Story of a Dish: Maryland Crab Cake

In a slight departure from our usual Story of a Plate series, where we feature interesting and unusual dishes encountered at SA restaurants, we thought it would be fun to introduce you to a dish from Jean-Pierre’s recent travels to Maryland, D.C., where crab cakes are as ubiquitous on local menus as fish cakes are here at home.

While there are of course numerous variations on fish cakes (apparently the most ordered item on South African menus), like which fish is used, and which combination of spices and/or herbs, mashed potato is fairly standard across the board as a filler. In the US, the closest a potato will (or should) come to a crab cake is in the heap of French fries or crisps they are typically served with.

The Bayard House Restaurant, Chesapeake City (top), Characters Bridge Restaurant, Tilghman Island (bottom)

When it comes to the added ingredients, crab cakes are typically bound by a combination of bread crumbs, mayonnaise, and/or eggs, and flavoured with a variety of spices, notably the excellent Old Bay seasoning pungent with celery salt and paprika that’s become a distinctive Maryland taste (as producer McCormick’s website helpfully explains, “There are two things you need to know about OLD BAY® Seasoning: 1) it’s great on seafood and 2) it’s great on everything else”. We’ll add that it’s also a very fine addition to a Bloody Mary).

Crab cakes are typically served with either tartare or “cocktail” sauce (think freshly minced tomatoes with a healthy hit of horseradish), both of which are usually tasty enough to mitigate any problems in the seasoning department. But what really elevates a crab cake to a superlative eating experience is a firmly less-filling-is-more-crab-goodness philosophy, which sadly too many establishments overlook for the sake of extending a meagre amount of seafood to a plate of food which looks worth the price. Indeed, one restaurant visited seemed to have misunderstood the idea of crab cake altogether, and served two patties of something that tasted distinctly like vanilla sponge cake mixed with some finely shredded seafood. This variation is not to be recommended.

No, the definitive beauty of eating a crab cake only emerges once you find the perfect specimen that hardly holds itself together once you cut into it because of a distinct lack of filler, meaning what you get is an assemblage of hunks of, ideally, mostly unadorned “jumbo lump” crab meat (“from the two large muscles connected to the swimming legs. Contrary to smaller portions of crab meat, it can be used whole”). There’s a small family-run restaurant in a town called Edgewater in Maryland which is, as its name suggests, close to the source of the famous Chesapeake blue crabs favoured for crab cakes, and which has been doing what it does best since 1948:

Crab meat delivered in a magic crispy shell at Edgewater Restaurant, Anne Arundel County, Maryland

Should you ever find yourself in that neck of the bay, we can highly recommend a stop at Edgewater Restaurant, which comes complete with that characteristic “how y’all doin’ today?” American hospitality greeting that can seem utterly fake but which here manages to comes across as a genuine concern for your well-being. And if that well-being is measured in crab meat and fries, you are guaranteed to leave as a happy camper (or boater, if you’re lucky). Alternatively, if you can score yourself some good crab meat, you can try these in the comfort of your own kitchen.

Of course, most people who are lucky enough to visit the Chesapeake Bay should probably also try their hand at extracting some of that delicious crab meat themselves, for example at the excellent Crab Claw Restaurant in St. Michaels, where you’ll be presented with an entire bucket of steamed crabs liberally sprinkled with Old Bay and the tools to get busy with finding your lunch:

Lunch is served! (The Crab Claw, St. Michaels, Chesapeake Bay)

In a land so driven by convenience and fast-food, it’s quite a thing to behold people working so hard for their food, and with such gusto. In fact, it’s so entertaining that we’d recommend just ordering a crab cake instead, and sitting back with a beer to enjoy the show.