Baltimore diners have a food fixation and rightfully so. Their beloved sweet, succulent Maryland blue crabs swim right to their door. Whether cracking hard shells and drinking beer, savoring a crab cake or indulging in a rich dish aptly called “imperial,” folks in Charm City have been eating “fresh and local” long before the terms became trendy. One bite reveals the distinctive taste and buttery texture that make these critters harvested from the Chesapeake Bay beloved delicacies.
Geography and climate give Maryland blues their depth of flavor and delicate texture, said Bill Sieling, executive vice president of the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association.
They also grow in the Atlantic coastal waters as far south as Venezuela and in the Gulf of Mexico, where they’re harvested all year. But, since the Chesapeake waters get cold in winter, local crabs hibernate, building up the fat stores that make for their rich flavor. When the temperature warms, the Callinectes sapidus, or “beautiful, savory swimmer,” migrates north up the Chesapeake Bay to less saline digs—resulting in sweeter meat—and feast on the bay’s abundant nutrients. Who knew crabs love to eat clams?
Most likely, Native Americans knew. They’ve been dining on the crustacean for centuries and probably gave European settlers their first taste. The Chesapeake watermen who harvest crabs have played a key role in Baltimore’s culinary heritage, too. Many early crab houses were simple shacks started by these men to market their catch. Now these crabbers are part of environmental efforts to preserve the local supply.
In early days, blue crabs were so plentiful that bars served them for free, and salty seasonings like Old Bay reputedly helped sell more drinks. In time, the piquant spice mixture became a Baltimore icon, too. Developed by a German émigré after World War II and now marketed by McCormick, Old Bay has found its way to a vast array of food and drink, but first and foremost, it’s a classic enhancer on steamed crabs and other crab dishes.
Today, Baltimoreans continue to enjoy the crustacean in time-honored ways. Most traditional is the messy, hands-on hard-shell feast in the backyard with friends and family or at a dress-down establishment like Schultz’s Crab House in Essex. Established in 1950, the restaurant received a coveted James Beard Foundation American Classics award in 2017 for its efforts to sustain a regional tradition. Family member Christy Berkman said the restaurant still serves the hard shells, cakes, a bisque and a decadent deep-fried version stuffed with a crab cake that have been menu mainstays through the years.
Another classic, the elegant Prime Rib has featured the same crab imperial dish since it opened 51 years ago.
Faidley’s, Baltimore’s legendary Lexington Market seafood purveyor, started selling its famed crab cake bursting with big lumps of meat in the 1960s. Meanwhile modern chefs, like James Beard Award-winner Spike Gjerde of Woodberry Kitchen, reimagine the iconic food in dishes like flatbreads.
Around town, you’ll find restaurants adding crab to everything from pizza to pretzels. Late summer and early fall are when the local bounty is at its best. The rest of the year, restaurants source from elsewhere or rely on pasteurized Maryland crab. But no matter what season it is, one bite just might have you dreaming about these beautiful little swimmers for a long time.