Expat Foodie: Crab and the Meaning of Life

by Miss Footloose

While happily living the expat life in the tropical, exotic country of Ghana in West Africa, my mate and I went on a short visit to non-exotic suburban Virginia in the USA and while there I suffered through an excruciating cultural experience. Whoever says America has no culture has never been to Joe’s Crab Shack. One day my friend Suzanne called to make arrangements for a seafood dinner at mentioned Shack with a group of old friends we’d cultivated during our Virginia days. It was my birthday, and I was in a festive mood. Here’s the nightmare:

Photo by shouldbhappy / CC BY-NC
A mutant crab fished from radioactive waters? No, brain cells.


“Joe’s Crab Shack is such a fun place,” says Suzanne, all bubbly with enthusiasm. “And you don’t have to dress up!” As if dressing up is a problem in suburban America.

“Really?” I say.

“Yes! You can wear whatever you want. It’s casual. They even give you a bib!”

This is good news. I am not a tidy eater.

“The music is really loud,” Suzanne goes on, information that considerably dulls my cheeriness.

And loud it is. The sidewalk vibrates like a ship on the high seas as the six of us approach the Crab Shack that evening.

Not surprisingly, the place is decorated to look like a tacky fishing shack, but it’s bigger. Much bigger. And it’s filled with people wearing bibs, ripping apart crabs with gusto.

We are seated and given menus. Drinks are ordered and arrive quickly, a white house wine for me. We discuss the various kinds of crab, screaming at each other across the table. I can’t hear a thing and I fight a rising tide of panic at the unrelenting waves of sound assaulting my eardrums. It drowns out my own words, my friends’ voices.

“You’ll get used to it after a while,” Suzanne shouts. At least I think that’s what she’s saying.

I put my hands over my ears and glance around at the other people. They are enjoying themselves, bouncing in their chairs to the rhythm of the music as they smash the crustaceans on their plates. It’s Friday night, after all, and after a week of stress and toil at the office, who wants to have a meaningful discussion? Taking out your frustrations by crushing dead crabs is more satisfying and more fun. I’m jealous, really. I want to have fun too, feel happy and joyful – it’s my birthday!

If only the music were not so loud. If only I could leave and find a less noisy Crab Shack, one for people with sensitive ears. But I cannot leave. I am doomed by friendship and love to suffer through this.

Why am I here? Everything happens for a reason, it is said. So what, in the cosmic scheme of things, is the purpose of my presence here? I have not a clue.

Two young waiters appear at our table and introduce themselves with pomp and pizzazz. They’re Ben and Jerry, I kid you not. They sport earrings and T-shirts with crab-cute legends. One sits down on the only empty chair at our table to join our cozy circle and give us the full benefit of his cool personality and his crab expertise. The other one, apparently a trainee, is left standing, which Suzanne declares is not nice! She always looks out for the underdog, Suzanne does. Ben the crab expert suggests she let him sit on her lap, to which she replies, hollering at the top of her voice and pointing at me, that he should sit on mine, since it’s my birthday!

This I really wanted to be announced.

Crabs are chosen and orders are taken. I select the soft-shell crab not only because I love it, but because I will be able to consume it in toto. Feeling battered and numb, I don’t want to expend energy in hammering, crushing and digging. I do want a bib, though.

I wonder if actually it’s the season for soft-shell crab. Ben informs me that the season officially starts the night of the first full moon in May, but that, to be truthful, the soft-shells he has available come from South Africa, frozen.

“Oh!” Suzanne screams, pointing at me again. “She just came from South Africa!”

“Not South Africa, West Africa,” I explain. Don’t ask me why I feel the need to make this clear since even my own friend doesn’t know. South Africa, West Africa, what’s the difference to a blond hunky American kid with galloping hormones, an earring and probably no high school diploma? These are uncharitable thoughts, I know, but charity gets killed off in the brain first thing when presented with deafening noise. It does, I’m living proof. Just look at this photo. You’d think it was of a decomposing osage orange, but really it’s my brain on CSD (Crab Shack Decibels).

Photo by Asturnut / CC BY-NC-SA

The kid asks me how it is over there, West Africa, South Africa, whatever.

I tell him it’s fine over there and order blue cheese dressing with my salad.

How about the wine? he yells. Do I want a refill? I contemplate a triple Scotch to anesthetize my suffering brain, but decide against it considering that enough gray cells are being killed off as it is. I can feel them wash away in waves. I opt for another wine.

In the mean time some sort of pagan ritual appears to be taking place–a parade of servers swinging between the tables doing the macarena. Customers sway and sing along sitting at their tables, and on the dance floor some brave folks gyrate to the rhythms as well.

This should be fun. I should be enjoying this, but all I can do is beseech the gods to let this be over fast so I can get out of here, reclaim my auditory sanity in silent suburban streets. Elbows on the table, I once again cover my ears with my hands for a modicum of relief.

The second round of drinks is brought to the table. We scream at each other some more. I don’t even try to keep up with the conversation and find myself slipping into a semi-comatose state. This is one of those opportunities to practice meditation – become oblivious to one’s surroundings, withdraw into the inner silence and know only the peaceful calm of the Higher Self.

My Higher Self doesn’t like the noise either and is in hiding, most likely on a very high mountain top in Costa Rica.

