Sunday, August 28, 2011

Snacking State-by-State: Maryland I - Crab cakes like mah great-great-aunt used tah make, hon

Well here it is.  I have reached that point in this series where I finally, at long last, make it home.  These next few posts should not be as intimidating as they seem to be, and yet they are.  Here I am, representin' the Old Line State: the land of the Chesapeake, the Potomac and the Mason-Dixon Line - the state that no one can quite figure out if it is in the South, the North or somewhere else.

And because I know my home state better than any of the others, there is a great bit of pressure not to mess it up.

Official Name: State of Maryland
State Nicknames: The Free State; The Old Line State; America in Miniature
Admission to the US: April 28, 1788 (#7)
Annapolis (24th largest city)
Other Important Cities: Baltimore (largest); Columbia (2nd largest); Germantown (3rd largest); Frederick (8th largest)
Mid-Atlantic, South, Northeast; South Atlantic (US Census)
RAFT Nations: Crabcake; Clambake; Chestnut; Maple Syrup
Bordered by:
The Mason-Dixon Line (north and east); Pennsylvania (north); Delaware and the Atlantic Ocean (east), Virginia and the Potomac River (south and southwest); District of Columbia (southwest); West Virginia (west and southwest)
Official State Foods and Edible Things: blue crab (crustacean); rockfish, aka striped bass (fish); Diamondback terrapin (reptile); Smith Island cake (dessert); milk (drink)
Some Famous & Typical Foods: Chesapeake Bay foods, especially based on blue crab, oyster, clam, shrimp & fish; historically, foods of the Upper South (especially fried chicken, stuffed ham, beaten biscuits & Brunswick stew); cuisines that reflect a broad multicultural landscape closer to Baltimore (Italian, Polish, Ukranian, German, etc) and Washington (Latin American, West African, Southeast Asian, Korean, etc)

If someone had to ask me to describe Maryland's cuisine, I would be hard-pressed.  The best way to put it: look at every other Southern cookbook.  I say that because out of all of those I have looked at (including various Southern Living recipe compilations), recipes from Maryland pop up in about half of them.  Historically, recipes from Maryland - having at one time been a Southern state if not so much of one now - paralleled those of Virginia: hams, terrapin stews, beaten biscuits, fried chickens, not very sweet corn breads, and Brunswick stews.  In a serious discussion of the culinary history of Southern food, Maryland is going to make an appearance.  The Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans would say as much, since they have a small exhibit about Maryland on display.

What complicates this picture is the increasing "Yank-ification" of Maryland over the last century or so.  Our patterns of immigration are certainly more like those of Philly, New York and Boston than Charleston, Savannah and New Orleans: immigrants bringing in Irish, Italian, German, Jewish, Polish and Russian foods (to name but a few), and later immigration from Asia (Korean, the Philippines and South Asia).  With its proximity to DC, Maryland is now one of the most culturally diverse states in the country, with immigrant communities from every continent and almost every country.  Coupled with a more historically Northern pattern of industrialization, Maryland winds up in a unique position among the states: no longer completely "Southern" but still not exactly "Northern".  We are in a perpetual limbo between the "Proper South" (which roughly starts somewhere around Charlottesville) and the "Proper North" (which starts, neatly enough, at the Mason-Dixon Line).  Everything in the middle is a region-less mishmash.  It was into this mishmash that I was born.

So what about the food here?  Helping to clarify a bit is fellow Baltimorean John Shields, cookbook author and proprietor of Gertrude's Restaurant near Johns Hopkins University.  In his foreward to Lucie Snodgrass' Dishing Up Maryland, Shields points out what is the quintessence of Maryland's culinary flavor: the Chesapeake Bay
Maryland cuisine is one of the oldest and simplest of North America's Regional cuisines...  The Chesapeake Bay's abundant shellfish are prepared in ways that preserve their delicate flavor.  The classic crab cake calls for lumps of blue crab, lightly bound and spiced, to produce a scrumptious mound of crab that can be fried or lightly broiled.  The legendary Chesapeake oysters are served au natural on the half shell or are bathed in hot milk enriched with butter in a sublimely elegant stew... All manner of fish, fowl, and game are featured in a tremendous number of one-pot meals.  [Shields, in Snodgrass 2010: 9]

Yes, Shields and Snodgrass display the dizzying array of complexity in the foods of Maryland, but we cannot escape the Bay in our cooking. And really, why would we want to?

