland waters to kitchen and picnic tables.

Now in its 125th year, J.M. Clayton Seafood was founded on Hoopers Island the same year a Baltimore shipyard produced the first steel tanker ship in the United States and is believed to be the oldest working crab-processing plant in the world. Clayton’s crabmeat is coveted by high-end restaurants, including Wit & Wisdom and Gertrude’s. It is marketed under the name Epicure, the name of Captain Johnnie’s boat. “J.M. Clayton is vital to the survival of the state’s crabbing industry,” says Steve Vilnit, former director of fisheries marketing at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. The man behind the state’s True Blue program—which urges restaurants using Maryland crabmeat to label their cakes as local—Vilnit is a great booster of all the Free State’s 22 crab processors. “These picking houses allow watermen to harvest and sell their product throughout the season,” he says. “Without them, the history and tradition of crabbing would not survive.”

On Cambridge Creek, once busy with picking houses and now a cove of condos, the tradition is held together by a trotline of gentlemen’s agreements reaching back to the start of the company. J.M. Clayton works with 30 to 40 watermen, some of them the grandsons of men who dealt directly with Captain Johnnie.

Now at the helm of J.M. Clayton are three of Captain Johnnie’s great-grandsons. They are the sons of John Clayton Brooks: Jack, Bill, and Joe. Jack Brooks, 63, the current president, took over in 1989. Brother Joe “can do it all,” and Bill works the books, directs the wholesale market, and proudly describes his title as “family member.”

“I’m a seat-of-the-pants businessman,” says Bill Brooks of the unpredictable crab industry. “Every day we wake up and react to what comes our way.”

Jack’s son, Clay—age 36, fifth generation, and the guy who oversees operations—possesses a very valuable skill: He can speak a very passable Spanish to the mostly Mexican workforce of 60 or so and gets more proficient at the language by the day.

“J.M. Clayton is vital to the survival of the state’s crabbing industry.”

A few summers ago, Joe Brooks gave a tour of the plant to a writer from a Chesapeake Bay boating magazine. The story famously quoted Joe saying, “We always tell [the watermen], ‘We will buy all of your crabs.’”

“All” at Clayton ranged as high as 483,000 pounds of crabmeat in the bountiful 1980s, and dipped as low as 200,000 during a bad spell in the 1990s. In the past five years, the trend has fluctuated between 234,000 and 350,000 pounds per season. Explaining the handshake deal with watermen, Bill Brooks says, “We don’t want them looking for hot markets and then just selling us what they cannot sell other places. They have a market for all their crabs here every day they fish, and we expect them to sell us all of their catch.”

Though Clayton handles both oysters and crabs before shipping them out again for sale, it is the meat locked inside the hard shell of callinectes sapidus—most especially the sweet and delicate backfin of the beautiful swimmer —for which it is known.

Ask Bill Brooks to take a taste test by giving him visually identical crab cakes—perfectly rounded, with only enough filler to bind, golden brown, either fried or broiled—with everything the same except the source of the meat. Have one made from crab spawned in the waters of the Chesapeake, known by the Algonquians as Chesepiooc, a word akin to village “by a big river.” Make the other from an Asian crab, the portunus pelagicus, a blue crab native to the Pacific and Indian oceans with a bright black-speckled shell. Then ask him if he can discern the difference. “Asian crabmeat is denser, sort of pearly and has a definite aftertaste because of chemicals they use to preserve it for shipping,” says Brooks. “Ours has that yellow tinge of crab fat. That’s the cream—cream rises to the top.”

Captain Johnnie, a native of Accomack County, VA, started the company that bears his name in 1890 along a wooden pier on Hoopers Island. Business was good for the next 30 years. After the advent of telephones, trucking, and trains, Captain Johnnie realized that things could be even better if he had greater access to major markets such as Wilington, DE, the Midwest, and, with its plentiful rail connections, Baltimore. So in 1921, he packed up the whole kit-and-caboodle—including his workers and their families—and moved the operation some 30 miles north to Cambridge.

Among those who uprooted their lives to follow the work was Fronie Dorothy Jones. “That was my mother,” says 81-year-old Nicie (pronounced Nice-y) Jones, a recently retired Clayton picker. As a child, Nicie recalls, “I went out to pick crabs early in the morning, go to school, and then come home and crack more claws in the afternoon. I loved it, loved all the carrying on with my mama and the women I knew in the picking room. Oh honey,” she says, summing up her long life of work, “it was lovely down at that crabhouse.”

Both of Nicie’s parents worked at Clayton’s. Her mother picked there for eight decades before her death in 1992, starting as a child on Hoopers Island and staying at it—paid by the pound, what was called “piece work” in factory parlance—until she was nearly 90. In her prime, Nicie could pick about 40 pounds of crabmeat in a day and says her mother was even faster. The hours were long, the pay was modest, the season only lasted a half to three-quarters of the year, and workers’ hands took a gouging. Just like today. “People worked until they couldn’t work anymore,” says Brooks.

“Oh, honey, ” says Nicie Jones, “it was lovely down at that crabhouse.”

If the crabbing season follows the baseball season, its pickers are as competitive as the athletes who play ball. Each picker is given a number and their totals are put up on a white board as the day goes by. The number is also printed on each can of Clayton’s retail crabmeat for reference when complaints (“I found a shell”) or compliments (“best I’ve ever had”) come in.

Fronie was number 10 and Nicie labored under the number 12. “We have retired both of those numbers,” says Brooks.

“I wasn’t the best, but I was right there with ’em,” says Nicie, noting that the men steamed the crabs and the women picked them. “My mama was the best. She didn’t do too much talking, didn’t take many breaks. She just worked.” How fast was Nicie—who swayed rhythmically as she worked, as though singing a hymn—in her prime? “Oh my goodness,” she says. “When I started to rocking, look out!” For almost all of Nicie’s career, the other women at the picking tables were virtually all African-Americans from the Eastern Shore. The last African-American in the picking room today is Cornelius Johnson, a man on the other side of 80. Cornelius retired from regular picking a while back but comes in now and again to crack claws and keep busy.

By the 1970s, with workers leaving for jobs at a new industrial park in Cambridge, the challenge of finding Americans to work the crabhouse became so difficult that John Clayton Brooks and a couple of buddies invented and patented the “Quik Pik,’” a mechanical crab-picking machine. Although it was never as good as the human hand when it came to unlocking top-shelf lump meat from the baffles of a blue crab, it could pick 100 pounds in an hour. And while those machines are no longer in use, the company still uses mechanical pickers today.

The first year Clayton brought seasonal laborers from Mexico to keep the business alive was 1997. Without the federally approved “guest worker” system, which allows foreigners to work in the U.S. on a temporary basis, the Clayton firm would be packing it in instead of shipping it out. There are other signs that the crabbing industry is far more precarious than it was in peak times from the Depression through WWII, when Clayton employed more than twice as many pickers as it does today. Brooks observes that the average age of watermen is older than ever and their children are less likely to follow the family tradition.

Pollution from a range of sources, loss of habitat like vital bay grasses, over-fishing, and disease have all contributed to the decline of the Chesapeake Bay blue crab.

But that thing that wants to pinch the hell out of your finger if you get too close is a hardy scavenger, and Brooks has kept an old scrapbook of newspaper clippings from the 1950s through the 1970s that his great uncle cut out as a bellwether—it reported that things were dire for the crabbing industry.

Bill takes it all in stride.

Will there be Maryland steamed crabs on your grandchildren’s picnic table on some far off Memorial Day? “Absolutely,” he says. “Nobody wants to be the guy who catches the last crab.”