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Crab devotees claw their way to HMB

Cioppino fans outnumber locals 3 to 1

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Posted: Wednesday, December 7, 2011 5:00 pm

He may live in the East Bay, but on the first Saturday of every December Greg Oliver's heart (and stomach) can be found in Half Moon Bay.

A bib around his neck, Oliver, along with about 20 of his friends, occupied a long dinner table at the I.D.E.S. Hall on Main Street with one thing on their minds - crab cioppino.

Saturday night kicked off the start of what has become known as "cioppino season" for diehard crab fans across the Bay Area and beyond. Buoyed by the promise of the best crab stew to be found, a growing cadre of out-of-area seafood aficionados mark their calendars to attend every cioppino fundraiser at Half Moon Bay's Portuguese center.

The crab craving isn't cheap - tickets this year jumped to $50 a pop. For that night, Oliver threw down $1,000 for tickets for his entire party, plus extra for drinks. He insists he'll be at all three upcoming crab feeds through the season.

"It's just one of those rare events where you can let your hair down and have fun," he said. "I've been coming for 15 years - they know I'm loyal!"

That's nothing, scoffed Gary Jones, a burly gourmand from Pleasanton who prides himself on being a 30-year veteran of the crab feast.

"I came here like a magnet, and I've never wanted to leave! I know every damn person who has been coming here since then," he said, slamming his hand down on the table. "There's nothing better, and there's just no comparison."

The fundraiser dinner echoed with the big-fish stories of crab fans' devotion to the I.D.E.S. Hall's signature dish. Ironically, much of the money raised by selling expensive crab stew goes to buy a huge supply of beef, which is cooked and given away for free during the springtime Holy Ghost Festival.

A more subdued crowd of Half Moon Bay locals waited in a smaller side room.

The jockeying has a strategic element, some say, because visiting crab fans have to rely on I.D.E.S. board members to sell them tickets for the dinners. Some years, fans have been turned away because there simply isn't room.

Whatever its secret, the local I.D.E.S. has found the right recipe for packing in a crowd of about 700 people for each fundraiser. News of the crab dinner spreads entirely by word of mouth because the I.D.E.S. Hall never publicizes the event except for a nondescript calendar listing on its Web page. As an alternative, fans have taken to forming Internet groups to trade news and buy tickets in bulk.

In recent year, visiting crab lovers consistently outnumber locals at the event about three to one, said I.D.E.S. Board President John Furtado.

Organizers insist on keeping the cioppino recipe a secret, but they emphasize the long preparation that goes into one big meal. That process includes heating up the I.D.E.S. Hall's brick ovens five days in advance. The day before showtime, a crew of volunteers begin sauteing ingredients and cracking open about 1,700 pounds of crab.

On the afternoon of the crab dinner, the I.D.E.S. kitchen resembled a metal forge with a crew of men lifting pans of molten stew from the blazing ovens.

When the cioppino is finally ready, the crew lugs the hefty pans over to the main hall. The crab stew is spooned out into bowls for each table and brought out to the hungry guests.

People are known to applaud when they first see the cioppino come to their table.

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