It's a hectic scene as legs fly through the air, people run in and out of the room and someone yells, "Fill her up!"
Steve Cole and Roger Hushour have just entered the kitchen and are straining to pick up and empty a large bag of crab legs, claws and bodies. The crab claws sound as if they are scratching the metal as they hit the bowl.
The kitchen fills with the strong stench of salt water as Lee Patterson and Chris Jacobson put on heavy green rubber gloves to transfer the crab to individual bowls for the tables.
"This is the deadliest catch," Chris Jacobson said.
Even though it may sound like the group is out on the rough seas crabbing, they are actually getting ready to serve 400 people at the Lodi Boys and Girls Club annual crab feed on Saturday night.
Describing it as Hell's Kitchen, Carla Cole is the backbone of the group, quickly giving instructions to the 10 volunteers.
She and her husband, Steve, have been doing this particular crab feed for 10 years and have it down to a science from the exact amount of food they need to order to the precise time to cut the bread or start boiling the water.
But even with all the experience, the key to running a good crab feed remains the same every year, Steve Cole said.
"A good core group of volunteers," he said. "That's what it takes. You don't need 100 people, you need a good core group that know what they are doing and don't butt heads."
About 400 people clad in bibs sit at their table ready to eat the delicious crustaceans. The cooks, weary from a day in the kitchen, send bowl after bowl overflowing with crab to the tables.
At the back of their minds, there are always the same nagging questions. Will they get it out fast enough? Will there be enough? Will everyone enjoy it?
"Our biggest fear is that we will run out," Carla Cole said. "I would just die."
Why crab feeds?
From December through March, it seems like every employer, organization and religious group in Lodi is having a crab feed. Having worked in different cities, including Half Moon Bay and Eureka, City Manager Blair King said he has never seen as many crab feeds as there are in Lodi. Councilman Larry Hansen said the fundraisers must be a good money maker, because all of the six he's attended this year have been sold out. He would go to all of them if he could, but many are scheduled on the same day. He imagines the appeal of the fundraiser is that crab is only available during a certain time of year.
"It's such a brief time. By next year, I'll be ready for it," he said.
One thing he has noticed is each feed is different in their pasta or salads, and some are even trying to expand the menu, with one feed including barbecued oysters.
"Everyone is trying to find a niche," Hansen said.
For Lodi, location is a major factor, Steve Cole said.
"We are close enough to the coast to get good crab, but far enough away, we don't have it everyday," he said.
1,400 pounds of crab
It's 12:30 p.m. on the day of the feed and Byron Franklin arrives from Stockton with about 20 boxes filled with 1,400 pounds of pre-peeled crab.
Steve Cole made sure to order the crab a week earlier from Franklin, who owns Stockton Seafood Express.
Franklin is one of the main providers for crab feeds in the area, and he said the number of events seem to grow every year.
The Dungeness crabs are pulled from waters ranging from San Francisco all the way to Alaska. Franklin gets the crab delivered to Stockton from Hallmark Fisheries out of Crescent City.
For the most part, Franklin said the feeds marinade the crab.
Because of a lack of refrigerator space, the Boys and Girls Club feed serves the crab plain with some cocktail sauce. Cole has spent 40 years doing marinated crab at PG&E's feed because he used to work for the company. He said it requires enough refrigerator space to be able to flip the crab around to mix up the marinade filled with vinegar, wine, garlic and fresh herbs.
But one advantage of the Boys and Girls feed is they plan for 3-and-a-half pounds of crab per person, which is more than the standard 3 pounds.
When the crab is served later that evening, Carla Cole expects silence.
"You don't bother them while they are eating crab," she said.
'You don't eat it gracefully, you eat it to enjoy it'
While it's still several hours until show time for the crab, it cannot stand alone. Bread, salad and pasta are traditionally included in the meal, and the volunteers take just as much pride presenting these dishes.
At 2 p.m., the newly arrived volunteers are all tying on their aprons and discussing the plan for the evening. The room is filled with steam from the 60 gallon pots lined on the stove.
With a 4-foot wooden pole, Roger Hushour stirs half of the pots, which are filled with spaghetti sauce.
