On very special occasions, the most outstanding discoveries happen by accident. When Ben Franklin was out flying his kite in a thunderstorm, and lightning struck the string and set a dangling skeleton key aglow, he knew he had discovered something incredible. When Ponce Deleon and the Conquistadors arrived on Marco Island and found freshwater springs, the handsome and wholesome Calusa Indians, and gave thanks to Saint Mark for finding the fountain of youth, Isla de San Marcos became Marco Island and another accidental but purposeful discovery came into fruition.
In a distant Autumn long ago, the Pilgrims of the Mayflower must have been off course. If the historical mariners had only driven the Mayflower south, just imagine what they could have found, grown, and harvested on Marco, Goodland, and the Isles of Capri. Arriving just before Winter in our neighborhood, the Pilgrims probably would have had a lot more fun foraging for food in the land that National Geographic claims is the best place for longevity in North America: Collier County Florida.
Even with all this food for thought, history is fact, and not wistful fiction, and the Pilgrims did indeed land at Plymouth Rock to spend a devastating first winter in the land of gray drizzle, howling Northeasters, and frigid temperatures that only an Eskimo could envy. In addition to suffering from bouts of severe illness, the Pilgrims were starving. It was not because there was nothing to eat, it was because they did not discover how to enjoy one of the best culinary experiences anywhere.
When life by the Plymouth Rock was dreary, bleak, and depressing, and the North Atlantic Ocean was relentlessly pounding the beaches with icy waves as big as houses, something wonderful was happening that could have changed everything and created an industry. As we now know, when the winter waves were breaking alongside the pilgrim community, scores of live lobsters were washing ashore. A completely new world of culinary delight and nutritional protein was waiting along the seaside, but the Pilgrims could only stare out at the ocean, wishing for a warm English Hearth and fireside dinners of boiled mutton and hardtack biscuits.
The Pilgrims from that first New England winter were indeed desperate, but as many of the homesick wayfarers had to admit, they just weren’t hungry or desperate enough to eat the giant insects from the sea that were tossed ashore and crawling around like big roaches with claws. Because no one harvested crabs or lobsters there was an overabundance, and historians estimate the average lobster washing ashore could have weighed up to ten pounds. Another amazing discovery happened much more recently, and this local culinary treasure has changed the seafood industry forever.
Once upon a time, there was a man named Ernest Hamilton. Ernest lived in Chokoloskee next to Everglades City and he was in the crabbing business. At the time, blue crabs were very much in-vogue and all the rage up and down the Eastern Seaboard. Blue crabs were also very popular in the restaurants on Miami Beach, but there was a problem with the blue crab harvest. It seemed another type of crab was sneaking into the blue crabs’ traps and the useless creatures were taking up valuable space. After all, if half the trap-space filled up with stone crabs, the crabbers would have to throw the unwanted crabs back and work twice as hard to produce enough blue crabs for the winter tourist season. The problem as everyone knew was when the stone crabs were cooking alongside the blues, the blues turned out great, but the flesh of the stone crab bodies turned to mush and the meat in the claws was overcooked and disappointing.
Ernest Hamilton of Collier County, however, was right up there with Ben Franklin and Ponce Deleon when it came to trying new things. He was the first to learn that the stone crab claws were more delicate than blues and that half the traditional cooking time was perfect. He also discovered how to stop the cooking process by blanching them in an ice bath to preserve freshness, and through this pioneering process, he created a true seafood sensation and a new industry that is now one of the biggest commercial fishing industries for Florida.
A few years later, the perceptive crabbers of Collier County realized that taking the whole crab was a mistake if the only part edible was the claws. From this point, a truly sustainable seafood industry was born by adopting the practice of harvesting only one claw at a time and placing the crab back in the water to regenerate another claw for another season. Even though taking both claws is not prohibited, even if they are legal size, it is not responsible behavior. With this unique method of “one claw conservation” in place, a truly bountiful and sustainable harvest is possible for future generations of modern-day pilgrims from around the globe.
Happy Thanksgiving to all the pilgrims that are visiting, and to all the Florida folk that are thankful to flourish in the land of longevity and delicious culinary creations. Ben Franklin discovered electricity, Ponce Deleon found Marco Island, but here in Collier County, Ernest Hamilton pioneered a useless byproduct into an international seafood treasure.
This article is dedicated to our local fisheries, mariners, and crews who are very much devoted to the stone crab industry. Special thanks to Kelly, Patty, and Damas Kirk and all the fine folks at Kirk’s Seafood for helping with this story.