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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Crabs and Beer

While you were watching the Packers Sunday, you probably had a bowl of chips, popcorn, or pretzels within easy reach. But in 19th-century Milwaukee taverns, the bowl on the bar was more likely to be full of dead crayfish lifted from a nearby swamp.

To hide their humble origins and make them sound more appetizing, these were usually called "krebs" (crabs). The little 3-4 inch critters were virtually free, since all it took was a little liver as bait to pull them up by the bucketful. And they were equally easy to cook, only requiring a boiling pot of water and a bit of salt.

A Milwaukee native named Bill Hooker recalled catching crayfish in the Kinnickinnic Marsh as a boy and selling them to tavernkeepers for pocket money. The Davidson shipyards were another abundant source of crayfish.

Nearly every Milwaukee bar had a sign out front advertising the price of its beer – typically five cents for a large draft – and the words "Und Freie Krebs" ("and free crabs"). Customers were entitled to a "free feast of crabs until satisfied" to go with their drink. Almost every saloon kept glass bowls heaped full of cold boiled crabs on its counters and tables for the same reason they put out those free pretzels today -- to whet the customer's thirst and keep the beer flowing.

By the 1880s, the growth of tanneries, packing plants, and coal docks in the Menominee Valley had put an end to Milwaukee crayfishing. A generation later, open bowls of seafood sitting out all day would probably have been suppressed by the first Progressive Era health inspectors.

For more information, see this newspaper story at Wisconsin Local History and Biography Articles.

:: Posted in Animals on September 8, 2012
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