Crab soup is like mother's milk to Marylanders, who are likely to begin any seafood feast with a cup of steaming tomatoes and vegetables that are host to chunks of gleaming crab meat.
Cream of crab soup, with its thick base of cream and its hint of sherry, certainly has its devotees. But there is something common, and comforting, about the spicy vegetable soup, especially at harvest time.
Overripe tomatoes, the last of the Maryland sweet corn, fresh beans and limas and our old friend Old Bay make this soup a winner - literally - at seafood festivals and cooking contests.
"I make the soup from anything that's in the garden and freeze it for the winter," said home cook Betsy Dawson of Annapolis.
Her husband, Ron, crabs on Sundays. They pick the meat out of the leftovers on Mondays and she makes the soup on Tuesdays.
She uses a range of vegetables, from cabbage to okra - whatever is handy - but there is one ingredient that doesn't change.
"You can't have too much crab meat in it."
Homemade may be the best crab soup. The delicate meat and vegetables do not do well after hours on a restaurant steam table.
Jerome Dorsch, executive chef of Skipper's Pier in Deale, who recently finished second in the Maryland Seafood Festival crab-soup competition, knows that.
"Fresh vegetables and fresh crabs," said Dorsch, an Anne Arundel County native who sharpened his knife under Emeril Lagasse.
"For me, it absolutely must have fresh corn. And fresh green beans. And fresh tomatoes. I can't believe people make it with frozen diced vegetables."
Diced tasso ham and applewood bacon, cooked on a very low heat, are his secret ingredients. He uses the rendered fat to saute the vegetables.
And the crab?
"I add the lump meat just before it is served."
Clearly a purist, Dorsch has created a middle ground between those who believe the soup should be made with a fish stock, as it often is in Southern Maryland, and those who favor beef stock.
He makes a crab stock with female crabs that have been roasted and simmered with roasted vegetables and herbs. And he makes a beef stock and a chicken stock and combines them all for his soup.
"The Germans would put a beef bone in everything," said chef John Shields, who is a student of Chesapeake cooking.
His research suggests that the German-style crab soup - with the beef bones - has its roots in Baltimore and the urban areas.
"Over on the Eastern Shore, they did it a little more simply. Tomato, okra and rice. Almost like a gumbo. But the stock was a crab stock either made out of a lot of live crabs or a lot of crab backs.
"They always believe that the backs were essential because there was a lot of fat in the backs.
"A lot of people started putting in ham hocks. That was more of a nod from the Southern or African-American style of cooking."
His conclusion is that Maryland crab soup was a natural evolution - cooks adapted their traditional vegetable soup to crabs.
"Every neighborhood would be a little different."
Shields said the writings of explorer John Smith include descriptions of Native Americans cooking crabs and combining the meat with sweet potatoes and cooking it in bear fat - an early crab cake, perhaps.
"It isn't hard to imagine them cooking crabs in water with whatever vegetable is around," he said.
Though there are recipes for cream of crab soup in old cookbooks, crab vegetable would have been considered a meal for the lower classes and recorded recipes are rarer.
"Crabs were a trash fish. Poor people would go to the harbor and get the small crabs or the she-crabs that were left over and take them home for soup," said Shields.
From a Lighthouse Window, a cookbook compiled by the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, includes a recipe from 1895 from the nearby Wades Point Inn on the Bay, known for its ham, fried chicken and crab soup.
Mildred Kemp's Secret Ingredient Crab Soup is a kind of combination of cream-and-vegetable crab soup. It has a tomato base that is thickened with flour, milk and half-and-half. (The "secret ingredient," a visitor recorded, is a pinch of sugar.)
Smith Island, which is often said to be the birthplace of Maryland's traditional foods, claims vegetable-crab soup, too, said Helen Van Fleet, who has worked for the Maritime Museum for more than 20 years.
"My aunt had a recipe that she got from her great-grandmother. That would put it in the 1800s.
"But it probably changed daily. They threw in what they had."
Tom Horton, a former Sun columnist and environmental writer who grew up on the Eastern Shore and says he has eaten crab soup since birth, remembers his mother's crab soup was full of - well - crabs.
"Shells, legs, chunked-up back fin, swimmers and all," he said.
He was shocked when his first bowl of city crab soup had nothing that needed to be pulled out.
Modern recipes for vegetable crab soup include everything from ketchup to mushroom pieces. From barley to rice to egg noodles. From a can of clam chowder to a can of V8.
But the essentials are carrots, celery, onion, tomatoes, corn, green beans and limas. Okra, potatoes, cabbage, barley and rice appear to be optional.
"Where I think people go wrong," said Shields, "is trying to do too much. Too many flavors, too many things. Just too much. You lose the emphasis, which is supposed to be the crab meat."
Just about every recipe includes Old Bay Seasoning.
Old Bay can trace its partnership with Maryland crab soup back more than 60 years, said Laurie Harrsen, a spokeswoman for McCormick & Co., which took over the production of the favored Maryland spice in 1991.
Old Bay puts the bite in vegetable crab soup. But if there can't be too much crab meat in crab soup, there can be too much Old Bay.
"It is everywhere," said Ned Atwater, the creator of Atwater's Ploughboy Soups in Belvedere Square. He makes Maryland crab soup every couple of days.
