John Shields, Baltimore native, cookbook author, ex-restaurateur, crab expert and storyteller extraordinaire, and his friend Dolores Keh, Baltimore native, lifelong cook, wife to one chef and mother to another, are trying to explain to Maarten Wolvekamp, visiting from the Netherlands, just what it is about crabs and the Chesapeake region.
"It's one of our greatest treasures," says Mrs. Keh, "It's one that everybody enjoys when they visit us."
"It's the first thing you want to give somebody when they come here," says Mr. Shields. "Somebody comes in -- 'Have you had crabs before?' If they haven't, 'Well, we're gonna take you for steamed crabs.' "
He laughs -- John Shields laughs a lot -- "The reason for that is usually 'cause you want to make them look like a fool, when they have to sit there and try to figure out how to get into 'em, and how to get some meat out of it -- it's a lot of fun."
It is fun to teach people how to pick crabs, Mrs. Keh says. "Once they eat them, that's it."
"They can't stop," Mr. Shields says.
It's a beautiful spring day, and a nice breeze is blowing through the open back door into the kitchen of Mrs. Keh's house in Little Italy. The crowd around the table includes her son, Roland, a co-owner and chef at Amicci's restaurant nearby, and the room is filled with the heady aroma of the spaghetti sauce simmering on the stove. (Her husband, Rolando, also a chef, is at work, at the U.S. House of Representatives.)
Mr. Shields, who was a co-founder of Gertie's Chesapeake Bay Cafe in Berkeley, Calif., is back in his hometown to pro- mote his second cookbook, "The Chesapeake Bay Crab Cookbook." It features dozens of recipes from real Chesapeake cooks all around the bay.
Mrs. Keh is in the book ("Page 78," she says) with her recipe for Stuffed Shrimp with Crabmeat a la Dolores.
"I think it blends two really tasty shellfish together," Mrs. Keh says.
But the day her photograph was taken for the book, Mrs. Keh recalls, she was making her famous crab sauce for spaghetti, blending the traditions of her Italian heritage and of the bay.
It's not unusual to find Chesapeake cuisine teamed with other culinary traditions, Mr. Shields says. He notes that Maryland crab soup is based on the English meat-stock vegetable soup, and there is a recipe in the book for a Greek-style Crabmeat Pasticcio, and a couple of recipes from "Mama Lan," a Vietnamese chef at Gertie's -- Blue Crab Curry, and Vietnamese Stir-Fried Crab.
Blue crab is an amazingly versatile ingredient, Mr. Shields says. "We get a lot of mileage out of our crabs."
"I wonder if crab would go in ravioli," Mrs. Keh muses.
"Oh, absolutely," Mr. Shields says, recalling a crab ravioli dish he served at Gertie's.
"We do that" after a fashion at Amicci's, says Mr. Keh. "We have shrimp ravioli, with creamy Old Bay sauce."
"Oh, your creamy Old Bay sauce," Mrs. Keh says. "It is to die for." Then she remembers that she makes "eggrolls," with shrimp and crab, wrapped in "lumpia wrappers," which come from her husband's cultural heritage, Filipino.
Mr. Wolvekamp is beginning to get the picture. "We have that in Holland, lumpia, we call that Chinese food."
Laughter fills the kitchen. Despite sandwiches of meatballs and her tangy tomato sauce, and treats of tiny cream tarts that Mrs. Keh has been plying her visitors with, talking about food has made everyone hungry.
"Ninety percent of our day is talking about food," Mr. Keh says. "That's all we do."
"Just what we're doing here," Mrs. Keh says. "This is where my company and I are, all the time. They always say, if anybody should have a big, country kitchen, it should be me, because this is where I am all the time."
"I like this kitchen," Mr. Shields says. "It's cozy." And everyone agrees, remembering childhoods spent at the family table, coffee pouring in the winter, iced tea in the summer.
Family ritual is a big part of the blue crab mystique, Mr. Shields explains to his friend, Mr. Wolvekamp, who is a ship restorer back in the Netherlands.
"Fourth of July steamed crabs, that was a ritual for us when we were kids," Mrs. Keh says.
"We did that too," Mr. Shields says. "We would always have 'em out in the back yard."
"Lots of cold beer," Mrs. Keh says, "corn on the cob on the grill."
"Yeah," Mr. Shields says, "you had your cold beer and your ginger ale -- my Aunt Minnie would always call for the 'gingie' ale, 'Hon, bring me some gingie ale over here, my mouth's a little hot from all these spices.'
"They were crazy events. . . . You have to really experience a Chesapeake Bay crab feast to understand it," Mr. Shields says. "It's sort of a sense of community. It is ritualistic, and out-of-towners will many, many times say, 'This is so much trouble for so little crab.' And that's not the point. Once you're proficient at it, you can really get a lot of meat out of the crabs."
"The whole thing is the getting together, and you're talking and you're going on and on about old crab feasts -- 'You 'member 'at time back in '82, those crabs were so big, they were so heavy I couldn't lift 'em.' -- People really are passionate about crabs, that's for sure."
A passion for recipes
They're passionate about their recipes too. "In particular, crab cakes are very dangerous, a very dangerous subject. And crab meat imperial. Everybody has the family recipe."
"I think the topping is what causes the major discussion all the time," Mrs. Keh says, "what they put on top."
"Oh, yes -- or if they put something on top at all," Mr. Shields agrees. "With the crab cakes, you can get into the great debate, which has, you know, caused wars and other civil disturbances, of should it be bread crumbs, or cracker crumbs? Should you use mayonnaise to bind it, or should you use a cream sauce? Should you coat it or should you not coat it? Should you broil it or should you fry it? And any of these can really get you in trouble. . . . I've seen grown men get into fistfights over whose mother's crab cakes were the best!"
JTC Mr. Shields says in the book, which has three pages on "The
Care and Handling of Crab Cakes" and a dozen crab cake recipes, that he is biased toward his grandmother Gertie's crab cakes, which he grew up eating.
While many of the recipes in "The Chesapeake Bay Crab Cookbook" are traditional, having more or less been in the family for generations, some are new dishes people developed.
"For instance, Michael Paul's fish sticks," Mr. Shields says. "He's a fisherman, and one time he was fishing for blue gill. And the locals there were catching crabs. And at the end of the day, they had all this pile of crabs, and he had all these blue gills. So they traded.
"And he was trying to figure out, what can I do with this? And so what he did, he made this crab-meat mixture, somewhere between crab cakes and crab imperial, and then he would take the fillets of these small fish, and mound it on top, throw it in the freezer, just for a second to firm it all up, put it in Bisquick batter and fry them. And they would puff up and look like fish sticks, but they're all crab."
The whole thing that was so important to me and always has been, the reason I started writing this group of books," Mr. Shields says, "is that I don't think you can really understand Chesapeake cooking without understanding Chesapeake people. They really are a warm, loving group, they really are. To know their food is to be embraced by them."