As a child, Elmer Melendez Martinez used to eat crab meat from the claws that his mother and aunts brought home from their jobs harvesting blue crabs in the US state of Maryland. While the steamed red legs and spiny claws contain succulent meat for those with the patience to extract it, they are often discarded in the crabmeat industry to prioritize their most valuable offering: chunky crabmeat. These tender pads of white fin meat – graded pit or jumbo pit, the latter even more of a luxury – are carefully packaged and sold fresh. While exact numbers are hard to come by, much of the product is enjoyed in the form of crab cakes, a Maryland signature.
Today, Melendez Martinez is the sous chef at Stars restaurant at the Inn at Perry Cabin in St Michaels, Maryland, where he bakes crab cakes with seasonal accessories like pumpkin, pomegranate and brown butter. Though he had never had a crab cake before working at the restaurant in 2019, he quickly fell in love with it.
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“Crab makes up 40% of our total sales, which is astronomical,” said Gregory James, executive chef at Stars. Caught from the same river that guests admire from the dining room windows, it is a hyper-local product and one of the main money makers in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, supporting local fishermen. “It really speaks to Maryland. When people come here, they want to eat crab.”
The word “cake” in the name can be misleading; a real Maryland crab cake is very light on any ingredients except plain crabmeat. A beaten egg, mayonnaise, and a light dusting of breadcrumbs barely hold the pieces together, and the only other guests allowed at this crab cake-making table are fresh herbs (Stars uses chopped chives, parsley, and lemon zest) and spices (like Old Bay seasoning, another Maryland signature). Once formed into patties, a quick roast or stir-fry kisses the exterior with toasty texture and flavor.
The crab has been enjoyed by indigenous peoples in the Chesapeake Bay for more than 3,000 years, according to a study in Journey of Archaeological Science. And crab cake is a rustic delicacy that has been enjoyed in the United States for over a century.
“Like lobster, crab started out as peasant rubbish, and then the aristocrats realized how good it was,” said James.
The same crab meat mixture used for crab cakes is prepared in a variety of ways at Stars – in Crab Eggs Benedict, Tortellini, Crab Imperial, Crab Fingers, Crab Bites, and a Crab Cake Sandwich listed on the menu as ” Maryland Crab Sammy”. Garnished with tomato, spinach and lemon aioli and served on brioche bread, it is made every day at the restaurant opened by Margarita Galdamez, a cook who has worked at the 19th-century inn for 18 years. She’s learned a few tricks of the trade over that time: first, the mixture must be mixed very gently so as not to break up the plump chunks of crabmeat. “I do it with my hands, but very carefully,” said Galdamez (through a translator from Spanish). “I like to let the mixture run through my hands over a bowl.”
Another tip is to leave the crabmeat on a paper towel-lined baking sheet, uncovered, in the refrigerator for a few hours or overnight. This will dry out the crabmeat and make the cakes lighter and fluffier.
But make sure you use your crabmeat soon. According to the late chef and Southern culinary authority Edna Lewis, its freshness is fleeting: “Crab meat has to be so fresh it smells like the sea,” Lewis wrote in her 1988 cookbook, In Pursuit of Flavor. She advises keeping it on ice as soon as you bring it home from the market and never freezing it, which will spoil its texture. And, as Stars chefs diligently do, always choose shells. “Even if it costs fifteen dollars a pound [£12 for 450g] and the fishmonger insists it’s clean, take it,” she wrote.
These days, crabmeat easily costs three times as much, anywhere from $40 to $60 per pound (£32 to £48 for 450g). But the reward for your work and money is a product that hardly needs any seasoning. Southern cooks like crab mixed minimally so as not to overwhelm its delicate flavor. This makes a crab cake—or crab cake sammy—an ideal weeknight meal.
For all the crab they produce at Stars, the cooks never get tired of it, Melendez Martinez said. “I still love it. I still eat as much as I can. My mom still brings it home and I can’t get enough of it.”