Food & Drink
How to Throw the Perfect Crab Feast
Move full steam ahead with our tips and tricks for a repast to remember.
There are meals—and then there are feasts. What’s the difference? Think of a feast as one for the ages: Jesus’ Last Supper, King Midas’ funeral banquet (during which each guest purportedly drank at least a gallon of wine and mead), or Dr. Seuss’ festive Who-ville Who-roast-beast feast. While a meal is what you eat when you need sustenance, a feast entails gluttonous excess, with food—and drink—freely flowing and hordes of hungry guests in attendance. A meal is eaten; a feast is devoured. A meal is a pause in the day; a feast is the day. You get the idea. In Maryland, feasts typically center around our state treasure, the blue crab. Picking steamed crabs, especially at the height of the season during peak warm-weather months, is always cause for celebration.
While not a lot is known about the region’s early crab feasts, we do know that the loosening of Maryland’s mores—and society becoming less proper in general—had something to do with it. In an era of crab imperial and oysters Rockefeller, for certain segments of society, digging your own mitts into a pile of seafood just wasn’t “proper” etiquette. “The first time we find the term ‘crab feast’ in a historical newspaper is at the turn of the last century, when more informal behavior becomes acceptable in public,” says author/historian Kate Livie, an expert on the food and folkways of the Chesapeake region. “Picking crabs was something lower-class people did, but crab feasts were not something you ever saw in formal environments.”
Cold storage also had an effect. “In the early to mid-20th century—the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s—you also began to see the impact of refrigeration and how that inspired the proliferation of the crab house,” explains Livie. “People were doing something out in public that at one time you would only have done at home. By the 20th century, Marylanders embraced the crab feast as something that was appropriate for everyone.”
What we can say with certainty is that, here in the Old Line State, sitting down to pick crabs is now a way of life. And everyone has their own traditions, whether you head to your favorite seafood shack on the water for bushels of blues, start from scratch with your own fresh catch from the bottom of the bay, or haul home a treasure-filled box and have at it for hours in your own backyard.
“The Maryland crab feast is a distinct thing,” says Spike Gjerde, James Beard Award-winning chef and co-owner of Woodberry Kitchen. “There’s an adherence to tradition and more or less a pure way of doing it. It’s crabs with paper on the table—steamed, not boiled—with ice-cold beer, and maybe some corn.”
And while that may be the case for dyed-in-the-wool picking purists, we’re not above kicking it up a notch with specialty cocktails (we have a crush on watermelon crushes), crème de le crab craft paper, and next-level sides, as you’ll see on these pages.
However you eat them, picking the hard-shelled sweeties, aptly named Callinectes sapidus, or “savory beautiful swimmers,” is like no other culinary experience. There will be cuts (and burns, as the salt from the spice stings), crab “dirt” forming under your nails, and likely a few Tide stick emergencies from the carnage. (Pro tip: Don’t wear white, even if it’s after Memorial Day!) There are few rules —although we did check in with the International School of Protocol for some tips and tricks—and that’s part of the joy of it all.
For Marylanders, knowing how to extract the morsels of meat is practically encoded in our DNA. It’s synonymous with languid summer days, a sense of conviviality, and, above all, a return to home—even if we’ve been here all along.
THE ART OF EATING WITH YOUR HANDS
Mind your manners when eating crabs.
By Jane Marion
From the Ethiopians, who use spongy injera, or flatbread, as a utensil for spicy meat stews, to the Indians, who scoop curries and veggies with naan, many cultures have traditions of eating with their hands. But eating with one’s own fingers does not necessarily mean anything goes. “In places where not eating with your hands would be considered rude,” says Carol Haislip, co-director of the International School of Protocol, “there are rules. In the south of India, you eat with the palm of your hand, for instance. And in the north of India, you eat with the tops of your fingers.”
In Maryland, of course, eating with your hands only adds to the fun of the feast. In fact, the popularity of picking in public coincided with the easing of societal strictures. “Sitting at a table covered in newspaper and eating a pile of crabs is a ‘trickle-up’ tradition that came with the informalization of society,” says Kate Livie, an expert on the food and folkways of the Chesapeake region.
So when tackling a pile of hard shells, let loose but remember that some dining decorum is still in order. “The whole reason for table manners is to make the meal pleasant for everyone,” says Haislip, “whether eating with your hands or using a knife and a fork.” (See box, right, for some etiquette tips.)
Here are some dos and don’ts for using your digits:
Don’t eat more than your share. In other words, pace yourself in front of the common pile.
