Hunting land crabs for food is a part of St. John culture and probably has been so since the first human beings came here about 3,000 years ago. The primary use of the land crab is to provide the essential ingredient for the tasty West Indian dish known simply as crab and rice.
Land crabs, called Cardisoma guanhumi by scientists, pond crabs by British Virgin Islanders and jueyes by people from Puerto Rico and Santo Domingo, are the grayish-colored crabs that live in the network of holes found in low-lying areas near mangrove swamps, salt ponds, wetlands and marshes. They are rather large crabs, growing to about four or five inches in diameter not including their formidable claws. During the day you may see them standing just outside a hole into which they will quickly descend as soon as they notice your approach.
Land crabs live inside these holes or burrows, which go down on an angle and lead to a larger living area, where the crab stores food for winter dry spell. Parts of the burrow go down to the water table and there will ultimately be one or more alternate openings to the surface. The crabs only venture away from their holes at night or when it's raining in order to search for food. They eat just about anything they can find including their own young, dead things, garbage and worse. They are not effective predators, however, and as such their diet is usually limited to plants they find near their burrows.
An essential ingredient for the dish "crab and rice" is the crab. They cannot be bought at any store; so you first have to catch some crabs. Crab hunting is usually a group activity that takes place in the spring and summer on a waning moon, a time Virgin Islanders call dark night. This is when the land crab is most likely to be found out of its hole. Crabs are very skittish and have excellent senses of hearing and sight, so normally it is extremely difficult to sneak up on them and catch them. If you shine a bright light on them at night, however, they tend to stop in their tracks, blinded by the glare.
Catching crabs at night is locally called "torching," a name, which comes from the days before flashlights were commonly available and a torch was used instead. Torches were made out of an oily wood, aptly named torchwood or in later years would be made out of a piece of cut up truck or automobile tire tied to a stick.
Torching requires at least one of each of the following, a flashlight, a forked stick and a sack. Usually one person wields the light, another catches the crab and a third holds the sack. The beam of light from the flashlight serves to blind the crab and momentarily stops it from running away. The stick is useful to control the movements of the crab and to block up its hole if it tries to get back in. The goal is to snatch up the crab and put it in the sack. This is done with a quick sweep of the hand grabbing it firmly from the back and tilting it forward to prevent being pinched by the claws. Less confident crab hunters may wear a heavy glove as a semi-protection against this possible pinching, which can be quite painful.
Crabs can also be caught during the day. On method is to lay a noose over the entrance to the crab hole and secure it to a stick pounded into the ground. The crab and exit its hole with no problem, but when it returns it often gets snagged in the noose. Another procedure takes advantage of the fact that the burrow goes down on an angle. First you look down the crab hole and if you see the crab near the entrance you pound a pointed stick into the hole in back of the crab. This prevents him from going deeper in. Then you gradually pry the stick upward forcing the crab to exit his hole and into your waiting sack. There are many other methods including a hook with bait technique and the direct "stick your hand in the hole and grab the crab method." This latter approach can, however, result in a painful experience if not done properly.
Land crabs should always be purged before cooking them. The most important reason is that because they live in habitats where manchaneel trees are also found, and because they are immune to the manchaneel poison, they may have yet undigested manchaneel leaves in their system. Purging also improves the crab's flavor as it rids the crab of anything disgusting it may have eaten. To purge the crab you must put it in a cage with plenty of ventilation and access to food and water. Feed the crabs such things as cornmeal, table scraps, coconut meat, and crab bush. Keep the cage clean and periodically wet the crabs with water.
Enemies of the Land Crab
Although the land crab has a fierce appearance and sharp claws, this is not enough to frighten away all of its enemies.
The land crab's worst foe is the human being. Over the millennia people have devised and practiced many effective methods for capturing these tasty creatures. Even more threatening to the land crabs is the destruction of their habitats caused by land development. On many of the larger and more populated islands, land crab populations have declined dangerously. On St. John, however, where there are not so many humans and development is limited, land crabs are still abundant. Notwithstanding, they no longer enjoy the great proliferation that they did in the past.
Moreover, with their precipitous decline on St. Thomas and Puerto Rico, there is now a hefty price on their heads. St. Thomians and Puerto Ricans have been known to pay as much as five dollars a piece for these increasingly hard to find delicacies. Concern over these stresses on this natural resource, has led the Virgin Islands National Park to prohibit crab hunting in park territory, and crab hunters now must confine this activity to lands that are not under park jurisdiction.
Human beings, however, are not the only enemy faced by the land crab. There is a bird on St. John that hunts land crabs by night. The local name for this bird is "crab bird," but it is more properly known as the yellow-crowned-night-heron. The crab bird actually sticks its formidable beak into the crab hole and pulls the crab out. According to musician and naturalist Mano Boyd, the crab bird is able to kill its prey while the crab is still in its hole. This way they avoid the crab's viscous claws, which become considerably more dangerous outside the confines of the narrow burrow. Also, according to Mr. Boyd, the crab bird makes an ungodly racket as it attempts to break open the crab shell by pecking at it and by wildly swinging the crab against sticks and stones.
Land crabs also face another sneaky and deadly predator, the sly mongoose. The mongoose will try and sneak up on the land crab and, utilizing its great speed, will attack before the crab is aware of the mongoose's presence. Wilmoth King, however, tells a story of how a land crab once turned the tables on a mongoose.
As a youth King lived in Pine Peace and would go to the beach at Great Cruz Bay, which in those pre-Westin days, was a mangrove swamp with one small, but very sandy, beach area.
One day, while walking down the dirt road that led to the beach, King heard a commotion in the mangroves off to the side of the road. Being young and curious, he went into the mangroves to investigate.
About ten yards into the swamp, King came upon a life and death drama, a battle between a mongoose and a crab. The mongoose was stalking the crab, waiting for a time when the crab was not looking so that the mongoose could attack and perhaps bite off a tasty claw and then finish off the defenseless creature. The mongoose finally saw its opportunity. Thinking that the crab was not paying attention, the mongoose made a lightning fast charge.
The crab, however, was fully aware of the mongoose and its evil intentions. With a well-timed sweep of the larger of its two claws, the crab grabbed the mongoose by the neck. The hunter had become the prey. The mongoose squirmed and twisted, and squealed and wailed, but could neither bite the crab nor get away. Meanwhile, still holding firmly to the mongoose's neck, the crab would cut and snip at the mongoose with its other claw at every chance that it got. Within a few minutes there was one less mongoose on the island, and the crab scurried back into the safety of his hole.