The first steamed crab I pluck from the pile feels heavy in my hand, and I'm already content. The act of grabbing the shell smears my fingers with clumps of spices and coarse salt, but I don't mind. As a native Marylander, everything about being here at L.P. Steamers, a crab house in Baltimore's Locust Point neighborhood, feels familiar: its location in a tall, compact, red brick row house (Baltimore's signature architectural style); the butcher block paper spread across the tables; the shoreline scent of seafood in the air; the thwacking and crunching as diners dismantle the spindly red bodies to eat them for lunch.
I moved away from Maryland over 25 years ago, but if I don't make it back to the state at least once a year for steamed crabs, I'm like a bird whose migration pattern has been disrupted. I'm unsettled in the world.
But now I'm here, which is as it should be. I'm planted in front of a pile of swimmers, their raw blue shells turned brushfire-red in the steamer pot, a marvel of pigment and biochemistry. Ryan Detter, who covers restaurants for the Baltimore City Paper and writes the occasional Baltimore-themed Heatmap for Eater, sits across the table from me. This is our first meal together. We've met up to spend a few days gorging on classic Baltimore eats — especially crab, because it is high summer, and absolutely nothing tastes better on a sweltering day than buttery crabmeat zapped by sharp spices. Maryland's official crab season runs from April to December, but late summer and early fall is when crabs are at their heaviest, sweetest, and most plentiful.
Our server hustles by, and I call out the question that in my eagerness I forgot to ask when ordering. To me, it's a crucial query.
The caked spices get under your nails. Your clothes reek of brine and beer. It's a laborious process of demolition. It's wonderful.
"Are these crabs from Maryland?"
"Yes," he says. "For now, our crabs are from Maryland."
For now. Meaning: When harvests of crabs fished from the Chesapeake Bay run low, or the prices become exorbitant, crabs may instead be overnighted from North Carolina, Louisiana, or Texas. This has become common practice in many Baltimore crab houses, and often the crabmeat used to make crab cakes and other local crab specialties comes from even further afield. It's how restaurants accommodate the appetite for Maryland's most famous culinary tradition. Pollution and overfishing began taking its toll on the Bay's blue crab population as far back as the 1960s, and restaurants have adapted over the decades by looking beyond the state lines.
This year, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the blue crab populace in the Bay is more than 550 million, one of the highest tallies since the mid-1990s, due in part to a mild winter and recent crab harvesting restrictions. It seemed like an ideal excuse for me to spend some quality time in Baltimore, savoring the local catch at places like L.P. Steamers.
It was about more than that, though, if I'm honest. I've been on the road for most of the past two-and-a-half years, reporting on the meals I eat in restaurants of all kinds across America. It's the ideal life for a gluttonous wanderer like me, without question. But amid the heady dash toward constant, new-to-me experiences, I'd begun lately to feel a shimmer of loneliness, an ache to spend time in a place I know profoundly. That longing for connection ran deeper than me simply spending more time at my house in Atlanta, where I've lived off and on for two decades. I wanted to go home.
Baltimore is where I fell in love with food, where my parents took me to restaurants with names like Haussner's, Chez Fernand, and the Chesapeake — icons that no longer exist. Before weekend dinners my brother and I would often cruise around the city's Inner Harbor in a paddleboat, skimming along the urban coast while dusk settled and the lit-up skyline appeared as a glimmery reflection in the water. Our mother and father watched us from a cafe terrace, where they sipped white wine spritzers or scotch old-fashioneds. Then we'd head off to one of our favorite neighborhoods to eat, perhaps to Fells Point, with its cobblestone streets and cozy Waterfront Inn, or to cloistered Little Italy and its red-sauce stalwarts like Sabatino's and Chiaparrelli's.
But I hungered all year for family crab feasts, for their mess and their overexcited fellowship and the happy delirium that settled in afterward. As an adult, I've zipped in and out of my eccentric, complicated hometown enough to still grasp its essential character. But I was returning now to slow down, to reacquaint myself with the summer humidity, the occasional Patapsco River breeze, and the local treasures pulled from nearby waters. It would prove to be something of a hunt.