The food arrives, which tastes fine, but not spectacular enough to sacrifice my hearing for. As we eat we are entertained by a crew of servers doing a line dance with trance-dull eyes. (How many times a night every night can you dance around the tables before it looses its charm?) They hip-grind their way around the crowded room like a tribe of robots, some looking as if they’d rather be somewhere else – like jail, or a desert island. I can understand that.

In the meantime we have finished our food and our personal crab expert approaches our table and goes down on his haunches next to my chair to position his mouth in intimate proximity to my ear, not to make an indecent proposal, but to make himself understood.

“How bold and adventurous are you?” he yells.

I do not like the sound of this. I glare at him.

He grins blindingly white teeth at me, then invites me to the dance floor where he and his buddy will sing Happy Birthday to me in front of the whole crab-cracking, beer-swilling crowd.

What an invitation! Following him, I navigate myself to said floor in the middle of the shack. PEACE, LOVE & CRABS it says on the back of Ben’s T-shirt. Before I know what’s happening, he’s tying a grass skirt around my waist and the nightmare continues.

“You have to dance the hula while we sing,” he now reveals with a wicked grin, clearly hoping to mortify me. “We stop singing and start over if you stop dancing.”

Getting older has its advantages. One of them is that you care less and less about making an idiot of yourself. So I dance, as it were, swinging my hips and moving my arms in graceful circles. At least that’s the idea. It’s not a pretty picture, I’m sure, but I’m awarded with generous applause from the audience, which I can see because people are clapping their hands together with obvious enthusiasm. This soothes my crabby mood somewhat.

As I sashay back to my table, triumphant, I reflect that it’s very gratifying to be able to contribute to the evening’s entertainment at Joe’s Crab Shack. And with this thought enlightenment strikes:

Life is a struggle. Clearly, people come here to get their ears and brains tortured in the hope of obliterating the mental trauma of a week of trials and tribulations in the work place. If I gave even one of these poor souls a moment of escapist fun with my hula dancing, my time here has had meaning and purpose.

Even if it does give me a bloody headache on my birthday.

* * *
So, you think this was a bit over the top? You are so wrong. But now it’s your turn. Ever had a nightmarish cultural experience? Do tell. And just for fun, here’s the story of a cultural eating experience in exotic Ghana, also in a seafood restaurant, also with friends, and also with music: Expat Foodie: Having Something to Eat Ghana Style

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I’ve been to Joe’s Got Crabs (as we call it) and never understood the allure. Hubby and i generally have a rule about restaurants where teh waiters sing or dance during the meal. LOL

Great story! Have you ever been to a Ghanaian funeral? The ones with the massive black speakers piled up in every corner, with distorted music blaring day and night? I’m sure it’s worse!!! 🙂

It just happens that I have a Joe’s Crab Shack story too. Five or six years ago, one of these eateries opened in the town we were living in. My daughters, being teenagers at the time, had heard about the lively, (insert LOUD), atmosphere and wanted to go there for lunch. So, off we went to check it out. I parked the car and POP, I heard a sound. We got out of the car to see what happened. My brand new SUV’s brand new tire had hit a piece of rebar that was sticking up out of the pavement.… Read more »


I too have been to Joes Crab Shack while visiting friends. They think its great but I think the foods gross and yes it is too loud. I think I would only enjoy it better if I was drunk 🙂

Boy, did I enjoy reading this! I keep tissues in my bag to wad up and use as earplugs just in case I end up in places like Joe’s Crab Shack. Over-the-top noise drives me wild as do those waiters who are all perky and charming and in your face. When we go to the movies, I complain about the sound and my kids have to slink down in their seats so no one will know I belong with them. And you were such a good sport about the grass skirt: I’d have shrieked and run. And sure, Africa is… Read more »

By the way, if you ever publish these as a memoir, I’ll buy your book — seriously. And I’ll get my friends copies too, for birthday presents. And I should point out that I’m a serious tightwad. (I’ve said this before, haven’t I? Doesn’t matter.)

Love your story and it brought back not such good dining experiences in the USA. Not the same but my horror dinner experience was in a “Italian” restaurant in Seattle where they serve ridiculously oversized portions. The line to get in this restaurant was huge too and so I thought it would be a tasty place. Once inside I was horrified by the scene. Mostly oversized people with large white aprons where stuffing their mouths full of spaghetti and other foods. There was food on the floor and everywhere accompanied with loud opera music. I was getting nauseous and by… Read more »

Expat mum

Not had quite such a cultural mooment but you’ve just made me realise why middle aged (myself included) and older people do such cringingly embarrassing things. When I was younger I thought it was because they thought it was groovy, but no – they’re just going along with it and not giving a hoot! The joke’s on everyone else really!


I can’t think of a story like this, but sure did I enjoy yours!! And yes… I hate loud restaurants with mediocre food as well. And unfortunately going to a restaurant with small kids you come across a few like these, especially the ones with themes… hate hate hate it!! Luckily my girls are 7 now and we can bring them even to the fanciest restaurants and they behave, so these kind of restaurants I avoid above all costs!

Very entertaining, but I am surprised that you plucked up the courage to “dance,” despite your crabby mood. I hate when the lights are so dim, you can’t read the menu, especially when it’s printed in red ink.

I don’t do loud at all, unless it can’t be helped!! Sounds like you adjust fine!


ha ha, I haven’t been to a JCS since High School! that was The place for birthdays, only we usually had to ride a fake pony around the restaurant…? I think my worst dining experience was ordering soup in an egyptian restaurant because I wasn’t feeling well. I got an entire dead fish decomposing in warm water. Surprise, it didn’t make me feel any better.

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