Shields notes in another cookbook, his Chesapeake Bay Cooking, that above all creatures that inhabit the Chesapeake, it is the blue crab that has really taken a hold here.  "As each Memorial Day approaches, Chesapeake Bay folk emerge from our winter hibernation filled with a sense of excitement that is almost unbearable" [Shields 1998: 16].  Everything from steamed crabs to crab soups to soft shells are important here and in Virginia (also note Virginia she-crab soup, which I will examine in this series sometime around mid-2012), and crab shacks can be found on almost every other block in Baltimore.  But among the most iconic of Maryland blue crab recipes is the Maryland crab cake.  True, there are several types of crab cakes even in the Chesapeake - Shields [1998: 29] notes variations on Delmarva, in Baltimore and throughout Virginia - but the one most people here think of as the crab cake is heavy on the crab meat, light on the binder, which is almost always on the inside and not the outside.  From there, the crab cake may be fried, broiled or sautéed.  I have found that I prefer broiled ones myself, but I will never turn down one prepared the other ways.

Again as John Shields notes, "[t]ucked away in each family's archives is The Crab Cake Recipe.  It is the only one; it is the best; and all the others are wrong.  Period." [Shields 1998: 29].  It sometimes bothered me that I never really knew what "The Crab Cake Recipe" was in my own family.  My Uncle Eddie had a recipe for Crab Imperial that my family just raved about.  But the crab cake seemed elusive.  In trying to suss out if such a crab cake recipe even existed, I asked my mother, who let me know that as a child growing up in the 1940's and 50's, she often stopped at a restaurant along Ingleside Avenue (Mom grew up in South Baltimore but apparently went to school closer to Catonsville) during lunch break from school.  Her mother worked in the restaurant's kitchen.  Mom often ordered the crab cake, which her mother made.  She doesn't remember the recipe, but I loved hearing about just how important the crab cake was in her childhood!

Perhaps the closest thing to The Crab Cake Recipe that my family has comes from Mom's great aunt Florence - who passed sometime in the 70's.  In a seemingly ancient ledger book of hers are written out by hand recipes for everything from fried chicken to meatloaf to Dream Whip cake.  There are at least two crab cake recipes, and the first one is on the very first page. 

Recipe: Aunt Florence's Crab Cake

I have been loathe to post whole recipes from any source, for copyright reasons.  However, this is a family recipe, so I can do that now if I want.  Why, then, am I not doing so?  Because I don't want it floating around those blog post aggregating sites where someone can pass off my family recipes as his or her (or its) own.  So I am posting it as a photograph.  Here is my Great-Great Aunt Florence's recipe for crab cakes:

Now unless I start up a séance or ask a medium or something, I can't say if this recipe came from somebody else in her family, from an outside source or from her own brain.  I simply don't know.  But I will give Aunt Florence the benefit of the doubt here.  One thing I only noticed as I was making the crab cakes: she offers no cooking times, no suggestions on broiling or frying other than "Fry in small amount of hot fat", and no suggestions about chilling the crab meat first for easier cooking.  So maybe this was her own recipe that she wrote out without bothering to note the stuff that anyone would just know.

I made two versions of this, first done to the letter, and the second with a few tips and tricks that I had forgotten to do for some reason, but which makes the art of crab cake preparation that much easier for the cook.