Don’t lick your fingers, no matter how much crab spice builds on your hands.
Do chew with your mouth closed—it’s easy to get lost in the moment.
Do use your napkin (or paper towels).
Do wash your hands prior to the feast. Hygiene counts.
When planning a feast, décor options abound: Go the traditional down-and-dirty route (brown paper, mallets, knife, pail) or plan something a little more upscale using stylish gear to help fancify your feast.
Seafood Boil Paper Roll ($33) at Becket Hitch.
Pewter crab mallet—part of four-piece gift set, Spice shaker, Can of Old Bay ($64) at Curiosity.
Small ceramic bowls ($4/each) at Wild Yam Pottery.
Oyster shucker—part of seafood set. Lobster cracker and seafood picks, not pictured, ($36) at Trohv.
Black & White Enamel Farm Tray ($30) at Su Casa.
BALT glass ($12) at Becket Hitch.
Magruder Shape No. 4 Wall Art by Forty Third Place ($50) at West Elm.
Crab Tea Towel in Teal by Fuzzy Mug ($18) at Marlow.
Crab Bottle Opener ($32.95) at Curiosity.
Crab Mallet Bottle Opener ($9.95) at Trohv.
Small Sibori bowl ($10) at Becket Hitch, EGENDOM enamel plate ($2.99) at IKEA.
Q. How do I recognize a Maryland crab?
A. “Maryland crabs are a bright light blue with a little bit of black and a lot smaller than crabs from the Gulf Coast. Texas crabs are lighter blue. Carolina crabs are a darker green. Of course, once you steam them, they all end up red, but when you taste them, Maryland crabs are sweeter.” —Terry Sanders, owner, CJ’s Crabhouse & Grill
Q. Why do Marylanders steam their crabs?
A. “Down south, they boil their crabs. When you boil a crab, it gets mushy. When you steam them, they only get a bit of moisture and heat that helps dry them out, so people can easily pick them.” —Brandon Floyd, owner, Floyd’s Crossroads Pub
Q. Why is Maryland crab so superior?
A. “It has a sweetness and a delicacy of taste and texture that’s unrivaled. The late-season crabs are amazing because of the fat that they put on before they go dormant for winter. The taste also has to do with the bay itself and the estuary conditions.” —Spike Gjerde, owner, Woodberry Kitchen
Fun Fact: Crab SHELLS CONTAIN A pigment THAT responds to heat. When dumped into boiling water, The pigment separateS and transforms the shell’s color into a ruby red.
Q. When is the best time of year to
throw a crab feast?
A. “Toward the end of the season, late September/October when the crabs are heavy and get a lot bigger and the prices go down.” —Jimmy Fowler, crab room manager, Pappas Seafood
Q. Why do crabs and beer make such good pairing partners?
A. “This is a tradition, but I say it has something to do with the cold, refreshing taste of beer helping us to tolerate the heat momentarily. Either way, it works!” —Tony Minadakis, owner-chef, Jimmy’s Famous Seafood
Q. Why is the blue crab blue?
A. “God made them that way. Duh.” [Editor’s note: As with many things in nature, camouflage is key. Their green-blue tones blend in with their habitat as a survival technique.] —Tony Conrad, owner, Conrad’s Crabs
Seafood Markets & Roadside Stands
If you’re the DIY type, head to one of these purveyors to buy your beautiful swimmers, then eat them at home. Some spots will even deliver them to your door.
Let’s be honest, man cannot get full on crabs alone—here are some sides to round out your meal.
While they’re known as “sides,” crab-feast accompaniments are more than mere accessories to the meal—they’re a highlight. Whether you’re serving corn on the cob or hushpuppies, sides help tell a story. “One of the big differences in crab feasts—even regionally—is the sides,” says Chesapeake Bay historian Kate Livie. “I grew up in Kent County, where corn and sliced tomatoes were served. My husband grew up in Talbot County, where a side of pickle spears and cheddar cheese cubes is common. Further south, you see people eating Saltine crackers along with their crabs. Crab feasts are personal and speak to the traditions of your family.”
