I could have done without my first bite of Gillian Clark‘s soft-shell crab sandwich at the General Store. As soon as I bit through the crustacean’s semi-soft outer body, I was splattered with a jet-stream of yellow-green matter, likely a combination of eggs and tomalley. My new shirt now looked like a painter’s smock.

My second bite wasn’t much better. I felt as if I was ripping into an old leather bag. I couldn’t understand what was happening. Everything else about the sandwich was delicious: the surprisingly sweet lemon aioli, the soft buttery Gold Crust bun, the salty, beautifully fried onion straws. But the star of the dish —- a genuine Maryland blue crab, Clark told me —- had gone rogue, betraying all of the other ingredients in the sammie.

In all the times I have eaten soft-shells, I have never had such a tough time biting into one. This sucker, though, was a damn hard softie. A few Google searches later, I think I learned why.

According to the award-winning book, Fish Forever by Paul Johnson, fishmonger to the star chefs, all softies are not created equal:

“Because of the extremely fragile nature of a soft-shell crab, it takes only a little rough jostling in transit to kill some of them, so the greatest care is taken to make sure soft-shell crabs arrive at the marketplace alive. They are carefully arranged in straw-lined flats that are packed in shock-resistant boxes marked ‘Fragile.’ They are then quickly flown or trucked to market.

“But be aware that some shippers will leave their crabs in the water for a little while after they have shed, which allows the shells to partially harden. These hardened ‘soft-shell crabs’ are stronger and more likely to arrive at their destination alive —- but they will be disappointing at the table, tough and chewy.”

In other words, my leathery crab likely had little to do with Clark, and everything to do with the fishmonger who sold her those crustaceans.