Maryland's state sandwich not a simple popularity contest

Maryland's state sandwich not a simple popularity contest
Nancy Faidley Devine serves up a soft shell crab sandwich at Faidley's Seafood in historic Lexington Market Friday, Dec 28, 2012. A state senator is proposing the soft shell crab sandwich be considered as Maryland's official state sandwich. (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore Sun)

If you were choosing an official Maryland sandwich based on popularity, there'd be no contest. The crab cake would beat the soft-shell crab sandwich every time.

So, if the General Assembly enacts a bill this session that makes the soft-shell crab sandwich (rather than, say, the crab cake) the state sandwich of Maryland, it would be the biggest state symbol upset since the Wye Oak toppled in 2002.

Some Marylanders are supporting the undercrab.

"I love them. It is kind of iconic for the region," said John Shields, whose restaurant, Gertrude's, is a citadel of Chesapeake cooking. "From that standpoint, it's a good choice."

His customers, Shields said Friday, weren't so keen on the bill, proposed by state Sen. Richard F. Colburn, an Eastern Shore Republican. "I tried to do a survey in the restaurant. It's amazing how many people don't want [soft-shell] to be the state sandwich."

Shields said his customers thought the crab cake should be the state sandwich. They prefer it overwhelmingly. When soft-shells are in season, Shields sells about one to every four crab cakes.

Molly Abrams, who was visiting Faidley's Seafood at Lexington Market with her boyfriend, Robert Ryang, was also among those who thought the crab cake would be a better state symbol. "I don't think a lot of people are that aware of the soft-shell," she said.

Ryang got to know the soft-shell crab — reluctantly — during a one-week stay on Virginia's Tangier Island. Ryang said that Faidley's fried version was different from what he saw on Tangier. "It looked like a pile of baby crabs on toast," Ryang said. He got over it. "I ate at least two or three a day. There wasn't much else to eat."

Nancy Devine of Faidley's Seafood saw the logic of the soft-shell over the crab cake. "When I read it, I thought, 'That's a great idea,' " Devine said. "A crab cake can be made with anything. I think also, with a soft-shell crab, it's really hard to mess it up."

Shields also said that Gertrude's diners took issue with the choice because of the soft-shell crab's limited season. But Devine said soft-shell crabs freeze well. Steve Vilnit, who promotes Maryland crab meat for the state with a "True Blue" campaign, agreed. Vilnit was all for the soft-shell — or any crab sandwich. "With our crab being an iconic image of the bay, why else would we consider another ingredient for a state sandwich?"

Elsewhere, news of the bill was greeted with grousing about government fiddling. Richard T. Webb, president and CEO of a Hunt Valley credit union, thought it sounded like another example of how the Assembly wastes time and taxpayers' money. "I'd like to see a bill introduced requiring two existing laws abolished with the introduction of every new bill. Then the legislature could demonstrate their worth and efficiency."

Other than Smith Island Cake, the state dessert, and milk, the state drink, Maryland doesn't have much in the way of official foodstuffs. Consider Massachusetts, which has a state bean, cookie, dessert, doughnut and muffin — navy, chocolate chip, Boston cream pie, Boston creme and corn, respectively.

Colburn, who represents portions of portions of Caroline, Dorchester, Talbot and Wicomico counties, wants Marylanders to know about the bill's serious purpose. He said the designation could help the state's seafood industry.

"The soft-crab is more unique to Maryland," Colburn said. "This would actually help the seafood industry. There's also a better chance that the soft-crab you're eating is from Maryland. Crab cakes can be made with crab meat from Thailand."

Still, he's sensitive about appearing frivolous. "I voted against making the calico cat Maryland's state cat." It passed anyway.

"My wife didn't talk to me for a week," Colburn said.

If the bill passes, the soft-shell crab sandwich would become the state sandwich of Maryland effective Oct. 1, 2013.