Aug 22, 2011
On the Chesapeake Bay, eating Maryland crab cakes in summer is a religious ritual more important than Biblical commandments against eating shellfish.
If you live near the Chesapeake Bay, crab cakes are as important to summer as the Fourth of July, and just as American.
Chesapeake Bay blue crabs are under constant pressure from over-fishing and agricultural runoff into the Bay’s tributaries, according to the Chesapeake Bay Program, an interstate effort to restore and maintain fish populations, water quality, and recreational use of the Bay. Over time, crabs are getting smaller and more expensive.
Many of the Chesapeake blue crabs sold in Maryland today are flown here from the tidal estuaries off the Gulf of Mexico, which are small versions of the Chesapeake. Crabs thrive in the mix of seawater and fresh water in tidal estuaries, the Chesapeake Bay Program’s website says.
Making Authentic Maryland Crab Cakes
Crab cakes are made from the meat of steamed Maryland blue crabs. Crabs must be steamed alive because they deteriorate right away when they die. Meat from a dead crab will make you sick.
If you Google Maryland crab cakes, you’ll find at least a dozen recipes, all based on these ingredients. They’re all authentic, and practically identical. So experiment; let your crab cakes be personal variations on a classic theme. Look at several recipes to get ideas. Here are the basics:
- 1 lb. lump crab meat
- 1 Tbsp Dijon or dry mustard
- 1 cup mayonnaise
- 1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
- 1 tsp Old Bay Seasoning
- juice of lemon
- 5 to 8 crushed Saltine crackers
- 2 Tbsp fresh minced parsley
- 1/2 Tbsp Old Bay Seasoning
- 1/4 Tbsp Worcestershire Sauce
- There are two must-dos before you start assembling your crab cakes: always use lump crab meat, not a lesser grade, and always pick through the meat to remove any cartilage. If you order them in a restaurant, ask if they are using 100 percent lump crab meat.
- When you pick through the meat, or mix in other ingredients, use a light touch. Don’t break up the lumps any more than absolutely necessary.
- Mix the other ingredients in a separate bowl, then coat the crab meat with them, keeping the lumps intact. Chill for two hours.
- You can either bake them on a buttered sheet pan, broil them, or pan-fry in hot oil. Serve hot when they are golden brown.
Breaking Biblical Commandments
In the Jewish dietary laws, shellfish are as forbidden as pork. Before World War II, many more Jews observed the dietary laws than do today. Often, they
ate anything outside the home but kept their kitchens kosher, so their parents and other Jews who cared could come and eat.
All but the most observant Jews in Baltimore rationalized eating crab cakes. Crab cakes were more important than Jewish law. The Baltimore Jewish family in Barry Levinson’s semi-autobiographical filmLiberty Heights figured out a way to rationalize eating crab cakes.
But my favorite rationalization was Isaac Bloom’s. He was a kosher butcher before the War. He thought the dietary laws were poppycock, and the rabbis who inspected his store were corrupt. But if anyone saw him eating shellfish, and reported him to the rabbis, they could de-certify his store, and put him out of business.
So every summer, he took his family across the Chesapeake Bay to a kitschy family park in Tollchester, right where the ferry docked on the Eastern Shore. There he ate crab cakes. Anyone who saw him could not report him because they would have to explain why they were there eating crab cakes too, Mr. Bloom reasoned.
After the War, he solved the problem. His customers, who kept kosher homes for their parents, did not insist that their children do the same for them. So Mr. Bloom opened a non-kosher store. That allowed him to serve better cuts of meat cheaper because he, his wholesalers, and the slaughterers did not have to bribe the kosher inspectors.
Crab Cakes and Interstate Commerce
Before they built the superhighways and tunnels that allow drivers to bypass Baltimore, the only road connecting New York and Washington D.C. was old U.S. 40, a four-lane city street, with traffic lights on most corners. It ran from the western city limit to the eastern limit through the middle of downtown Baltimore.
In the 1950′s Baltimore hired Henry A. Barnes as commissioner of transit and traffic to clean up some of the worst traffic in the United States. He was an irreverent genius, who did a wonderful job before moving on to straighten out traffic in New York City.
He wrote a funny book called The Man With the Red and Green Eyes, full of stories about how engineering is the easiest part of being a traffic engineer. Drivers make it hard. They do senseless things, circulate petitions, call the mayor, call you at home late at night, or organize protest rallies, he said. Streets don’t do that.
One of many problems he encountered was old U.S. 40 in East Baltimore. At a certain point, traffic stopped, and barely moved for hours. Coming from Denver, he did not realize that the problem was people double- and triple-parking on a four-lane city street in front of a popular crab house.
The engineering was easy. He simply synchronized the traffic lights to keep traffic flowing, and ordered the police to enforce the parking laws.
But as soon as the police gave out the first tickets, he, the mayor, and city council faced a mass protest. “We gotta get our crab cakes. This is the best place in town,” people said.
Barnes, Henry A., The Man with the Red and Green Eyes, Dutton.
Interview with Isaac E. Bloom of Baltimore
Copyright Ken Braiterman. Contact the author to obtain permission for republication.