For many Marylanders, there is no more perfect meal than a pile of steamed crabs or a well-made crab cake (light on filler, please).
These straightforward crab preparations are everywhere: on restaurant menus and backyard tables, especially in the summer months. Their simplicity shows off crabmeat's sweet, delicate flavor and tender texture.
But Maryland's crabby culinary history runs deeper than newspaper-covered tables and piles of discarded shells. Not long ago, restaurant menus listed numerous crab dishes, and home cooks were familiar with dozens of ways to incorporate crabs into meals, from casseroles to imperials.
Today, those old-fashioned crab preparations might not be front and center, but they're still hanging on, thanks to a handful of local restaurants and community cookbooks that make it a point to preserve the past.
After spending years collecting recipes all over the region, Whitey Schmidt published his ode to the cooked crustacean, "The Crab Cookbook," in 1990.
Schmidt's interest in crab recipes was piqued after years of picking crabs with his eight brothers and five sisters in the South River near Annapolis during the 1940s and '50s.
"As kids, we were chicken-neckers. [There was] a pier not too far from us and we would head down, sometimes two or three days a week," he said." We'd have a piece of string about 12 to15 feet long which we would tie to a nail or the end of a pier — wherever we could secure it. The idea was you'd simply tie on a chicken neck or wing and throw it into the water. Since it was tied, all we had to do was watch the line. When the crab would bite it, it would try to run home with it and pull the line straight out from the pier. So hand over hand, we would slowly pull in that line and the crabs would be nibbling away."
They frequently found themselves with a little extra crab meat after a marathon crabbing-and-picking session, and that opened the door to trying different recipes to use it up.
"It became a love of life for me," he says. "So I went out and spent five years eating in the crab houses of the Chesapeake in search of recipes. And now that's been my whole life for the last 30 or 40 years."
Schmidt has published six books on Chesapeake Bay-area cooking. "The Crab Cookbook" includes dozens of variations on traditional recipes: crab imperial, crab dip, crab soup, and more, including 33 recipes just for crab cakes. Everyone has their favorite crab cake or imperial, he says, and they're willing to share the recipes.
Most traditional crab dishes do not have a traceable history, but Schmidt believes they typically started in homes, not restaurants. Though he began his recipe search in bay-area restaurants, he seeks out home cook recipes whenever possible, talking with friends and family and searching for vintage cookbooks.
"Antique markets are full of used books," he explains. "I always spend an hour or two in the used-book section hoping I can find a cookbook from Smith Island or Tangier Island."
Junior League cookbooks are among those prized for their preservation of regional dishes.
"The national Junior League organization takes great pride in the cookbooks coming from different leagues," says Debbie Daugherty Richardson, a past president of the Junior League of Annapolis, which publishes two popular cookbooks of regional recipes, including traditional Maryland favorites like deviled crab and a variety of crab casseroles.
"Part of the pride comes from the tradition of sharing the recipes from generation to generation," she says.
When the Woodbrook-Murray Hill Garden Club published a 50th-anniversary cookbook in 2004, member Gail Smith contributed a crab casserole recipe she remembered from her youth.
"My mother was also a member of the garden club," she says. "The casserole came from my mother's cookbook. She used to make it when she had a big group. My daughter also has a couple recipes in the book — we keep it generational in there!"
Smith says when she cooks for family, she makes a lot of the dishes her mother made. "My kids like them and my grandchildren like them," she says.
Community cookbooks, thick with crab recipes, also help those without deep Baltimore roots quickly tap into the region's food culture.
Woodbrook-Murray Hill Garden Club member Ande Williams grew up in New England, so she was unfamiliar with crab dishes when she moved to Baltimore in 1997. She uses her garden club cookbook for traditional crab recipes, like crab dip. "Cookbooks like this are great for old family recipes and local dishes," she explains.
Local cookbooks are a gold mine for old-school home cooking crab recipes, but certain dishes, like fried hard crab and crab fluff, are more frequently prepared in restaurant kitchens.
Gary Sanders, owner of CJ's Restaurant in Owings Mills, says the fried hard crab — a crab stuffed with crab meat, dipped in batter and deep-fried — has been on the CJ's menu for as long as he can remember. "It came from my mother and father," he explains. "Years ago, my dad used to go down to Duffy's and get a fried crab once a month. I think that's where the idea came from."
Sanders admits that the old-fashioned dish is mostly ordered by older customers. But, he says, when younger people try it, they love it.
At Pappas Restaurant in Parkville, traditional dishes like crab imperial are a hit with "young and old alike," says manager Justin Windle. (Windle's father-in-law, Mark Pappas, owns the restaurant).
"There's something about imperial," says Windle. "It's a hearty dish and has that old-school charm. It's a nice nostalgic dish." Crab imperial, he says, is the second-most-popular dish at Pappas — after crab cakes.
Imperial, like many old-fashioned crab recipes, incorporates fatty ingredients like mayonnaise and butter; health concerns may be one reason these dishes have relinquished the spotlight.
"I try to cook healthier during the week," says Smith, of the garden club. Still, when she cooks for her family or friends, she pushes health concerns aside. "If I'm having an occasion with the family, I like to include something that's been in the family. Or if I'm having a dinner party. I cook more fattening food for a crowd!"
