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.
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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.