Here are a few of our favorites:
Cucumber-tomato salad: Like crab itself, cukes and tomatoes are summer personified. Buy It: Gibby’s Seafood, 2322 York Rd., Lutherville-Timonium, 410-561-5225
Lobster Mac ’n’ Cheese: If you want to raise the bar on the banal, this mac ’n’ cheese is delicious and decadent. Buy It: Stone Mill Bakery, 10751 Falls Rd., Lutherville-Timonium, 410-821-1358
Potato Salad: There are many ways to pimp your potato salad (mustard, eggs, chives). We like ours with red skins, dill, and a blend of sour cream and mayo. Buy It: Eddie’s of Roland Park, 5113 Roland Ave., 410-323-3656
Watermelon & Feta Salad: The sweetness and saltiness of melon mixed with feta is a killer crabby counterpoint and the adult version of our childhood summer favorite. Buy It: Whole Foods Market, 1001 Fleet St., 410-528-1640
Corn Fritters: We’ve never met a fritter we didn’t like. But we really love them made with corn and eaten with crabs. Pop one in between pickings. Buy It: Gourmet Again, 3713 Old Court Rd., Pikesville, 410-484-9393
When the weather is clammy, the crabs are spicy, and the watermelons are juicy, why not take the iconic summer fruit for a spin in the shaker?
- 4 oz. vodka
- 1/2 cup pureed watermelon juice (strain to remove seeds if watermelon is not seedless)
- Squeeze of fresh lime
- 2 tsp. simple syrup
- Crushed ice
- Lime soda or seltzer water
- Fresh mint
In a martini shaker filled with ice, combine vodka, watermelon juice, lime juice, and simple syrup. Shake until combined. Divide mixture evenly into two glasses. (Use Mason jars to make a style statement.) Add crushed ice and top off with lime soda. Garnish with mint. Add a striped paper straw!
Makes 2 cocktails
How To Catch A Crab
As the saying goes, teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. Happy crabbing.
1. Purchase state-approved recreational wire crab pot at local boating or fishing store.
2. Tie a rope to the pot and secure to dock piling.
3. Add bait, such as chicken necks, to trap.
4. Lower into water for several hours or days.
5. Pull up crab pot, open lid, shake out crabs into basket, and refrigerate or steam ASAP.
How To Pick A Crab
Follow these simple tips for plucking the most meat.
1. Break off appendages, except for swimmer legs, and set aside for later picking.
2. Using your fingers or a knife, pull back the apron flap from the crab’s underside to gently separate the top from the bottom. Discard shell.
3. Remove crab gills and intestines (the mustard won’t hurt you but is an acquired taste), then break body in half.
4. Break each half in half again and remove outer membranes.
5. Pick out meat, and crack open claws and legs . . .
Picking crabs can sometimes rise to the level of A culinary full-contact sport. If you want to skip the cleanup at home (i.e. a hazmat team is sometimes necessary for all those crab carcasses and THE flying shell shrapnel), head to one of these local crab houses and reserve all your energy for simply picking. Photography by Matt Roth
Canton | 2780 Lighthouse Point | 410-558-0202
Located at the end of a strip mall in Canton, Bo Brooks could easily veer into touristy territory, but the 54-year-old crab house still gets the important things right. For starters, it offers unparalleled panoramic views of the Baltimore waterfront, a lively thatched-roof tiki bar out front, and even a roaming food truck when you’re craving crab on the go. We sat down at the restaurant early in the season, so only mediums were available, but they were meaty, well-spiced, and enhanced by the salty air. Our sides, including crispy, sturdy Boardwalk-style fries and an ear of corn swimming in melted butter and flecked with Old Bay, were noteworthy. The jumbo-lump crab cake was like grandma used to make. And a few tables over from us, some players from the Baltimore Brigade arena football team were clearly enjoying their meal—if you can feed those guys properly, you know you’re doing something right.
CANTLER’S RIVERSIDE INN
Annapolis | 458 Forest Beach Rd. | 410-757-1311
If you’re looking for a real-deal Maryland crab feast, make your way to the picnic-tabled patio at Cantler’s. Nestled at the end of a winding back road near the Severn River, this four-decade-old institution is the place “where the watermen gather,” with local fishing vessels dropping off just-caught crabs at the quiet Mill Creek dock. You, too, can come by boat (though arriving by car is always an option) for a few rounds of fresh-steamed shells topped with J.O. Spice, a basket of hush puppies, and the meatiest clam strips you’ve ever encountered. A small chalkboard lists the daily prices ($75-115 a dozen on our late-spring visit), plus seasonal specialties such as sweet corn and soft-crab sandwiches. Several hours of cracking and cold cans of Striped Bass as the sun sets over the water make for peak pleasant living, indeed.