Even if they mean a few extra hours at the gym later, old favorite crab recipes should not be forgotten. They are part of the fabric of Chesapeake Bay culture and an important part of regional history.
And with sweet, delectable crab as a centerpiece, they are absolutely delicious.
Next week, we'll explore the world of soft shell crabs — what they are, what people love (and hate) about them, how to cook them and where to find them.
Mobjack Imperial Crab
Whitey Schmidt's "The Crab Cookbook" includes recipes for crab prepared nearly every way imaginable — including this classic take on crab imperial. "Crab imperial is just the dish for a warm summer's evening," writes Schmidt, recommending a light appetizer and fruit kabobs served alongside the crab. Recipe reprinted with permission.
Makes 4 to 6 servings
1/2 cup plus one tablespoon milk, divided
1 1/2 teaspoons butter
1 tablespoon flour
1 egg yolk, well beaten
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon celery salt
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
2 tablespoons mayonnaise, divided
1 pound backfin crab meat
1. Preheat oven to 400°.
2. Heat 1/2 cup milk to the boiling point.
3. Melt the butter and add flour.
4. Pour heated milk over the butter and flour, beat until creamy and allow to cool.
5. Add egg, seasonings, lemon juice and one tablespoon of mayonnaise, blending well.
6. Add crab and toss lightly.
7. Fill crab shells or small dishes.
8. Mix remaining mayonnaise with 1 tablespoon of milk and brush on top.
9. Finally, sprinkle with parsley.
10. Bake at 400° for 8 to 10 minutes or until brown.
Crab Casserole for 15
Gail Smith of the Woodbrook-Murray Hill Garden Club remembers her mother making this large, crab-heavy casserole when she entertained. This recipe was reprinted with permission from "The First 50 Years: a Collection of Recipes," a cookbook published by the Woodbrook-Murray Hill Garden Club.
Makes 15 servings
salt and pepper to taste
3 slices bread, made into fine crumbs
1 teaspoon dry mustard
3 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1 cup mayonnaise, plus an additional 3-4 tablespoons (optional)
1 small onion, diced
1 1/2 green peppers, chopped
3 eggs, beaten
3 pounds jumbo lump crab meat
2 egg whites (optional)
1. Preheat oven to 350°.
2. Put crumbs over crabmeat in a large bowl.
3. Saute onion and peppers until soft.
4. Beat eggs, dry mustard, salt and pepper, mayonnaise and Worcestershire sauce.
5. Grease 13x9 baking dish.
6. Add crab to baking dish. Pour egg mixture over crab and sprinkle onion and peppers evenly over the top.
7. Bake for 40 minutes.
8. If desired, beat two egg whites with three to four tablespoons of mayonnaise, spread on top of casserole and bake for two more minutes.
Woodbrook-Murray Hill Garden Club member Annette Nagel first tried this mousse at a fundraising event in Oxford, Md., where she proclaimed it "divine" and convinced the event planners to give her the recipe. This recipe was reprinted with permission from "The First 50 Years: a Collection of Recipes," a cookbook published by the Woodbrook-Murray Hill Garden Club.
Crackers for serving
1 pound crab meat (lump or backfin), cleaned
Curry powder to taste
1 cup mayonnaise
1 cup finely chopped celery
1 tablespoon grated onion
1 tablespoon gelatin, softened in 3 tablespoons water
1 can cream of mushroom soup
8 ounces cream cheese
1. Heat soup and cream cheese.
2. Beat soup and cream cheese mixture with a mixer and add gelatin.
3. Mix in remaining ingredients, gently adding crab.
4. Put in a 1 quart greased mold (such as a bombe mold or fish mold).
5. Chill until set.
6. Unmold for serving with crackers.
Anchors Aweigh Deviled Crab
Deviled crab is a take on crab cakes. Instead of mixing bread crumbs with the crab to form a patty, a crab mixture is topped with the crumbs, then baked. This recipe was reprinted with permission from "Of Tide and Thyme," a cookbook published by The Junior League of Annapolis.
Makes 4-6 servings
1 tablespoons butter, divided
2 tablespoons chopped onion
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup bread crumbs, divided
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 pound crab meat, shell and cartilage removed
Paprika for sprinkling
1. Preheat oven to 450°. Saute onion in 1 tablespoon butter. Remove from heat.
2. Combine onion, mayonnaise, eggs, 1/3 cup of the bread crumbs, mustard, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce and red pepper. Add crab meat and stir until just blended.
3. Place crab mixture in cleaned crab shells or dishes. Sprinkle with bread crumbs and paprika. Dot with butter.
4. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes until lightly browned. Serve immediately.
Chilled Crab Dip
Debbie Daugherty Richardson, past president of the Junior League of Annapolis, says this simple recipe for cold crab dip was handed down for generations within an Annapolis family before its inclusion in "Of Tide and Thyme," a cookbook published by The Junior League of Annapolis. Reprinted with permission.
Makes 10-12 servings
2 finely diced hard-boiled eggs
1 pound fresh backfin crab meat
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/2 cup chili sauce
1 teaspoon horseradish
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon hot pepper sauce
1 finely grated small onion
1. Remove any shells from crab meat.
2. Put into medium bowl with all other ingredients and mix thoroughly
3. Serve with corn chips, potato chips or plain crackers.
4. Keeps for up to two days in refrigerator