* blue crab meat - and none of that "non-Chesapeake" stuff.  Here's a funny vignette: I was looking at crab meat in the supermarket, picked up the enticing pound, and saw that it was not Chesapeake Bay crab - in this case, like the crawfish I bought a few weeks ago, they were from Southeast Asia.  I put it back down, and looked for other stuff.  One of the employees remarked to another - assuming, for some odd reason, that I didn't hear her at all - that "the customers just pick it up and put it back down!"  Her coworker noted that people in Baltimore just don't like the Southeast Asian crab as much (or for that matter the stuff from New England or the Gulf Coast - I had some massive steamed crabs from Texas on a winter trip to Philly several years ago.  To me, they were big, juicy and somewhat flavorless).  While the best crab cakes tend to be made from big "lump" pieces of crab, I actually prefer the meat from the backfin of the crab, for its flavor.  I ended up making crabs out of both.
* egg (had it)
* two slices of white bread
* salt
* Old Bay (okay, it doesn't have to be Old Bay, but it must be some variety of Chesapeake Bay seasoning.  There are many other varieties to choose from - Wye River, Phillip's, J.O. Spice Company's, etc..  But most kitchens in and around the Chesapeake will have, if nothing else, a can of Old Bay.  This is in particular a Maryland thing, but Old Bay is well known all over the East Coast, especially throughout the South - look in the background next time you see the kitchen at Merlotte's Bar on some episode of True Blood.  And in the kitchen of my mother and her mother-in-law (we lived with her while I grew up), there were a few cans of Old Bay in the cabinet, a newer can that had more inside it, and a much older can, probably from the 60's or 70's that was no longer of use but still managed to hang around all this time.  And when I finally moved to California, I had to bring a can of Old Bay with me, just in case I couldn't find it there (I could but it's pricier).  I even brought it as a gift to my foster family in Morelia when I went to Mexico on a language school in 2000.
* mayonnaise (had it)
* baking powder (not all crab cake recipes have this, but I asked my mother if she had ever heard of such a thing, and she said, "Yes, I have heard about it sometimes being put in crab cakes".  So there you go.)
* dry mustard (Aunt Florence's recipe calls for either this or Worcestershire)
* dried parsley flakes (had it)
* oil (if you want to fry it, that is - but if you broil it, you should at least lightly grease the skillet or pan before broiling)

Though people certainly do it, I have only seen one person make a crab cake from crab meat that she picked herself.  My sister, now settled in Savannah, did this once for my father when he was in the hospital.  I have yet to ask how tedious it must have been.  Not that I am a stranger to picking crabs myself.

 Awww, innit he cute?

If for some reason you do decide to make a crab cake from meat what-you-picked-yourself-hon, remember the fine art of crab pickin', to wit:

 1. Flip the little guy or gal over and rip off the apron (for a male, or jimmy, this apron is T-shaped - or shaped much more like, well, genitalia; for a female, or sook, this apron is triangular).

 2. From where the apron came off, reach into the middle with your fingers and pull off the top of the shell.

 3. This is what you find in the middle.  Again, notice the mustard - analogous to the "fat" in the crawfish and the "tomalley" in the lobster.  I have seen crab mustard in a can in one Filipino supermarket in Los Angeles County, California.

 4. Pull off the feathery, spongy things.  These are the gills, and you should not eat these.  Just don't.

5. Here's what slows me down - and if "expertise" in crab picking is measured solely in terms of speed then I am no expert: snap the body in half, and break each half again in half.  I do this by pressing down on the top and bottom until I hear a snap, so the shell breaks and I can pull it apart to get to the lumps of crab in the main part of the body.  Many people use a knife here but I have rarely done this, which is probably why it takes me so much longer.

6. Pull out as much crab meat from each part of the body as you can,  Repeat with the other half.

7. Don't forget the legs, especially the claws.  A good way to get the claw meat out in one fell swoop is to hit the top of the claw once, with force but not too much force, and crack it.  Carefully bend back and forth until loose and then pull it out.  This won't always work, but it often does.

In case you were wondering, a small-to-medium male crab will yield about 1.5 ounces of crab meat.

