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Visions of crab cakes dance in my head

Crab-pickers at the J.M. Clayton Seafood Company, founded in 1890.This was going to be a column about my first cruise of the season, which was delayed many weeks by frequent outbursts of rain that began in April and went through May. I had intended to cruise to the Eastern Shore, but strong southerly headwinds on Memorial Day weekend caused me to sail north to Gibson Island, at the mouth of the Magothy River on the Bay’s upper Western Shore.

Mileage-wise, this was just a routine 13-mile sprint from Annapolis to avoid motorsailing south. In an hour, I was through the Chesapeake Bay bridges and on a brisk starboard reach toward Love Point. It was the first test of my new UK Halsey/Scott Allan mainsail and a great success. A jibe near the mouth of the Eastern Shore’s Chester River turned me back toward the Magothy on a port reach.

En route among a sailing crowd of humans, I began to think about all the delectable creatures in the deep beneath us, whose incomparable tastes made Chesapeake Bay world-famous.

Whenever I cruise the Maryland portion of the Bay, I hope to dine on a real Maryland crabcake made from the meat of the blue crab from our southern coastal waters. However, it has become somewhat frustrating not to find this item in Bay area restaurants, especially when one considers the uncompromising demand of loyal locals who devour with much gusto the white meat of steamed, male blue crabs. The “blue swimmer crab” from Asia is often used as a substitute for the pure blue crab, and the “swimmer” designation is cleverly omitted, making it a “blue crab.”

To my taste, this imported crab may provide white, jumbo lumps, but it has no flavor. It is a different species than the preferred blue — Callinectes (Greek for beautiful swimmer) sapidus (Latin for tasty, savory) Rathbun. Dr. Mary Jane Rathbun, the Smithsonian Institution’s famed crab expert, managed to identify and describe an astounding 998 new species of crab, and only one did she bother to label with culinary qualities.

The imported species is whiter, more abundant and cheaper, and many restaurant owners pass it off as “blue crab” by using misleading descriptions: Maryland, Eastern Shore, or Chesapeake-style crabcakes. But some use real, blue crabmeat from North Carolina, Louisiana, Florida or Texas, to name a few crab-producing coastal states. Tasty crabmeat does not have to originate from Chesapeake Bay.

I am not making a list here or doing one of those “Best Crabcake” stories, but as a native Marylander, I do know my crabcakes. A few of my favorite places for what I consider real crabcakes include the classic Obrycki’s in East Baltimore, Davis’s Pub in  Annapolis, Stoney’s in Broomes Island off the Patuxent River, Snappers Waterfront Café in Cambridge, Latitude 38 Bistro just outside of Oxford, and its crabhouse at the Pier Street Marina’s Masthead Restaurant on Oxford’s Tred Avon River. Some of these places also serve steamed crabs, which is a good sign.

Snappers Waterfront Café is a case in point. Owned by brother and sister Johnny and Susan Sydnor and in its 15th year of operation, it is somewhat unique. It shares a point of land with neighboring J.M. Clayton Seafood Company, which bills itself as the oldest working crab-packing plant in the world. It is operated by brothers Jack, Joe and Bill Brooks, whose great-grandfather “Captain Johnnie” founded the business in 1890.

I have docked at Snappers’ pier and spent a few hours touring Clayton’s packing house next door, followed by a crabcake using Clayton’s jumbo lump crabmeat with no filler and held together with an imperial sauce and broiled — a $15 4-1/2-ounce sandwich with a side dish. I like mine on crackers, not a bun, and I slow down the digestive process to allow the prime meat to practically dissolve in my mouth.

It’s interesting to follow Snappers’ crabcake trail. Watermen tie up their workboats at Clayton’s and offload their fresh, live catch from the Choptank River. Generally speaking, large males (“No. 1 Jimmies”) go to restaurants specializing in steamed crabs. Immediately, the tightly packed bushel baskets with females and smaller males are submerged in a large tub of ice water to settle them down and prevent fighting in the steamer. After steaming, they are dispersed to more than a hundred pickers, including a few older local women who are still at it. The meat is carefully placed in containers with the Epicure label and shipped out.

When crabmeat arrives next door at Snappers, it is so freshly picked and packed that it’s still warm from the steamer. One would think this restaurant would take advantage of this favorable fact on its Web site or menu, but that is not the case. Most knowledgeable crab lovers don’t bother to ask where the crabmeat comes from, taking for granted it’s from Clayton’s.

Back to cruising. Heading for Gibson Island, I got permission to overnight at the private docks of the Gibson Island Yacht Club. En route to the island, I always bypassed Dobbins Island to port — once a crowded, highly popular anchorage until its beach was posted with “No Trespassing” signs. This has resulted in weekend boaters crowding the next two anchorages to starboard, Eagle Cove and Red House Cove.

The ride home was mostly a motorsail into another brisk southerly. With thoughts returning to the abundance of those beautiful swimmers under my keel, I pulled in the mainsail snug and set up the self-steering rig. To duck the occasional salt spray, I moved to the companionway, sitting half in and out of the cabin as Erewhon drove herself home with me tagging along as a dry, warm and lazy passenger.

For sure, my next cruise will be to the Eastern Shore and a return to Snappers and Clayton’s in Cambridge for Callinectes sapidus Rathbun.


Jack Sherwood is writer at large for Soundings.

This article originally appeared in the August 2009 issue.



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