A Guatemalan chef at a Greek restaurant in Philadelphia made the best crab cake I ever ate outside of Maryland. It was lovingly prepared and packed with lump crab. The cake had another thing going for it: It was not described as a Maryland crab cake. It favored Panko over milk-soaked bread cubes and came with a rémoulade spiked with whole-grain mustard. Adding the word “Maryland” to its description may have moved more cakes with the tourists. But it would have been a lie.
It is a lie I have believed before.
It’s been 10 years since I left my hometown of Baltimore for a newspaper job in Providence, RI. I’ve traded steamed crabs for grilled lobster, Ocean City for Cape Cod. Like many writers, I found side work in restaurants and bars. Growing up on good homemade meals served me well. I have the cooking chops (you’ll have to trust me) and the writing ability (I hope you agree) to document my search for a good cake.
I didn’t think it would be difficult to find a decent Maryland crab cake in a region known for seafood. I’ve had alleged Maryland crab cakes up and down the East Coast. Not one measured up to the fat, lumpy beauties found in the Land of Pleasant Living. Is it that hard to make a decent crab cake?
A Maryland crab cake—like a Philly cheese steak, a New York pizza, or a Maine lobster roll—is a simple thing. You could make a superb cheese steak tonight with three common ingredients—thinly sliced rib-eye, a crusty sub roll, and Cheez Whiz (yup). Oh, and love. You need love.
That love is the missing ingredient in every bad crab cake I’ve ever had. (That and crabmeat, which is woefully absent in most so-called Maryland crab cakes.) A decent crab cake is a simple mixture of good crab, scarce binders, and a little seasoning. You want lumps—visible lumps—not the uniformity of a hockey puck. The meat should be treated with care. Don’t break it up. Don’t fuss with it.
None of the chefs I know dispute those basic rules. So why have I suffered through thin, hateful-looking cakes filled with bell peppers, carrots, and soggy Ritz crackers? Why have I wept over “Old Bay-infused aioli” garnishes on fancy menus and imitation crab abuse at dives? And frozen cakes from the supermarket? I have always been hopeful before disappointment set in.
I am not alone. I asked a fellow Baltimorean in exile, my friend Eric Mithen, if he’d ever found a good cake outside of Baltimore. Eric is a foodie, a writer, and a fine cook. We suffer together.
“I had ‘Maryland-style’ crab cakes in Dallas once,” he said. “There was nothing cake about them. It was like two dollops of hot mayonnaise with sparse bits of crab meat.”
Lump crabmeat is expensive. I get that. But I’d rather eat a decent crab dip or soup made with claw meat than choke down a bargain crab cake from a frugal gourmet. I am reminded of a Parks and Recreation TV episode in which carnivore Ron Swanson orders a steak at a diner and gets a thin, brown slab of sadness instead. “This isn’t a steak. Why would you call it that on your menu?” he responds.
Exactly. Listing a Maryland crab cake on a menu is making a promise. A good cook doesn’t break promises. Until these outsider cooks get religion on what truly makes for a Maryland crab cake, I suggest you order the local dish. You can always order a crab cake back home, where “Maryland is for crabs” is a promise not broken.
Miss Glo’s Crab Cakes
My mother makes the best crab cakes I’ve ever had.
She’d say I’m a better cook, but that’s what moms say. Despite my years in professional kitchens, I’ve never been able to top her. Glo adapted this recipe from one she found in Mrs. Kitching’s Smith Island Cookbook. She serves them with crackers. That’s it.
God bless you if you reach for extra Worcestershire or a little Tabasco.
- 1 pound backfin crabmeat
- 3 tablespoons self-rising flour
- 4 shakes Worcestershire Sauce
- 1 egg
- 1 tablespoon parsley flakes
- 1 tablespoon prepared mustard
- 2 tablespoons mayonnaise
- 3/4 cup vegetable oil
Directions, in her words:
- “Sort through crabmeat to clean out any shells. Add all other ingredients, except the oil. Mix well, being careful to keep the crabmeat whole.”
- “Shape into medium-sized cakes. Heat the oil. ”
- Fry on both sides until golden brown. Remove and place on paper towels.”