Once a throwaway byproduct of lobster fishing, the peekytoe crab is now a prized shellfish, often highly sought by the most discriminating chefs around the world. It is a Maine rock or sand crab, which took on the name of "peekytoe" around 1997. They are classified as Cancer irroratus, also known as bay crab and rock crab. Only rock crabs from Penobscot Bay in Down East Maine were called peekytoes until demand increased; now they are sourced from Rhode Island to Nova Scotia.
History of the Name
Peekytoe is the slang name for these crabs in the lobster fishing villages of Maine. Rod Mitchell, the owner of the Browne Trading Company, a seafood wholesaler in Portland, Maine, gets the credit for the marketing genius of referring to them as peekytoes, which caught the attention of many famous chefs. The word ''picked" is Maine slang for the word "pointed" and the word "peekytoe" comes from "picked toe"—"picked'' pronounced as two syllables (like picket)—because the crab leg has a very sharp point that turns inward. Others call them "picket toe" crabs. You will even find them called picky toe crabs on some menus. The Maine accent no doubt contributed to the resulting name of peekytoe.
The Picking Process
Peekytoes are caught in waters that are 20 to 40 feet deep in traps baited with bits of fish. The crabs are very delicate and thus can't be shipped alive. Therefore, they must be handled, cooked, and picked very carefully. The picking process (removing all bits of shell from the meat), as well as a strict adherence to freshness, makes good pickers very much in demand by chefs who favor peekytoes.
Still a cottage industry in Maine, the best pickers are the wives of the lobster fisherman. Until food safety laws came into effect, the wives would do the picking in their own kitchens. Many high-end chefs favor certain pickers and will only purchase their peekytoe crab from particular distributors.
Ways to Eat Peekytoe
The peekytoe meat is white with little bits of pink; it has a sweet, delicate flavor, more so than other types of Maine crab. If you order peekytoe in a restaurant it will most likely be prepared simply, such as in a fresh salad with a light vinaigrette. Maine residents, on the other hand, most often cut up the peekytoe crabmeat, mix it with mayonnaise, and serve in hot dog rolls (similar to a lobster roll), or make them into crab cakes. It's also great in dips and spreads. Peekytoe crabmeat can be used in virtually any recipe where crab is required. Maine crab, stone crab, or Dungeness crab can be substituted for peekytoe as long as it is fresh and unpasteurized.
How to Get Peekytoe
Although peekytoe crab is both privately and commercially produced (which is often a lesser quality due to the amount of shell and combination of crab), you cannot find it at the fish market. This type of crab is only available directly to chefs. If you happen to be driving through Maine, however, you may see a few signs here and there on a mailbox or house that read "Crab Meat;" these belong to Maine crab pickers, and although it may not be guaranteed to be peekytoe, it's worth stopping in to see!