The Crab Queen

By Jane Marion

Photography by Scott Suchman

Illustrations by JORDAN AMY LEE

The Tastemakers

The Tastemakers: Nancy Devine

The most influential movers and shakers on Charm City's Hospitality scene.

By Jane Marion

ancy Devine sits on a wooden stool behind the stainless-steel counter at John W. Faidley Seafood inside downtown’s Lexington Market, the oldest continually operating public market in the country. From her perch, Devine—with her gold and diamond jewelry, blonde hair styled just so, red nails, and matching lipstick—looks more like a lady who lunches than a lunch lady. But for decades now, the 87-year-old Baltimorean has been feeding throngs of customers, from locals looking for a midday meal to tourists paying pilgrimage, who flock to this seafood stall made famous by her jumbo-lump crab cakes, widely regarded to be the best in the state.

Devine makes them using Maryland crabmeat whenever possible, adding broken Saltines, plus her proprietary special sauce, made in four-gallon batches. She hand-mixes the meat, gently folding the ingredients together to keep the precious lumps whole. In the end, the orbs, which rarely get weighed but magically manifest into some half a pound, are exactly the size of her hands. And they’ve drawn fans, rightfully so, to wait in line ever since GQ named them one of the 10 best dishes in America in 1992. Though that was just the warm-up for the accolades that followed, from Gourmet, which called her crabby creations “maybe the most beautiful hunk of seafood anywhere on the East Coast,” to R.W. Apple Jr.’s review in The New York Times, which read: “Delicate, delicious, creamy and sweet, it may not quite be heaven, but my reckoning, it’s a persuasive preview.”

There were no crab cakes at all when Nancy’s grandfather, John, first opened his stand in 1886. “At the time, the market was outside,” says Devine. “The fish were put on marble in the cooler months, and on ice blocks in the summer,” she recalls. Years later, when her father, John, took over the business, they added cooked foods to the offerings. “We mostly sold game and fish, but we also sold crab cakes for $1, made from different parts of the crabs.” It was in the early ’90s when she first came up with the concept of fashioning the crab cakes from the jumbo lump—then a novel idea given the high cost. (There are only two clusters of jumbo-lump meat in each crab, so it takes a bushel to make a pound of meat.)

“I knew it would be something special, but I was concerned it wouldn’t sell because of the price,” says Devine, who now works the market with her husband, Bill, and two of their three grown daughters. “I made six cakes, and the next day, they were gone.”

Ever since, her crab cakes have been selling like, well, hot cakes and crab cakes are now a fine-dining entree on nearly every restaurant menu in Maryland, if not the country. (Back in the day, Gov. William Donald Schaefer even had Devine promoting her delicacy—and the state—on a European tour replete with crab cakes). Pre-pandemic, Faidley’s was serving between 600 and 800 crab cakes on the weekends, and while demand has slightly dipped with more people working remotely, sales are still going strong—and the cakes are shipped all over the country.

While customers (including former first lady Rosalynn Carter and the Travel Channel’s Andrew Zimmern) queue up for the crab, they come just as frequently to get a glimpse of Baltimore’s other famous Devine (the first being Divine, the late drag queen from John Waters’ movies, of course).

Devine’s popularity explains why the glamorous, self-proclaimed “Fancy Nancy” is ever ready for her close-up. “I’ve been in thousands and thousands of pictures,” she says. “And I have no idea why it makes people so happy, but I don’t ever tell people they can’t take one.” And working at Faidley’s, even after making millions and millions of crab cakes, has made her happy, too. “It’s been pure joy,” she says.

The Torchbearers

David & Tonya

The Showmen

Alex & Eric Smith

The Sober Ambassador

Ashish Alfred

The Community Activists

Mera Kitchen

The Crab Queen

Nancy Devine

The Team Players

Steve Chu &
Ephrem Abebe

You May Also Like