CAPTAIN JAMES LANDING
Canton | 2121 Boston St. | 410-675-1819
Most people associate Captain James with the giant boat-shaped restaurant at the corner of Aliceanna and Boston streets. But the real fun takes place across the street at its seasonal outdoor crab deck. Open after 4 p.m., the waterfront spot features all the trappings of a proper feast: picnic tables, buckets of beer, brown paper, and a feel-good soundtrack on the stereo. Though the deck was packed with people the night we visited, our service was stellar, with constant drink refills. And our table was set up with all the condiments you could possibly want. All hard-shell sizes were available, but we opted for a dozen larges, and there wasn’t a dud in the bunch. Our crabs were packed with sweet meat and not a single one was steamed too long. Complement your crustaceans with Maryland-style hushpuppies, which are light, fluffy, and served with honey butter. Try to go toward the end of happy hour right before the sun sets to snag $3 Natty Boh drafts and maximize your view.
CONRAD’S SEAFOOD RESTAURANT
Perry Hall | 9654 Belair Rd. | 410-529-3474
Tony Conrad has been a commercial waterman since 2003, known for his local seafood market that sells some of the most pristine seafood in town. His Perry Hall restaurant, open since 2014, continues that tradition. In fact, we’re fairly certain that the term “catch of the day” was invented here, since Conrad fishes for what’s on your plate himself aboard his beloved boat the Hannah Marie. The expansive menu lists plenty of apps to start your feast off right, including a soft pretzel smothered in creamy crab dip, and complementary buckets of Old Bay popcorn grace every table. But our heavy crabs—hot, dense, highly spiced—were the true delight. While Conrad’s bustling seafood market in Parkville is for takeout enthusiasts, this is the place for all the comforts of home without the big mess.
Dundalk | 4100 North Point Blvd. | 410-447-1975
Throughout its nearly 50-year run, this family-owned Dundalk landmark has gained a loyal following for its colossal crabs spiced with a house blend that hasn’t changed since 1971. Unlike many spots that are first-come, first-served, diners can specify size and reserve their crabs when they make reservations here. Beyond the hard shells (11,000 domestic crabs are hand-sorted each week!), there’s so much to love here, from the old-school Bawlmer atmosphere to the walls papered with signed photos of local luminaries such as Cal Ripken Jr. and Kathy Lee Gifford. Not to mention the yummy Boardwalk-style fries and a sandwich known as the “Baltimore Club,” stacked with shrimp salad and, what else, a classic crab cake. Since there’s no such thing as too much crab in one’s life, consider some ready-made cakes to go.
"the open-air deck is A TRUE-BLUE EASTERN SHORE EXPERIENCE with chester River views and watermen lining the docks below."
HARRIS CRAB HOUSE
Grasonville | 433 N. Kent Narrows Way | 410-827-9500
When it comes to feasts, there are few more idyllic settings than that of Harris’ at the Kent Narrows. The open-air deck is a true-blue Eastern Shore experience with scenic views of the Chester River, an adjacent decades-old packinghouse—one of the last of its kind in Maryland—and watermen lining the docks below. You know you’re in the right place when each table comes equipped with a red wooden crab bucket filled with paper towels, malt vinegar, and Harris’ own house-blend seasoning. Only pay mind to the local seafood, like a pail of Chesapeake cherrystone clams or a pile of hard-shell crabs. Whether mediums or jumbos, they’re all heavyweights and best eaten with comforting sides such as foil-wrapped baked potatoes. Always save room for the house-made Nutty Buddy ice cream cones.
Locust Point | 1100 E. Fort Ave. | 410-576-9294
Few city-limits crab feasts feel more quintessentially Baltimore than that of L.P. Steamers. This Locust Point rowhome-turned-seafood shack has all the fixin’s, from indoor picnic tables and cheap pitchers of Natty Boh to a stellar roof deck with up-close views of Domino Sugar. Start with a basket of salty-sweet hushpuppies before moving on to the main event over brown paper with a branded wooden mallet. Open year-round, L.P. does its best to source local whenever possible, using a steady mix of Maryland and Louisiana crabs. Here, you’ll find anything but slim pickings, from small shells to giant jumbos. Prices start as low as $35 a dozen for smalls. Complete your feast with other briny beauties, such as local oysters, littleneck clams, snow crab legs, and lobster tails, plus classic sides such as seasonal corn on the cob and curly fries.
