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Making crab cakes takes a gentle touch

TILGHMAN ISLAND — TILGHMAN ISLAND - As Cornell Hunter finished his lunch, he sat back and engaged in the arbitrary yet habit-forming pastime of rating crab cakes.

Always a popular regional undertaking, crab-cake rating reaches its height in the coming weeks. The crab-eating cognoscente know that the weeks after Labor Day are when the waters of the Chesapeake Bay begin to cool, the crabs begin to fatten and their meat becomes sweeter.

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Looking at the remnants of the crab cake that sat before him in Harrison's Chesapeake House restaurant, Hunter declared, "It was one of the best I have eaten in the past six months." Hunter, a Northrop Grumman retiree from Baltimore, declined to give his age, but said he had been eating crab cakes for "over 43 years."

He said the dish was well worth the 80-mile trek that he had made from Baltimore on Saturday, traveling on a tour bus that took a detour to Tilghman Island on its way for Atlantic City. "It had a good, country style taste," Hunter said.

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The capricious nature of crab-cake rating became apparent as Zenette Mullen, another day-tripper from Baltimore who sat a few tables away from Hunter, offered a different assessment of the same dish. The Harrison's crab cake was good, she said. But, she felt it did not quite measure up to her favorites at Romanos restaurant in Glen Burnie, G & M Restaurant and Lounge in Linthicum Heights, Sea King restaurant in Randallstown, or for that matter, the crab cakes that she had feasted on the night before at the Windsor Inn in Woodlawn.

Still another view came from Joseph Lee who rated the crab cake as "pretty good ... it had that taste that I love." Yet Lee, who cooks for himself, a skill he learned 58 years ago as a 17- year-old soldier in World War II, said he would rank the Harrison crab cake as third on his list of favorites. Second place, he said, would go the one served at Faidley's Seafood in Baltimore's Lexington Market. And first place would go to the ones he makes with cracker crumbs at his West Baltimore home.

Eaters who venture into the realm of rating crab cakes learn to tread softly. There are some matters of technique to deal with - whether the binder is made with bread crumbs or crackers, whether the crabs hail from local waters or from afar, and whether the cooking method is frying or broiling. But the realm is awash with personal preferences, traditions and "momma saids."

Many crab cake recipes are handed down, like treasured pieces of china, from a matriarch to her descendants. Toying with an ancient crab cake recipe or speaking ill of it can result in the offender being left off the Christmas card list or written out of the will.

The recipe used at Harrison's, for instance, has been handed down from the late Alice B. Harrison, whose family has been feeding guests at their Tilghman Island quarters for the last 100 years.

Betty Schall , the veteran cook at Harrison's, followed that recipe last Saturday as she prepared some of the 200 crab cakes that would be served at the restaurant that day. A large, lively woman, Schall said that while she would answer a reporter's questions about the recipe, she wasn't going to give away "all the secrets" of the Harrison crab cake. The issue, for example, of what exactly she meant by "seasonings" remained vague. Moreover her measurements were described only as a "smidge," no tablespoons or teaspoons.

She started with fresh local jumbo lump crab. Not only did she know where the crab hailed from - "Hooper's Island" - she also was on a first-name basis with Robin Hall, the proprietor of the nearby seafood house, G.W. Hall, that packed the crab meat. "If I call Bobby and tell him I need some crab meat, he'll hop in a truck and be right up here," she said.

Knowing that a true crab cake is held together by little more than will power, Schall was careful to use the diminutive when describing the amount of bread crumbs, ground from the restaurant's homemade rolls, that went into the binder. "It is just a smidge," she said, later elaborating under questioning that she uses no more than a quarter cup of bread crumbs for every 5 pounds of crab meat.

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Other ingredients that went into the crab cake, Schall acknowledged, were mayonnaise "the good stuff not the light," yellow mustard, ground mustard, Worcestershire sauce, a smidge of parsley flakes, a smidge of Old Bay and fresh eggs.

A crucial factor in success, she said, is the way the crab cake is handled as it is transformed from a bowl of ingredients into delectable orbs. You must use your hands, not utensils, and be gentle, she said. Schall offered an example of the type of touch needed for the job: "It is just like you do when you fish soft crabs out of a float, you run your hands through them real gentle."

When that example drew a blank look from her audience of city dwellers, Schall offered another. "You handle it like eggs that you don't want to crack."

The uncooked crab cakes are placed in the refrigerator. The cooling off period, she said, helps the ingredients "adhere to each other." Often she will put a batch of crab cakes in the refrigerator on late Friday nights, so they will be ready to cook on Saturday, she said.

As for the cooking method, Schall said, "nowadays a lot of people prefer their crab cakes broiled. Twenty years ago it was mostly fried."

Schall said she prefers the crunchy texture of a fried crab cake. She contended that since the crab cakes that go in the broiler are topped with butter, their fat content is the same as those cooked by quickly dipping it in 350-degree canola-oil blend.

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Schall also said that while she cooks hundreds of crab cakes, she doesn't eat many. She prefers steamed crabs, or as she put it "I like eating crab right out of crab."

A quick survey of a few crab cake makers of note found that they also preached many of the crab cake tenets that Schall espoused.

Nancy Devine, whose jumbo lump crab cakes at Faidley's in the Lexington Market have won plaudits from food writers around the nation, said the keys to success are using fresh Maryland crab meat, top quality ingredients and a light touch when forming the cakes. However, she uses crackers, broken not pulverized, instead of bread crumbs in her jumbo lump binder.

Patrick O'Connell, chef and co-owner of The Inn At Little Washington, a swank Virginia restaurant often rated as one of the best in America, said that while he "experimented with a fancy French style mousse of scallops as a binder," he ended up using Ritz crackers. His preferred cooking method, O'Connell said via e-mail, is to "dust them very lightly with flour and gently saute them in clarified butter."

Given the near unanimity of philosophy and techniques among top crab cake cooks, it seems likely that some of the difference in crab cake ratings can be attributed to the attitudes and beliefs of the eaters.

The quest factor, also known as the distance an eater has traveled to get to the crab cake, often figures in the eater's rating.

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Last weekend, for example, Anne Ressler an elementary school principal, had traveled to Tilghman Island from Williamson, N.Y. She had eaten a crab cake sandwich while sitting on Harrison's outdoor deck, watching boats bob in the blue water and feeling a crisp wind wash over her skin. She offered this appraisal. "The crab cake was excellent and the whole atmosphere was wonderful."

Regardless of their uneven results, eaters are likely to continue their practice of rating crab cakes. It is part of what happens when you spend time near the remarkable piece of water called the Chesapeake Bay. And as Levin "Buddy" Harrison said as he watched a stream of crab cake eating customers flow into his restaurant, "without the Chesapeake Bay, living in Maryland would be just like living in Ohio."


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