No one dares dispute that the crab is a Chesapeake Bay symbol and that Baltimoreans salivate at the mention of its succulent taste, but another, far less storied shellfish has found a comfortable harbor in the local gastronomy.
The evidence isn't irrefutable, but a number of local seafood authorities say that when Baltimoreans vote with their mouths, shrimp wins over the storied crab. And a tour of Maryland seafood cookbooks dating from the 1930s shows steady inroads by shrimp over the years.
Restaurateurs and shellfish wholesalers offer strong evidence that shrimp are the biggest year-round seller, even if the dish in all its variations doesn't nearly possess the cachet of crab.
Crab takes the shellfish recognition award. Now that it's August and supplies are becoming more plentiful with each passing week, local appetites hanker for the delicate and sweet taste of crab meat.
Crab mania manifests itself everywhere. Hand-lettered signs along roadways announce curbside sellers who offer live hard crabs for $65 a bushel. Local seafood restaurants and waterfront crab houses promote all-you-can-eat specials. Families spread brown paper over picnic tables for backyard crab feasts.
Yet, wholesale seafood dealers and restaurant owners say the steady, year-round demand is for shrimp, which once had little attraction here.
"Shrimp are like peanuts. You put them out, they disappear," said Charlie Plitt, owner of Belvedere Seafood Co., a Jessup wholesaler.
"The market for shrimp is year-round. The demand is constant. And price has a lot to do with it, too," Plitt said.
Baltimore is so identified with the crab that its image is reproduced on key rings and T-shirts. Restaurant owners are aware of its popular following, but they know it is not the only game in town.
"Baltimore is known for its crabs, but it is really a very broad seafood city," said Scott Parry, owner of Glenmore Garden, a Belair Road restaurant-tavern. "People here don't realize how much shrimp they eat. It is definitely our biggest food seller at the bar. People come in, have a beer and a pound of shrimp."
Parry said the best cut of steak today costs about $7 a pound. The best shrimp are $11 a pound. Jumbo lump crab meat can cost $22 a pound in the winter.
"One of the most obvious reasons that shrimp outsells crab is because it is less expensive," said C. Peter "Buzz" BeLer, owner of the Prime Rib Restaurant at Calvert and Chase streets.
"Crab can run from $14 to $20 a pound, whereas with shrimp you get a less expensive, steady price year-long. There is more shrimp sold than crab. I keep three shrimp dishes -- stuffed with crab imperial, grilled and fried -- on the menu, in addition to shrimp cocktail as an appetizer. Yet crab imperial and crab cakes remain popular favorites."
He is quick to point out a necessary companion to steamed shrimp.
"Whoever said that steamed shrimp are only as good as the cocktail sauce was absolutely right," said BeLer, whose recipe for a tangy cocktail sauce is treated like a state secret.
At this time of year, the shank of crabbing season, the price of crab drops from the heights of winter. Crab outsells shrimp during the warm-weather months, but the shrimp have their ardent fans.
Even though it's that time when Baltimoreans are supposed to be smashing their mallets against the shells of the fat and big Little Choptank River males, a number of seafood fanciers are still saying, "I'll have the shrimp."
Wednesday is shrimp night at Showalter's Saloon in the North Baltimore neighborhood of Hampden. By 6: 20 p.m. on a recent Wednesday, 20 pounds at $7 each had left the kitchen and were on the tables.
Cook Vito Triola stood over a range facing two aluminum steamers as a waitress came in and clipped orders on a ledge atop the stove. The requests were for steamed shrimp, served mild or fiery.
For those who wanted their shrimp extra-spicy, he used Old Bay seasoning.
Because Old Bay -- or its generic equivalent -- is also used in the steaming of hard crabs, there is a taste link between steamed hard crabs and steamed shrimp at many Baltimore seafood houses.
"Shrimp is a slower seller in the summer because of the availability of crabs. But I still sell a lot of it," said Gary Showalter, owner of the tavern-dining room in the 3300 block of Chestnut Ave.
Showalter goes through about 150 pounds a week for various shrimp dishes, including shrimp salad, a lunch favorite, and shrimp scampi.
"I like Gulf of Mexico shrimp. If they send me anything that says Argentina, I send them back," said Showalter.
Craig Hasslinger is the fourth generation of his family to prepare and serve seafood in Baltimore. His takeout shop on Hillen Road in Northeast Baltimore is famous for its crab cakes, oysters and ++ shrimp salad. He, too, concedes shrimp's sales appeal, citing cost as an important factor.
"Year-round, shrimp probably does outsell crab, poundage-wise. I think people would prefer crab if it were more reasonable. Crab was so cheap years ago," Hasslinger said.
Crab has been virtually synonymous with classic Maryland cuisine for many years. Shrimp, however, is making inroads.
The 1932 cookbook "Eat, Drink and Be Merry in Maryland" has 17 recipes for crab and 33 for oysters, but nothing to say on the subject of shrimp. By 1963, however, the "Maryland's Way" cookbook included 13 recipes for crab and five for shrimp dishes. The 1985 work "Maryland Classics" lists 28 recipes for crab and 19 for shrimp.
The dining public's taste for crab and shrimp comes as no surprise to restaurant owners, who realize that many patrons prefer to order seafood rather than try to prepare it at home.
"Year-round, we sell more crab here than shrimp, but our most popular entree is shrimp stuffed with crab," said Otts Fratt, who has owned Glen Burnie's Sunset Restaurant since 1960. His cream of crab soup is a house specialty.
Fratt also has watched the prices on his menu's ingredients spike and plunge as the food market changed.
"Once seafood was cheap and meat was high. Now meat is low and seafood is high," Fratt said.
Ed Masket, owner of Kibby's restaurant on Wilkens Avenue, sells 1,000 pounds of shrimp a week and about 260 pounds of crab meat.
"With crab meat, you have to use it or it will go bad. Shrimp, by comparison, is caught and put into a freezer right on the boat," said Masket.
"If I had a use for the 200 pounds of shrimp shells we throw out a week, I could be rich by now," he said. "I thought about making them into ping-pong balls."
Pub Date: 8/07/96