MR. BILL’S TERRACE INN
Essex | 200 Eastern Blvd. | 410-687-5994
After more than 60 years, this sports bar has become a seafood stalwart, revered for its Poseidon-approved portions, plethora of TVs for O’s and Ravens games, and, of course, its friendly proprietor—actually named Mr. Steve Eliades (the restaurant is named after his father). Snag a table, order a bucket of beers, and peruse the massive menu for the ubiquitous crustacean, served atop soft pretzels, swirled into dip, or stuffed into mushrooms. There is no terrace or inn here, but that’s beside the point. Homegrown pickers (and tourists alike) come here to go knuckles-deep in a hot heap of steamed-to-order shells. And while a recent renovation has led to a more modern aesthetic, this Essex crab joint hasn’t wavered where it matters most: its complete commitment to serving some of the heaviest blues in town.
NICK’S FISH HOUSE
Port Covington | 2600 Insulator Dr. | 410-347-4123
Like many things in Port Covington, Nick’s Fish House is owned by Under Armour founder Kevin Plank, who was wise enough to put the management team from Starboard, the famed restaurant and bar in Dewey Beach, in charge a few years back. The result is a beach-like vibe right in our backyard, with a large wooden deck, a long bar, string lights, and the occasional live acoustic act. For the optimal experience, score an outside table overlooking the Patapsco River. This is a place that draws plenty of locals, though tourists also flock. In fact, on a recent visit, a server assisted a crowd of Midwesterners, giving them step-by-step instructions on how to crack a pile of heavy hard shells. Go for the crabs, but while you’re there, also enjoy crab dip and affordable bottles of Boh.
SCHULTZ’S CRAB HOUSE
Essex | 1732 Old Eastern Ave. | 410-687-1020
Somewhere between the billiards table, the bar, and the bathroom, there’s a framed silver medal on the wall that might make you wonder about this 68-year-old Essex institution. Get a little closer, and you’ll soon see that it’s a James Beard Award, bestowed upon this spot in 2017 for being an “American Classic.” Fortunately, fame has not changed a thing. And that’s exactly the point: the crabs, sourced locally whenever possible, arrive straight from the steamer all hot and hefty, beer is served in orange plastic pails, servers are the right combination of tough and tender, and sides, like applesauce and macaroni salad, remind you of everything that’s good about the world. We also love that you can’t swing a fishing rod without hitting a stuffed marlin mounted on knotty pine. In other words, this place is priceless—as is fitting for something considered a classic.
OuR Rite of SummeR
By Lydia Woolever
Growing up in Maryland, you don’t remember your first crab feast the way you remember, say, your first beer. Especially on the Eastern Shore. The crab feast feels like it was always there, those hundreds of hazy afternoons blurring like old Polaroid pictures—the fine lines of it all fading away until the only thing that remains is that timeless, familiar feeling.
For me, those sun-bleached flickers feature a little kid, sitting on her young dad’s knee, being fed a few perfect pulls of backfin and first salty sips of Rolling Rock beer—or a not-quite-teenager, bikini-clad on a picnic-table bench, boldly diving into a piping-hot pile. In those split-second flashes, there is Dad, in his Ray-Bans and khaki short-shorts, taping down paper over the worn wooden table out on the oyster-shell-speckled patio that overlooks Langford Creek off the Chesapeake Bay. And then there is Mom, with her tanned skin and waist-length braid, carrying a pot full of steamed corn in one hand and a silver platter of succulent sliced tomatoes in the other. Sunburned and barefoot, my sister, Erin, and I douse ourselves in bug spray and scramble to our seats. Then, finally, as if some maestro has waved his magic baton, we settle in amidst the cicada symphony that hangs in the molasses-thick Maryland summer air.
I slowly build a stash of prized pickings for Mom to make into her world-class crab cakes.”
Over the course of a few hours, time slows down, and there’s no care in the world other than finding every last shred of crabmeat. Mom painstakingly picks each crab with buzzard-like precision while Dad shares old stories, cracks cornball jokes, and cares for little much besides the backfin and claws. Erin digs out the mustard of discarded shells and devours the outcast innards with gluttonous glee, while I slowly build a stash of prized pickings for Mom to make into her world-class crab cakes. We prick our fingers. We get Old Bay in our eyes. We light a few old gas lamps as the twilight sets in, keeping up the good work until it’s almost bed time. When we finally amble inside, the yard is littered with forgotten legs, sweet-corn skeletons, and a few empty beer bottles that blew over in the balmy breeze.
All these years later, on the eve of my 30th birthday, the ritual endures. The minute details have disappeared, but we don’t need them—the rolling out of the brown paper and the finding of the fattest crab from the bottom of the wax-lined box became second nature long ago. Whatever our age, we just waste away the sunlight, fill our bellies, and forget about being grown-ups for a little while. One crack of a bright-red claw and we’re all instantly kids again.