Every section of the United States has its little food specialties.
By now you've heard of most of them . . . Philadelphia scrapple, Georgia hoppin' John, New England Indian pudding, New Orleans pralines -- all part of a repertoire often rooted in regional fish, fowl or vegetable supplies.
In Maryland, this special food is crab cakes . . . and crab cakes . . . and crab cakes!
Basically, a crab cake is a filler-free cake made of high-quality blue crab meat from the Chesapeake Bay (or a reasonably accurate facsimile from Texas, Florida or Louisiana). It's lightly fried and served in a bun or with bread and escorted with minimal trimmings, usually just lettuce and a tomato slice or two.
Over the years this one-time 50-cent barroom snack has graduated into a dressy luncheon dish that can cost $7 or $8 depending on the time of year (crabs are expensive in cold weather) and the trimmings. Despite what inflation has done to the cake (and you can make a dandy cake at home for about $2.50 to $3 each), it remains the ultimate Baltimore food.
Noted New York chef and gastronome Craig Claiborne, on a call to Baltimore in 1977 with colleague Pierre Franey, downed a sample cake or two. Mr. Claiborne said then that his first Maryland crab cake had come as "a devastatingly gratifying, unforgettable experience that could be likened to the first taste of a wild raspberry or homemade peach ice cream."
Mr. Claiborne added that the finest results could be ensured through the use of fresh, homemade mayonnaise and just a little egg white, a technique he explored with Alsatian chef Bernard Pfanner, of Danny's restaurant.
Perhaps the crab cake's peak of attention occurred about a generation ago on Capitol Hill. In 1963, Senator J. Glenn Beall tTC Sr., R.-Md., denounced the "Maryland crab cake" then being served in the exclusive U.S. Senate dining room as a fraud. "It tastes like sawdust," he proclaimed.
Shudders swept the Capitol Hill kitchen when the story broke. Senate chefs agreed to take lessons in proper crab-cake preparation from Thompson's Sea Girt House, an ancient Baltimore restaurant. (See its recipe below). Nearly 400 cakes were made Baltimore-style and consumed in an introductory luncheon for the solons, and hundreds more were delivered to mere congressmen. Soon Thompson's was air-expressing its crab cakes to celebrities, among
them, reportedly, Frank Sinatra.
Every Marylander seems to have his own concept of the crab cake and he will usually insist that "the less you do to it the better it is."
That would seem to be an almost Gallic approach to a culinary problem. One might think that something really does get better the more simply it is made -- that really great classics offer little room for variation, flair or even argument. But, darn it, that doesn't seem to be so in the case of crab cakes. They seem to cry for experimentation and controversy, no matter what local cooks tell you.
The fact is, there are many, many options. You must have the best crab meat -- back fin or the even more exalted "lump." But do you use wet or dry mustard? Or do you leave out mustard and let the mayonnaise carry the flavor? Do you allow a soupcon of chopped parsley, pimiento or green pepper? Do you crush crackers to add crumbs? (Purists hate the thought.)
Some cooks insist that only lightly beaten whites of egg should be used as binder while in many other recipes you toss in the whole egg, sometimes without even beating it. Worcestershire sauce is firmly recommended here and there and just as firmly outlawed in others.
In low-country Maryland on the Chesapeake and the Atlantic, cakes are made every year by some traditionalists only when "the first full moon follows the blooming of the locust trees," an astro-vernal occlusion that occurs sometime in May. This is because that time of year is when the finest crabs, after slathering around in Chesapeake Bay mud all winter, finally rise to warming waters and swim, unknowingly, into the waiting crab pots (traps).
A word of warning: Maryland visitors who spend any time grazing local seafood fare will run up against something formidable called "Old Bay" seasoning. This is a triumphantly loud blend of virtually everything-hot-spices that amateur crab steamers use by the boxful to hotten up their crabs. Maryland folk may blanch at curry but they love their Old Bay. The unmistakable Old Bay flavoring is like licorice or the New York Yankees baseball team. You either like it or you hate it. It's probably best used only in steaming, but some regional cooks also find a tad essential for the properly made crab soup.
All the recipes below, based on 1 pound of crab meat, generally will make six to eight fair-sized cakes.
Maryland's Eastern Shore used to be regarded as almost a separate state (some say country) but this Tidewater heaven produced many a governor, including the husband of gracious Helen Avalynne Tawes, a Maryland first lady in the 1970s. Baltimore purists (who insist that a crab cake is almost nothing but lump crab meat) and other Western Maryland types tend to think this peppery, down-home economy cake, (made, heretically, with crab claw meat), is odd but it is, nevertheless, a classic.
Mrs. Millard Tawes' crab cakes
1 pound Maryland crab claw meat
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
1 tablespoon horseradish mustard
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
Combine all above ingredients including the unbeaten eggs and mix lightly together. Form mixture into desired size of cake or croquette. Do not pack firmly. Roll out a package of crackers into fine crumbs. Do not use prepared cracker crumbs. Then pat the crumbs lightly on the crab cake and fry in deep fat until just golden brown. Drain on absorbent paper and serve hot.
The late Richard "Moko" Yardley, a longtime cartoonist for The Sun, popularized the crab-cake image in hundreds of cartoons over the years. This is his relatively complex formula for the cake. Yardley's measurements tended to be vague and some versions may differ slightly. This is the first published version dating from 1955.
Crab cakes Yardley
1 pound Maryland crab meat
1 beaten egg
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
2 teaspoons finely chopped parsley
2 slices fresh bread, finely crumbled
salt and pepper to taste
Make into six to eight cakes and fry in butter or bacon fat.
Here is the 1963 recipe that rescued the Maryland crab cake from the ignoble "sawdust" variety then being served in the U.S. Senate dining room. Thompson's was vague about the proportion of spices, but a 1/2 teaspoon of dry mustard might do justice to a pound of crab.
Thompson's crab cakes
1 pound of back fin crab meat
1 1/2 tablespoons finely crumbled cracker crumbs sprinkled on meat
a pinch of parsley, worked in lightly
In another bowl, combine salt (to taste), dry mustard, white pepper (to taste), -- of Tabasco, one whole egg and 2 tablespoons mayonnaise. Beat together and pour over meat. Shape into cakes then cook and serve.