Baltimore is not a trendsetting food town. No national publication has proclaimed it America's surprise number-one dining destination. No Ace Hotel will be opening imminently to skyrocket the city's cool factor.
I'm not implying that my hometown is a culinary backwater. It keeps pace with your typical midsize American metropolis. Resident food lovers embrace new restaurants interpreting global cuisines: Indian, Peruvian, Basque, Vietnamese, Dominican. You can find solid examples of sushi and ramen. Upscale stunners in Harbor East, the buzzy neighborhood du jour, serve fancy pastas and flaming saganaki; they nod to the local love of Italian and Greek cooking, reflecting two of the city's most deeply rooted immigrant communities. (Every time the Greeks showed up on the second season of The Wire, I twitched with Pavlovian cravings for the spanakopita I scarfed in restaurants as a child.)
If you're celebrating a special occasion in town, I will readily send you to chef Cindy Wolf's beautiful restaurant Charleston. Mix-and-match options for her tasting menus might include sweet corn soup with summer truffles, heirloom tomato salad with lime and saffron vinaigrette, and grilled Chesapeake rockfish with fresh artichokes and a carrot puree. I will urge you not to overlook the cheese cart stocked with rare finds shipped from Neal's Yard Dairy in London.
Really, though, what makes Baltimore a special place to eat is that the city itself transcends any notion of fashion. Maryland's love of Callinectes sapidus — the blue crab — may be a cliché, but it remains the defining food of our collective identity. Our devotion is primal. Crab cakes show up on higher-end menus around town; locals, however, tend to gravitate to versions served with saltines or on sandwich rolls in bars, cafes, diners, and at longstanding food halls. And crab houses — which first emerged post-World War II on Maryland's Eastern shore, often run by crabbers and fishermen or crab processing facilities — can be scruffy, chaotic affairs. The caked spices get under your nails. Your clothes reek of brine and beer. Filling your stomach crab by crab is a laborious process of demolition, though the effort makes the meal that much more satisfying. It's wonderful.
I'd begun lately to feel a shimmer of loneliness, an ache to spend time in a place I know profoundly.
Of course, not everybody wants to work quite so hard for dinner. My dad, who has lived in the same Maryland county his whole life, relishes crab but refuses to dissect one. And the menus at crab houses have evolved over the years to accommodate all kinds of appetites and dispositions — including his.
Two classic soups appear nearly everywhere: Maryland crab (a tomato-based vegetable soup flecked with lattices of crabmeat) and cream of crab (roux-thickened, usually, and best consumed hot and quick before it congeals into a gluey mass). In this age of mash-ups, some customers ask for the two soups "half and half," and some kitchens comply; when I was growing up, to even conceive of mixing them in the same bowl would have been heresy.
I did, thirty-plus years ago, witness the emergence of "crab fluff" — a crab cake dunked in an excess of batter and deep-fried until it resembles a balloon-shaped funnel cake. The crab fluff at L.P. Steamers has actual merit: the meat inside tingles with sweet-hot spices, and the cooks toss extra wisps of crisp batter into the plastic serving basket for munching. Cream cheese-based crab dip shows up in myriad forms at crab houses: poured into a hollowed-out boule, spread across toast, as filling for potato skins, and, most notoriously, slaked across spongy pretzels, covered with cheese, and broiled. I doubt an exemplary version of the crab pretzel exists anywhere; it doesn't mean I've stopped searching for it.
These days most Maryland seafood restaurants oblige divergent tastes by, well, being seafood restaurants. Their menus may have crab at the center, but they also serve oysters (I prefer local varieties in the winter when they're generally more saline), clams, scallops, mussels, and fish, mostly from other waters. I have no interest in any of this. I am here to feed a rumbling homesickness. I want crab. Pure Maryland crab.
Picking apart a blue crab can be unnerving to first-timers. For me it is instinctual; performing the ritual lives in the lizard part of my brain. Watch my family tackle a heap of steamed crabs and you know who we are. My 90-year-old grandmother prefers her seasoning spare. My mother likes her spices bolder, and having grown up on a farm she is patient and steady with excavating every fleshy filigree. My father can't sit still long enough to really engage. My brother rips into his share like the cartoon Tasmanian Devil, scattering slivers of shells and debris in his frenzy.
