As a third generation Marylander, I spent many summer days of my childhood hiding under the picnic table watching my parents and brothers — from an up-wind safe odor-free distance — as they enthusiastically did their crab picking and eating. Even at an early age I knew that I was missing out on an important part of being a true Marylander, and an important family gathering. But I also knew what my family was doing when they picked crabs, and it wasn’t appealing.
My family ate every part of the crab except, of course, the grey lungs (or “devils-fingers” in Maryland jargon), which not only taste terrible but could leave you with a nasty stomachache. After discarding the lungs and sucking down as much crab meat as they could find, they even ate the kinky yellow guts and the mysterious bitter golden crab mustard that many Marylanders refuse to touch. How much nicer it was, I thought, to eat something ripped apart from itself before it reached your table.
Visiting aunts and uncles homesick for Maryland favorites always made sure to order a bushel or two on their trip.
“Now look at Will,” my Grandfather told me, referring to my much younger cousin, “He loves crab! He’s a true Marylander!”
This was about the most insulting thing anyone could have said to me. Will was from Chicago. Looking back today, I don’t know why I longed so deeply for Granddad’s approval. The man didn’t know what he was talking about. He was a born and raised North Carolinian.
If we weren’t having steamed crabs, another typical family request was my mother’s homemade crab cakes. I was still young when I finally got over my squeamishness enough to try crab and, reasoning that fried was the way to go, I started with Mom’s specialty. I fell in love with the sweet and succulent flavor of crab and became a crab cake connoisseur quickly (and later an expert picker). It wasn’t long before I realized exactly how little my grandfather knew about being a Marylander.
Whenever we’d visit his home just north of Baltimore, he’d insist on taking us to a local pizza place for their crab cakes. You could order these cakes either broiled or fried, the two most common Maryland means of preparation, but it didn’t matter what choice you made. Each trip we’d be served a huge cake, the size of a double quarter pounder, filled with chunky, but flavorless, crab. The restaurant’s worst offense was the mix of red peppers and capers flaked throughout each cake. You order a crab cake to taste crab — not to taste fancy vegetables.
It’s a family motto that you should never order a crab cake outside of Maryland. In my opinion, don’t even bother ordering them north of Baltimore.
A real crab cake consists almost entirely of crab. There’s some bread or crackers and a little mayonnaise to hold everything together, but that’s pretty much it. Season with some Old Bay and they’re ready to fry. Some Marylanders like to add a splash or two of sherry to the mix for flavor, but my family doesn’t feel the crab cakes need it.
In Maryland, saying your mom makes the best crab cakes is a lot like saying your mom makes the best apple pie (another battle my siblings and I would gladly bet upon, any day). I’ve had a lot of good crab cakes in Maryland, but I still favor the ones she cooks up at home. Part of the secret is that her recipe isn’t made entirely from jumbo lump crab, but a mix or jumbo lump and back fin. Both types come from the midsection of the blue crab, but jumbo lumps are the large pieces you’re lucky to find when picking while back fin is the mix of smaller remaining broken pieces of jumbo lump throughout the crab. Not only does this technique save some money (jumbo lump usually costs around $10 more a pound) it results in a more flavorful crab cake. The back fin also helps the jumbo lump meat to stick together when forming your cakes.
Mom’s Crab Cakes
⅓ cup mayonnaise (about)
2 tablespoons heavy cream
2 teaspoons yellow mustard
¾ teaspoon Old Bay Seasoning
½ pound Maryland jumbo lump crabmeat
½ pound Maryland back fin crabmeat
⅔ cups bread crumbs from high quality French bread, crumbed using a food processor
1 cup finely chopped saltine crackers
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
In a large bowl combine egg, mayonnaise, mustard, heavy cream, and Old Bay Seasoning. Gently fold in crabmeat and bread crumbs. Cover with plastic wrap and chill in refrigerator for about 2 hours or more. (Chilling helps the cakes stick together.)
Once crab mixture is removed from refrigerator, spread cracker crumbs on wax paper. Form crab mixture into cakes and then coat each side in cracker crumbs.
Preheat frying pan with olive oil and butter. Fry crab cakes until golden brown — about 3-4 minutes on each side.
Makes 4-6 crab cakes
Recipe by Christine Sydnor
Photos by Christine Sydnor