The crab cake once was a humble second-day meal, composed of the gleanings of a crab feast — flavorful claw meat and, if you were lucky, unbroken pieces of backfin. The restaurant crab cake of today, almost without exception, is made with jumbo lump, a packing category that didn't even exist a few generations ago.
And there's another major difference: In the old days, the crab cake served in Baltimore restaurants was made from Maryland crab meat. These days, it hardly ever is.
Instead, restaurants are relying on imported crab meat, in part because of the modern diner's mania for jumbo and even so-called colossal lumps.
In the best of times, Maryland crab meat processors face stiff competition from their Chesapeake neighbors and those using Gulf of Mexico crabs. But for the love of the lump, restaurants increasingly rely on crab meat from South America and Asia — specifically, Venezuela and Indonesia.
Both are consistently available at a lower cost than Maryland crab meat, although the difference in price fluctuates, from $1 to $10 a pound.
This would be just another story of a foreign producer outperforming a domestic one, except for one thing: Crab meat from Indonesia and Venezuela, many chefs and diners agree, simply isn't as good Maryland's crab meat.
"It's not even close," says Benjamin Lambert, the executive chef at Wit & Wisdom, the anchor restaurant at the new Four Seasons Baltimore.
Lambert knew two things about the menu he'd be creating in Baltimore — it would have a crab cake, and the crab cake would be made with Maryland crab meat.
"That's the only crab meat used in the kitchen at Le Cirque," Lambert says of his previous post at the famed Manhattan restaurant. But until coming to Maryland, he had never tasted Maryland and imported crab meat side by side.
"The difference in flavor profile is very definite," Lambert says.
Amateur palates prefer Maryland crab meat, too. Steve Vilnit of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, which promotes Maryland seafood, invited State Fair visitors to a blind taste test this year, pitting Maryland crab meat against imports. Of more than 900 votes cast, 54 percent preferred Maryland crab meat, 34 percent the Asian and 14 percent the South American.
Crab meat is not crab meat is not crab meat. The Maryland crab builds up fat deposits to survive cold Chesapeake winters, making its meat luscious and sweet. You can actually see the flavor in Maryland crab meat, which is marbled with yellow fat. By contrast, its Venezuelan cousin idles in warm waters year round, which is why its meat lacks comparable color and sweetness. And the Indonesian crab meat is a different species entirely, the blue swimming crab, which yields beautiful lumps of surpassing blandness.
"Yes, you can buy cheaper crab meat, but then you have to eat it," Vilnit says.
Along with Alewife Tavern and Wit & Wisdom, Woodberry Kitchen is one of the few restaurants exclusively using Maryland crab meat. Asked by The Baltimore Sun to assist in a taste test, Woodberry chefs were surprised, pleasantly, that Maryland crab meat was clearly superior.
The state fair and Woodberry tastings were done with crab meat right out of the pack, but would their differences still be as pronounced prepared into crab cakes? Even using their house crab cake recipe, they easily identified, and preferred, the Maryland-sourced product.
But if you haven't had a crab cake made with Maryland crab meat lately, you might not know what you're missing, and as long as it's lumpy, you might not care. Restaurants depend on that, especially if they can call what they're serving a Maryland crab cake regardless of its provenance. But the state is considering an authentication program to change that.
Will it be enough? Marylanders might be sentimental about their historic crab industry up to the point where they have to change their habits. And until they do, restaurants will continue to turn to imports.
There are other reasons restaurants resist the local. The imports arrive shell-free while containers of Maryland crab meat have to be picked through, although Lambert says this is a negligible issue. "We put the crabmeat under a Salamander broiler for a few seconds. This turns the shells bone white, making them very easy to pick out."
Nothing will change until restaurants help diners get over the jumbo lump, which has become the standard choice not only for crab cakes but also soups, dips and omelets, which not only don't benefit from lump but arguably are worsened by it. If restaurants blended their crabmeat with regular lump and backfin, they would take some of the "jumbo lump pressure" off Maryland processors, Vilnit says.
At least one restaurateur, Woodberry's Spike Gjerde, said he "would love to be able to buy a whole-crab mix in a single container."
Did the wide availability of inexpensive Indonesian crab meat, beginning in the late 1990s, satisfy or create a consumer demand for jumbo lumps? Either way, the demand is here.
Perhaps the same thing could happen for other parts of the crab. If restaurants began using the rest of the crab, Maryland processors would supply it and have a better chance of competing against their big-lump competitors. And in the end, Maryland diners would be eating better crab dishes.