I bring unrelenting perfectionism to the task. At L.P. Steamers I begin like I always do, by flipping the crab upside down to remove the limbs. The two rows of five legs twist off with the same effort it takes to unscrew the cap on a new tube of toothpaste. Sometimes tufts of pearly meat cling to their ends, prime for extracting with the teeth. I snap the crab's front claws in half at the joint and go to work on them with a wooden mallet, the ubiquitous tool that accompanies this sort of feast. The goal is to retrieve the frilly flesh inside intact — to extract it unblemished and still attached to the pincers, usually achieved by tapping the shell a few times with the brisk force of a doctor administering a reflex test. I pause a second to admire the shapes and the colors before devouring my prize.
Now for the body. I slide a knife into the crab's abdominal flap, called the "apron." Most crabs served in restaurants are males, or "jimmies," identified by the obelisk shape outlined on their aprons. I hold the knife steady and with my other hand lift off the hard, spiny shell to reveal the soft body within. There is no other sound on earth quite like that squishy crack. Once you tune in to its frequency, you'll hear it repeated over and over at every table in the restaurant. I use the knife to scrape away the gray, tapered gills that line both sides of its form; kids often nickname them "dead man's fingers." There is a film of yellow green gunk — the hepatopancreas, a filtering organ — which Marylanders call the "mustard." Some crab lovers find the stuff appetizing; I don't, but neither am I hypersensitive about scraping every last bit away.
My native Maryland heart tells me not to eat blue crab from any other waters but the Chesapeake Bay.
Then, with both hands, I break the body in two. How a person unearths the meat from the crab's labyrinths of cartilage is entirely individual. I approach the task by squeezing each half together to crack and loosen the cartilage. Then I get surgical, cradling each section in my palm and, using my thumb, carefully peeling away the outside chamber and the leg sockets until there's nothing left but a lush wad of alabaster meat. I use my fingers to dig out the remaining lacy threads of flesh.
Ryan eyes my handiwork from across the table and nods. I watch him break each half of his crab in two again, quartering the crustacean to more easily reach the choice clumps of meat. It's an efficient method. He knows what he's doing.
The steamed crabs are an unspoken test between us, a measure of our Maryland cred. Ryan, who hails from Ohio, has lived in Baltimore for 15 years. I am a prodigal son; I've been gone longer than Ryan's been around. This sizing up isn't a race or a competition. But noting how your tablemates eat steamed crabs — how efficiently and confidently they break them down, how cleanly they pick the shells for meat — is part of an innate Maryland dining code. Silently, without any acknowledgement, Ryan and I pass muster with one another. We plow through our dozen crabs. An ease, a trust, settles in between us. We sip from our bottles of National Bohemian beer, better known as Natty Boh, first brewed in Baltimore in 1885. Though it is is now made in North Carolina and Georgia, Natty Boh remains the city's liquid mascot.
The Maryland-not Maryland dualism follows us as we head off in search of righteous crab cakes.
Lexington Market — Baltimore's largest public market, established in 1782, more than a decade before the city was officially incorporated — sprawls across two buildings and houses more than a hundred vendors in a rippling sweep of humanity. Shoppers are predominantly black, but the crowd includes faces of many colors. We shuffle between stalls that sell fried chicken, deli sandwiches, fudge-covered cookies, shrimp fried rice, shiny vegetables in meticulous rows, and pizza by the slice or pie. Faidley Seafood, in business since 1886, stands apart from the throng, with its own wing and its own entrance. It began as a fishmonger, but expanded into food service half a century years ago selling fish sandwiches; in 1970, a raw bar was installed, and a decade later the operation assumed its most famous role: Baltimore's crab cake kingpins.
Nancy Faidley Devine, the granddaughter of founder John W. Faidley, stands behind a counter near the door. Her gloved hands are covered in a mix of mustard and mayo as she forms six-ounce globes of crabmeat and arranges them tidily on sheet pans. I watch her for a minute, and then ask my favorite question: "Are you using Maryland crab meat?"
