In a move some might compare to carrying coals to Newcastle or shipping barbecued ribs to Kansas City, the crab cake has landed in Baltimore-area fast-food restaurants.
This weekend, all 91 McDonald's in the area will serve the cake, up from the 23 throughout Maryland that began serving crab cakes this spring. In addition, 12 Wendy's restaurants in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia serve crab cakes, a product put on the menu in March.
A traditional Maryland crab cake -- lump crab meat held together by little more than willpower -- is a bite of heaven. It is a morsel that can make bankers weep for joy and accountants forget their debits.
The crab cakes I tasted at McDonald's and Wendy's restaurants yesterday fall far short of this noble standard. No one will mistake them for the ones that Mama made.
On the plus side, the new crab cakes in town were hot, fairly inexpensive ($2.50-$3) and had a distinct flavor of crab meat. There were no off flavors.
But they were also more "cakey" than crabby. The McDonald's cake was mushy and the Wendy's crab cake traveled with strange companions -- a slice of lettuce and a dollop of mayo.
Of the two, I preferred the Wendy's crab cake. It also won the approval by a narrow margin of a hastily pulled together panel of five members of a Baltimore neighborhood kids swim team.
I started my crab cake crawl at the McDonald's at 5100 York
Road. There I bought three crab cake sandwiches, at $2.99 each. At first glance, they looked more like a fish sandwich than a crab cake: The cakes were oval, flat and fried, and were surrounded by bun.
I brought along a kitchen scale, and out in my car weighed each sandwich. Each weighed in at a little less than 1/4 pound. I ate one and saved two.
The Wendy's crab cakes, at $2.49 each, came from the restaurant at the corner of Joppa and Harford roads. Again, I bought three. They had the same oval shape as the McDonald's version, but were heavier, weighing almost 1/2 pound. I also couldn't get over the lettuce and mayo accompaniment. Again, I ate one and saved two.
Since the biggest fans of fast food are kids, I put the remaining crab cakes before a panel of five youngsters. I found my tasters hanging around the Bolton Hill Swim and Tennis Club. They range in age from 7 to 14, were born in Baltimore, and had grown up eating crab cakes.
Each taster got a piece of Wendy's crab cake, known only as Crab Cake No. 1, and a piece of the McDonald's, known as Crab Cake No. 2.
They ate. They pondered. They voted for their favorite. Wendy's won, but only by a 3-2 vote.
Meanwhile, across town, another tasting was under way at the McDonald's on Fort Avenue in South Baltimore. Edythe Beaumont, a long-time Maryland resident and regular crab eater, assessed the crab cake that a short time earlier had been hailed as a "winner" by a gathering of McDonald's and Maryland seafood officials.
Ms. Beaumont, 76, was neither wildly enthusiastic nor harshly critical of the new crab cake.
"It's a little mushy and a little too brown on the outside," she said. "But for the price, it was good. You can't expect to go in a fast-food place and find a home-cooked meal."