"It can mask a lot of things," he said.
Atwater uses cayenne and black pepper to kick up his soup. He also favors beef stock and chicken stock. Fish stock in crab soup, he says, is, well, too fishy.
He offers home cooks this tip: Whatever stock you use, strain it carefully before making your soup.
"A nice clear broth and the crab meat really stands out," he said.
That's the last of Atwater's few ingredients. He dresses the top of the soup with lump meat just before it is placed before his sharp-eyed customers.
"If we put something different in, like fennel, we will hear about it," he said.
"Everybody is an expert on crab soup."
Crab Soup at Cross Street Market
Serves 12 to 15
4 quarts water
5 cups peeled tomatoes or 2 cans (28 ounces each) tomatoes
1 can (8 ounces) tomato sauce
2 bay leaves
1/2 cup pearl barley
1/2 cup chopped parsley
1 tablespoon Chesapeake seasoning (Old Bay)
3 stalks celery, diced
1 large onion, chopped
2 ham hocks
1 beef bone
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
8 live blue crabs, cleaned and quartered, backs reserved (see note)
1/2 head cabbage, chopped
2 medium potatoes, peeled and diced
4 cups fresh or frozen mixed vegetables, such as diced carrots, cut-up green beans, corn kernels, shelled peas and lima beans, in any combination
2 pounds claw crab meat, picked over
Combine the water, tomatoes, tomato sauce, bay leaves, barley, parsley, Chesapeake seasoning, celery, onion, ham hocks, beef bone, salt and pepper in a large soup pot. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 1 hour.
Add the crabs and backs. Continue cooking for another 30 minutes.
Add the cabbage, potatoes and mixed vegetables. When the vegetables are tender, remove the ham hocks and pick the meat off the bone. Return the picked meat to the soup. Discard the bay leaves and backs.
Add the claw meat and simmer 10 minutes longer. Serve at once.
Note: Blue crabs used in soup recipes are usually whole blue crabs that are female or too small for steaming. To prepare crabs for use in a soup, drop the crabs into a pot of boiling water and allow to cook for 5 minutes. Rinse in cold water until cool enough to handle. Remove top shell of crabs, reserving shells for soup, as they add flavor to the soup as it cooks. Clean the body of the crab by removing the gills and innards. Break the crabs into quarters, and they are ready for use in a soup.
From "Chesapeake Bay Cooking With John Shields," by John Shields
Per serving (based on 15 servings): 234 calories, 31 grams protein, 2 grams fat, trace saturated fat, 23 grams carbohydrate, 5 grams fiber, 118 milligrams cholesterol, 819 milligrams sodium
Ned Atwater's Maryland Crab Soup
Serves 10 to 12
STOCK: 1 pound chuck roast
3 bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 tablespoon basil
1/2 tablespoon fennel
1 tablespoon paprika
1 tablespoon thyme
1 gallon of water
2 medium onions, 1/4 -inch dice
2 large carrots, 1/4 -inch dice
6 ribs celery, 1/4 -inch dice
2 tablespoons chopped garlic
1/4 cup butter
2 medium white potatoes, 1/4 -inch dice
two 8-ounce cans petite diced tomatoes
8 ounces frozen white corn
8 ounces frozen lima beans
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1/4 cup fresh chopped parsley
2 pounds jumbo lump crab meat
To make stock: Add chuck roast, trimmings from chopped carrots and celery, and spices to water and simmer for 2 hours. Remove meat from stock and set aside. Skim fat from stock and strain through fine strainer, discarding bay leaves and trimmings. Shred beef with a fork when cool.
To make soup: Saute onions, carrots and celery in butter until onions are translucent. Add potatoes, tomatoes and beef stock and simmer for 20 minutes. Add corn, lima beans and shredded beef and simmer 10 more minutes. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper and add parsley. Add crab meat and serve.
Courtesy of Ned Atwater, owner of Atwater's Ploughboy Soups
Per serving (based on 12 servings): 240 calories, 23 grams protein, 7 grams fat, 3 grams saturated fat, 22 grams carbohydrate, 4 grams fiber, 69 milligrams cholesterol, 439 milligrams sodium
Mildred Kemp's Secret Ingredient Crab Soup
Serves 4 to 6
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 green bell pepper, chopped
5 medium tomatoes, peeled and chopped or one 28-ounce can tomatoes, drained and chopped
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1 pound crab meat
salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon butter or margarine
1 tablespoon flour
1/4 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/4 teaspoon sugar
2 cups milk
1 cup half-and-half
In a medium saucepan place onion, green pepper and tomatoes. Make a paste with the dry mustard and some water; add to vegetables. Add water to cover; simmer until vegetables are soft. Drain water and stir in crab meat, salt and pepper; set aside.
In a large saucepan over medium heat, melt butter; blend in flour. Add Worcestershire sauce and sugar. Slowly add milk and half-and-half, stirring constantly. Stir in vegetable-and-crab mixture. Soup should be heated through but not boiled.
From "From a Lighthouse Window," compiled by the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum
Per serving (based on 6 servings): 211 calories, 19 grams protein, 9 grams fat, 5 grams saturated fat, 13 grams carbohydrate, 2 grams fiber, 85 milligrams cholesterol, 293 milligrams sodium