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Chesapeake Bay Cooking

Chesapeake bay cooking brings to mind one ingredient above all others: crab. Because the area, and its Delmarva peninsula (encompassing parts of the states of Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, hence the coinage), has a burgeoning chicken industry, that humble bird may frequently find itself in a regional frying pan, but crab—the blue, Maryland crab (callinectes sapidus, to be scientific about it), is the true king of this vital cuisine. You could easily dine in an area restaurant and justify one of many crab-based soups, followed by crab cakes for starters (or even a main course), followed by steamed blue crabs that you will take apart and enjoy with skill, all the while making a wonderful mess that will burn enough calories to justify a sweet dessert (with no crab, for once).

The Chesapeake region serves up both hard-shelled and soft-shelled crabs. Crabs all over the world molt and go into a soft-shell stage, but nowhere else in the world are producers as organized and efficient in getting the soft-shell crabs to market and to your table. Soft-shell crabs are easier to eat than the hard-shell variety, so it falls upon the chef not to ruin them in the kitchen, where they can pose problems for the uninitiated. Simple techniques, a gentle fry in butter taking care neither to overcook nor over-sauce, usually work best to bring out the basic flavor of this fresh delicacy. A light seasoned batter may sometimes be used to good effect.

Steamed blue crabs have techniques and a culinary language all their own. One of the notable techniques involves the use of both vinegar (often apple cider vinegar) and flat beer (beer that has been allowed to stand for an hour or two so as to lose its effervescence) in order to create the steam. The cook will purchase or concoct a stimulating spice mixture largely containing or based on (with variations) the Old Bay brand of seasoning mixture, adding salt, pepper, ginger, dry mustard or other flavorings as taste may dictate. (Old Bay is essentially a blend of celery salt, paprika, black pepper, cayenne pepper, dry mustard, mace, cinnamon, cardamom, allspice, clove and ginger.) The crabs are thrown still alive into the pot. This is not only to assure the freshest of flavor, but is also a measure to make sure the crabs haven’t spoiled, as they do so rapidly. The final product is generally enjoyed with more seasoning, a sprinkle of additional vinegar, and perhaps a still-effervescent beer to wash it all down.

In the rest of the non-Chesapeake United States, probably no other dish calls up the region’s unique contribution to American gastronomy than the crab cake, or often, on restaurant menus, the “Maryland crab cake.” The crab cake is essentially a crab fritter: crab meat mixed with bread crumbs (cracker crumbs to be most authentic), seasonings and flavorings, all bound with an egg, then pan fried in butter, oil, or a mixture of the two. Crab cakes can be fist-sized or smaller, main courses or dainty appetizers. Most recipes call for a dollop of mayonnaise, dry mustard, and Worcestershire sauce (with occasional calls for a squirt of Tabasco sauce or a dash of cayenne pepper for heat, though this varies cook to cook). The lightly fried crab cakes are invariably served with tartar sauce, essentially mayonnaise mixed with chopped pickles, and onions (or shallots), and other seasonings. (Tartar sauce is familiarly served with seafood all over the United States).

Crab can take many delightful culinary forms: crab loaf, deviled crab, crab soufflés, crab-stuffed mushroom caps, crab quiche, ham and crab imperial, crabmeat curry, crab fluffs, crab and artichoke dip, yet the broad range of other seafood specialties is also indicative of the Chesapeake region. Oysters, fish of all kinds, the already mentioned chicken, game birds, sausages, pork products and rich desserts that show a strong southern influence round out what must be judged a substantial regional American cuisine.