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“How do I love you?” Elizabeth Barrett Browning once asked. When it comes to Maryland crab, we can barely count the ways—there are just too many. But let us try to portray our passion. Every state has a point of pride, from Maine blueberries to Idaho potatoes. Here, in the mid-Atlantic, Maryland is for crab lovers. With no disrespect to oysters and rockfish, the blue crab reigns as the undisputed king of the Chesapeake Bay. And while they can be found as far north as Nova Scotia and as far south as Uruguay, one-third of our country’s blue crab harvest comes from our local waters.
In Maryland, there are two seasons – crab season (which runs from May to November) and waiting for crab season. The latter occurs during the colder months when the crabs move to the bottom of the bay and hibernate for the winter. As the thermostat rises, the crustaceans move up with the warmer water and swim into the crab nets, when they’re as nice and fat as can be — not to mention salty-sweet and buttery in a way that’s unique to our saltwater. Sure, you can travel to Birmingham or Boise and see “Baltimore-style” or “Maryland-style” crab cakes on the menu, but there’s no truth to that ad. Ours is the best and we’re happy to throw down the gauntlet – make that a mallet – to anyone who argues otherwise. Unlike other blue crab states—that’s North Carolina, Texas and Louisiana—where the hard shells are often boiled, we steam our bay butes, which means they stay crisp and moist, and of course there’s our iconic home state brand of crab spice seasoning. , Old Bay.
And while it may seem overly obvious, it must be said that there’s only one place to eat authentic Maryland crab — and that’s smack dab in the Old Line state, where an almost religious fervor surrounds this seafood. We have a bit of bad news on that front: Because of the demand for this seasonal seafood, and because of recurring visa issues for crab pickers, it’s not always possible to get real Maryland crab. In fact, most seafood houses – even in season – supplement their local catch with other local crabs, while the meat may come from as far away as Asia. That said, other blues make for an acceptable substitute, as many places don’t serve Maryland crab. Your best bet? Always ask where the crabmeat comes from.
Crabs have long been an essential local protein along the Chesapeake. As early as 1,200 BC, these crustaceans were an important food source and continued to be consumed into the 17th century, when Native Americans and early colonists enjoyed eating them. Although crab shells are delicate and fragile, sites throughout the estuary have found their archaeological remains, from George Washington’s Mount Vernon homestead to Suquik’s Cabin, a 19th-century African-American residence in Calvert County.
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Given this history, it’s safe to say our craving for crabs is deep in our DNA—and this time of year it kicks in full force. And we don’t limit ourselves to crab cakes, hard shells or soups. We use crab everywhere: added to dips; stuffed in dumplings; sprinkled on top of pretzels, waffles and deviled eggs; Heaped high on a chicken cheesesteak – you name it. You can find crabs in their various incarnations at local seafood stands, fine-dining dens, pizza parlors, food trucks, food halls, and malls — and even gas stations in Hai.
Below, find your fix, however you want to eat them. Then get ready to celebrate the return of blue crab to a paper-wrapped table near you — and with it, one of Maryland’s most tried-and-true traditions.
Scenes from the Choptank: After the Crab Feast; Grape and orange crush; Crispy Crab Fritters with Ramoulade and Pickled Vegetables; Historic entrance.
When we walked into this remote storefront in a Carroll County strip mall, we couldn’t help but notice the bags of carryout orders behind the counter. Takeout steamed crab and seafood is big business here. There is also food service, but we did not immediately see the dining room. Seeing our confusion as we entered through the bar, a friendly cashier directed us to a solid door that opened into a connecting room with about 10 tables. It’s a bare-bones but fun place with murals of docked boats and photographs of crab house scenes. Depending on the time of year, the cooked crabs are a mix of hard shells from Maryland, Virginia and Louisiana that are dusted with the kitchen’s own spices. And the restaurant’s crab expertise is evident. After all, owner Dan Shuman, who runs the Crab House with his brother, Mike, has been in business since 1971, spending time at the Randallstown Seafood Market before opening Captain Dan’s in 2003. Simply put, crabs are fab.
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People love to sit by the water and crack crabs, but Captain James takes it a step further by giving guests the chance to eat crabs by the water’s edge and on the boat. Well, it’s not an actual boat, but rather a boat-shaped restaurant with an adjacent crab house that has a large deck on the water between Canton and Fells Point. That central location undoubtedly contributes to the restaurant’s popularity, but if it didn’t also deliver quality, the place wouldn’t have hung around for so long. When we visited on a Friday spring evening, we found both the food and service to be stellar. The sight comes with a price tag: These were among the most expensive crabs we’ve encountered, ranging from $100 for a dozen mediums to $155 for jumbos (they’re only sold by the half-dozen or dozen). They were well seasoned and well seasoned with sweet meat. Corn on the cob, cold pitchers of beer, and an order of fries as delicious as the boardwalk rounded out our meal, which was as good as the view of the Patapsco.
Crab Tacos: Captain James Crab House is one of the last places in town to offer all-you-can-eat crab (with a two-hour dining limit), available Monday through Thursday, 4 to 9 p.m.
Picking freshly-steamed crabs at the old-school Costas Inn in Dundalk; Alfresco dining and live music at The Choptank.
At first glance, a casual visitor might not realize that Choptank is a place to eat steamed crabs. The outdoor area has happy hour, and the cocktails flow faster than the nearby harbor waters. But once you take a seat and focus on the menu, you realize this is the home of crabs. Before the steaming shells arrive, your table is covered with brown paper and the appropriate tools appear—a mallet, a knife, and a shell cracker (for those with a lobster habit). While we waited for the crabs (from Louisiana on our visit and local when available) to steam, we dug into a worthy mound of seafood nachos filled with grilled fish, shrimp, and lump crab. Half a dozen of our large, coated J.O. The spices, mostly plump specimens, but one was light weight, so the kitchen threw in extra crab.
Faidley’s Crab Cakes, Natty Boh, Coddies, Bergers Cookies, & Crabs
If the crabs here taste like the freshest shellfish you’ve ever had, it’s because they’re literally out of the water. Owner Tony Conrad — a triple-threat waterman, restaurateur, and entrepreneur (who recently expanded into Harford County) — presumably got off his boat after a morning of catching crustaceans in the bay. There are many reasons
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