Really, what makes Baltimore a special place to eat is that the city itself transcends any notion of fashion.
She smiles, and answers by reaching for a small tub and handing it to me. It reads "Windmill Brand Crabmeat," packed in Hoopers Island on Maryland's Eastern Shore — a stretch of coast I know well. Most of my mother's relatives live within 20 miles of that arc of the Chesapeake Bay. I smile back at her and order two crab cakes, one lump and one backfin.
Devine, who runs Faidley Seafood with her husband and daughter, arguably sparked the mania for "jumbo lump" crab cakes. In the 1980s, as a bid to differentiate her product from the competition, she devised a recipe showcasing the large, feather-shaped muscles, or "lumps," that develop on the blue crab's back swimming legs. There are only two lumps per crab, so it's a costly extravagance. The idea had staying power, and by the 1990s "jumbo lump" became the gold-standard shorthand, not only in Maryland but nationwide in steakhouses and other restaurants peddling luxury.
Before Devine's jumbo lump revelation, the premium part of the crab was backfin meat, which comprises broken pieces of lump as well as stringier threads. This is the meat that made up the crab cake I grew up on, and as long as a backfin crab cake isn't padded out with too much breading (Marylanders are obsessed with crab cakes having as little "filler" as possible), it is a homely but eloquent expression of silky richness.
Ryan and I bulldoze through both of the crab cakes that Faidley's cooks broil for us. Preference between them, we resolve, is a matter of prioritizing texture versus taste. Undoubtedly, the lump-studded sphere shines in it golden beauty, each forkful weighty with plump morsels of flesh. The darker, squatter backfin cake isn't a looker, but I find its flavor more intense, more direct; it's the one that quiets my yearnings for home. It's the crab cake I'd return for, that brings me back to myself.
Every time I've stopped in Maryland, bought a crab cake, and posted a picture of it online, someone invariably comments with, "Go try the ones at Koco's Pub!" A neighborhood haunt in a residential stretch six miles from downtown Baltimore, Koco's canary-yellow exterior gives way to a long dining room swathed in sky blue, lime green, and a bright orange that brings to mind the Orioles logo. Customers fill every table, and no one seems to order anything but crab cakes.
I hold the knife steady and with my other hand lift off the hard, spiny shell to reveal the soft body within.
Koco's specialty is a Frankenstein's monster of crab weighing in at eleven ounces — twice the mass of a regulation major league baseball. It's all lump, little filler, creamy, and with a spunky hit of Old Bay, the state's beloved crab seasoning. (Plenty of crab houses and seafood restaurants alternately use custom spice blends — perhaps oomphing sweet spices like mace, rearing back on the celery salt, or ratcheting up the paprika — often sourced from Old Bay's local competitor J.O. Spice Co.) The charm of this behemoth is obvious.
Is the crabmeat from Maryland? "It isn't," says a manager. "Sometimes it's from Maryland, but it's often from Indonesia and other places. We just do so much volume, we need a steady supply." Koco's is hardly alone in its approach, and I appreciate the staffer being straightforward. That isn't always the case in restaurants. A study published last year by the seafood watch group Oceana detailed some troubling results: The organization surveyed nearly 90 regional restaurants advertising Maryland crabmeat, and found that 46 percent of the places located in Baltimore were actually selling specimens from other parts of the world (most frequently Asia and Mexico). The researchers determined that this might not necessarily be the restaurants' fault: Mislabeling can easily happen in the distribution channel before the product enters the United States, and restaurants may believe they're buying locally when they're not.
(As one reaction to this type of fraud, two-dozen or so Baltimore restaurants — including Mid-Atlantic sensation Woodberry Kitchen, a perennial on Eater's list of America's essential restaurants — participate in the state's "True Blue" certification program, which verifies that a restaurant serves only authentic Maryland crab.)