Even back in her day, Aunt Florence probably wasn't picking all the crab meat herself.  But she was probably using the local stuff.  I don't know about my fellow Bawlamorons, but as long as it is from some part of the Chesapeake - Maryland or Virginia or one of the tributaries therein - it is "local" crab meat, as far as I am concerned.  When out of season, Marylanders usually have to rely on crab meat from North Carolina, which we don't like as much but we like it enough, and at least it isn't "crab in a can from Southeast Asia".  And not to dog on Southeast Asian crab meat, but here in the Chesapeake we really prefer the flavor of our own.  There, I said it.

To interpret her recipe, I did the following:

First, I ripped up the slices of white bread into little pieces.  Use white (or gluten free white) bread.  I've heard of panko but never used it, and I've never heard of anybody using whole wheat.

Next, add the mayo, the dry mustard (or Worcestershire) and the baking powder to the bread crumbs

And also add the Old Bay (or other Chesapeake Bay seasoning), the salt and the parsley.

Finally, add the egg and the crab meat.

Unless you've got a wash basin full of crab cake to deal with, use your hands when you mix it all up.
Here's where you form your crab cakes.  Some people use their hands, others prefer an ice cream scoop (thanks to John Shields for this idea).  I used a heaping ice cream scoop.

Though you don't have to do this - and Aunt Florence never really said - your crab cakes will hold together much better if you chill them first.  The first time around, I made massive crab cakes and fried / broiled them up quickly.  They fell apart.  Yes, a rookie mistake, so I'm not sure what I was thinking there. 

If you fry them, you can either fry them in an inch or so of oil or sauté them in a little oil.  For a smaller crab cake such as what you would get from an ice cream scoop, 2 to 4 minutes on a side works just fine.

Just make sure you watch over them.

If you choose to broil them - the easier path, I think - preheat the broiler completely.  Cook four minutes to a side.

Fried or broiled, this makes a nicely crabby cake, light and fluffy, with not too much filling or, for that matter, seasoning.  I have eaten many crab cakes, and have had lovely ones and dreadful ones (even in Baltimore).  This was one of the lovelier ones.  Unlike the other recipes I have made for this series, I have to say - somewhat cornily - that making these crab cakes was in fact a spiritual experience for me.  Why do I say something so silly?  One reason: this is family history I'm interpreting.  I kept thinking back to Terri Pischoff Wuerther and her cookbook In A Cajun Kitchen, which I used for my Louisiana posts a month back.  That cookbook was formed from the author's family recipes - her aunts and grandmothers, her uncles and mother.  This recipe, and this post, is in a very real way in the same vein.  John Shields also shares many recipes from many families in Maryland and Virginia in his Chesapeake Bay Cooking.  As for me, I had to give my mother some of the crab cakes I made.  I asked her if it tasted familiar, since this was her great-aunt's recipe. She said it was, with a smile on her face.  That made me feel so good.


"Crab Cakes".  Recipe from the author's family.
Fowora, Simbo.  "Jollof Rice".  Featured on the episode "Nigerian Dinner" of the show Sara's Secrets (Sara Moulton, host).  Food Network, 2006.

Gibbon, Ed.  The Congo Cookbook.  1999-2009.  Available as a downloadable book from and reprinted on the website

Hafner, Dorinda.  A Taste of Africa.  Ten Speed Press: Berkeley, CA, 1993.

Kitching, Frances.  "Smith Island Ten-Layer Cake-Mrs. Kitching's Original Recipe". Reprinted on the "Fun Stuff" page at the website (website for Somerset County, Maryland).  2007-2010 Somerset County Tourism.

Shields, John. Chesapeake Bay Cooking. Broadway Books: New York, NY, 1998

Shields, John. "Foreward".  In Dishing Up Maryland by Lucie Snodgrass.  Storey Publishing: North Adams, MA, 2010.

Snodgrass, Lucie.  Dishing Up Maryland.  Storey Publishing: North Adams, MA, 2010.

Walter, Eugene.  American Cooking: Southern Style.  From the series Foods of the World.  Time-Life Publications: New York, NY, 1971

Some information also obtained from Wikipedia's "Maryland" page and other pages, and the Food Timeline State Foods link to "Maryland".