What goes into a crab feed?1,400 pounds of crab
64 packages of pasta
100 pounds of salad
4 gallons of dressing
80 gallons of pasta sauce
4 pounds of parmesan cheese
50 loaves of bread
Three 6-pound cans of kidney beans
Three 6-pound cans of garbanzo beans
More than 90 bottles of wine
"You got to cook it low and slow," Cole said. "That's why it takes 10 hours."
While walking from pot to pot, Steve Cole says people every year say they come just for the couple's Italian pasta sauce, which includes ground beef, Italian sausage, red wine and bone pork to intensify the flavor, Steve Cole said. They also make another similar red sauce without wine and pork for any Muslims at the dinner, and a butter garlic sauce for any vegetarians.
The volunteers joke with the familiarity of people who have gone through this process many times. They dip pieces of the French bread into the spaghetti sauce, while shouts of "No double dipping!" remind rookies of one of the main kitchen rules.
Carla Cole is cracking open legs and bodies and says she looks forward to crab season every year.
"You don't eat it gracefully, you eat it to enjoy it," Steve Cole said.
At 3:30 p.m., the kitchen comes alive as Steve Cole fills a large pot of water and slowly carries it outside. Steve Carillo and Chris Jacobson put paper towels in the bread baskets and then fill plastic containers with cocktail sauce.
At 4:15 p.m., the constant sounds of knives slicing through Genoa French bread begin at about 4:15 p.m. The volunteers switch, with each person taking a turn cutting the seemingly never-ending supply of bread.
This is when Carla Cole begins to worry. She sends someone out to buy another 10-pound bag of salad. In 10 years, the kitchen has never run out of food, but it's a constant concern that the hungry eaters won't get enough.
Waiting in anticipation
Around 6:30 p.m., people stream in carrying bags of lemons, bottles of wine and containers of a variety of sauces. And of course, their own tool kits of crackers and meat pickers.
They mill around auction tables or head to the dining area to get their candle butter melters set up. Sitting near one large butter melter and another smaller one, Tracy resident Barbara Adams said she attends about two feeds a year, and luckily remembered her matches after forgetting them last year. She believes the crab feeds do so well because they are a family event.
"A lot of people don't know how or are afraid to cook crab, and it's a lot of work," she said. "Plus, this way you get to make a donation."
Lodi resident Jessica Camacho sat at a table with Dustin Lewis who made his own sauce, which he called A Bomb, because it contains Atomic horseradish.
Camacho said she has been to three crab feeds, and said they are popular because people can eat as much as they want.
Lodi resident Elda Moroz has another theory.
"Maybe Lodi is full of crabby people," she said.
The assembly line starts
While the attendees are putting on their bibs and melting their butter, the kitchen staff have already sent out the bread and salad.
Outside, Steve Cole and Roger Hushour are emptying the large pots of pasta into a huge strainer in a bowl on the sidewalk.
As they bring it in, someone yells "Cigars, cigarettes and pasta." They empty the pots as Jacobson is scooping out the sauce and adding it to the bowls. Carla Cole and Lee Patterson are laboriously stirring the pasta.
"If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen," Carla Cole says.
'Happy, happy, happy'
After the pasta, everyone eagerly glances toward the kitchen as they wait for the crab to be unveiled.
Inside the kitchen, bags are ripped open with the crab spilling out. The sharp claws fly into the bowl as someone shoves them out the window to the servers.
As the crab starts coming out, the crowd quiets down as their eyes fix on who is getting served first.
Crackers and pickers in hand, they eagerly start ripping into the white meat.
Hundreds of voices that had been talking and laughing are now replaced with a symphony of cracking as everyone opens the shells, picks out the meat and discards the rest in aluminum trays at the tables.
Carla Cole takes a break to walk around the room.
"They're all happy, happy, happy," she says with a relieved smile.As the crowd disperses with their bellies full, the kitchen staff breathes a sigh of relief and head out to greet family and friends. The Coles linger, grabbing boxes of seasoning and supplies they brought to the feed. In his "I have a crabby attitude," T-shirt, Steve Cole said he did not hear one negative comment from the eaters.
"It is a thing of pride," he said. "It has to be, or I wouldn't do it."
As Carla Cole grabs her purse and prepares to leave, she gets a text message from a friend asking what she and Steve are doing on Sunday.
"Ha, sleeping," she said.