From a dining perspective, here's what I'm learning on this trip: Many customers may not care all that much about the origins of the crabs they're enjoying. Ryan and I walk into several packed crab houses during our days together — places that get raves in local publications, institutions recommended to Ryan by Baltimorean food lovers — and when we ask where the steamed crabs come from, the servers nonchalantly say "Louisiana" or "Texas." They tilt their heads, confused or amused, when we say thanks and wave goodbye without ordering.
I get that consistent supply is the bottom line for a business. We all have our own principles. Truthfully? At Christmastime, when I visit my family, I would gratefully wolf down Koco's enormous, deftly seasoned crab beast. But in the warm weather, in a year when the harvest is abundant, my native Maryland heart tells me not to eat blue crab from any other waters but the Chesapeake Bay.
Part of the ease with which Baltimoreans accept blue crabs from other shores, I think, is that a loyalty to their crab house is stronger than a loyalty to local foods. Everyone has the nearby haven that their family has patronized for years, where the steamed crabs have just the right amount of caked-on spices, where the seasoning isn't too hot or too sweet for their palate. And I can empathize, now that I have a new go-to crab house myself, though it's 20 miles from my parents' house. Schultz's Crab House is in Essex, a blue-collar community on the edge of Baltimore surrounded by the Back and Middle rivers.
When I look around the dining room at Schultz's for the first time, on my last day in Baltimore, it's as if someone tapped my childhood restaurant memories and reified them into this set piece: knotty wood paneling, a figurine of a fisherman in a yellow slicker, a mounted fiberglass marlin, faded pictures of boats and docks, white butcher paper on every table.
And yes, the crabs are from Maryland. Ryan and I ask for jumbos, six inches or more in length, typically the largest size available in restaurants, and the server tells us the kitchen steams them to order — at that size, it'll be 45 minutes. Fine. We fill the wait with speedier dishes: jumbo lump and backfin crab cakes (here, too, I find I'm partial to the lacey backfin version), thick cream of crab soup, and a crackly mound of crab fluff. I nearly burst into tears when the crab imperial — essentially a casserole of crab, mayonnaise, and spices — shows up in a foil crabshell, the way it did in restaurants when I was a kid obsessed with the dish. On the side are pickled beets, a cucumber salad, and a sight I haven't seen in probably 30 years: a bloodily crimson spiced apple ring, set atop a leaf of kale as garnish. It's alarming how far back in time I can travel at Schultz's.
The steamed crabs, when they arrive, are dense and full of such delicate, heavenly meat, and I swear I can taste cardamom zigzagging through the mud slick of spices. We chuck the shells into a blue bucket, but leave the papered tabletop littered with a carnage of claws and cartilage and murky stains. The server is cleaning up the crime scene, gathering the butcher paper at its edges, even before we reach the door.
Lunch at Schultz's is my final meal of the trip. Ryan and I hug goodbye ("It's like you were my best buddy at Crab Camp!") and I'm already thinking about the next flights, the next cities, the next meals. It's doubtful I'll have Maryland crab in Baltimore again this year.
It's doubtful I'll have much crab meat at all, frankly. I know it's silly, but eating my native delicacy in other places leaves me empty. In San Francisco, a bowl of taglierini twined with Dungeness crab (more gossamer in texture than its compact Chesapeake cousin) can certainly be a pleasure. In my travels, though, I find myself detouring around crab shacks on the coast of Georgia or Lake Pontchartrain, and in chophouses I'll always choose oysters or shrimp cocktail over a jumbo lump orb. Other people can rightly adore these things. To me they're only echoes of home, like the mirrored outline of downtown Baltimore rippling and blurring in the waves of the Inner Harbor.
Where to get the best crab in Baltimore
L.P. Steamers: 1100 East Fort Avenue, Baltimore, (410) 576-9294, locustpointsteamers.com
Faidley Seafood: 203 North Paca Street, Baltimore, (410) 727-4898, faidleyscrabcakes.com
Koco's Pub: 4301 Harford Road, Baltimore, (410) 426-3519, kocospub.com
Schultz's Crab House: 1732 Old Eastern Ave, Essex, (410) 687-1020, schultzscrabhouse.com
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