When it comes to crab soup there are two camps, one reverential, the other experimental.
The reverential legions are led by chefs like Bob Morgan of Peerce's Plantation in Baltimore County. Morgan believes that the soup recipe should be treated as a family heirloom -- something to be treasured, not fooled with.
The experimental contingent agrees with the approach of chefs like Randy Widomski of the Radisson Plaza Lord Baltimore Hotel. Widomski thinks crab soup could benefit from a little livening up, from adding a few new spices, maybe even from dropping in a few hot peppers.
Both camps have their followers. Both types of crab soup won first-place prizes at last month's Crab Soup Stakes, a contest that pitted the soups made at 16 Baltimore-area restaurants against one another. The annual competition, sponsored by the makers of Old Bay seasoning, was held on a sunny Wednesday afternoon at Harborplace. Judges included professional cooks and several foodies such as myself. Spectators at the event also got to pick their favorite soups.
Morgan's crab soup, a traditional "red," was the judges' first-place choice in the competition among vegetable-based crab soups. The roots of this soup go back, he said, to a kindly grandmother and a veteran cook.
When he was a kid, Morgan would often spend the day at the home of his grandmother, Agnes Morgan. "She was always in the kitchen, baking . . . cooking," Morgan, 37, recalled. "I was fascinated." The grandmother passed along kitchen wisdom to him, Morgan said. One of her rules was always use fresh vegetables when making crab soup.
Years later, Morgan got a job in the kitchen at Peerce's and found himself under the tutelage of Ed Perry, a longtime cook at the restaurant. Perry, Morgan said, "taught me how to put a soup together. His philosophy was, you take your time. What you want is a marriage of the flavors."
When he made the soup for last month's contest he used fresh tomatoes and corn, as his grandmother had instructed him to do years earlier. And following Perry's advice, he gave the soup plenty of time to sit. The soup that he served at the contest had been made the day before. "Soup is always better the second day," he said.
"I like a crab soup that has rounded flavors. A soup that has a clean and basic taste. I'm a basic Baltimore boy," Morgan added.
Widomski, who puts roasted peppers in his cream of crab soup, is a Baltimore boy as well. But he headed west, to study at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. During his time there he got a job in the kitchen of a steakhouse called Annie Oakley's, and developed a fondness for the Tex-Mex flavors he encountered there. He continued experimenting with these flavors when he ++ returned to Baltimore and attended the Baltimore International Culinary College. Two years ago, when he became chef at Sausalito's restaurant in the Radisson Plaza Lord Baltimore Hotel, he began giving his crab soup a Tex-Mex twist.
His prize-winning cream of crab soup was flavored with jalapeno peppers and chopped garlic. And instead of leaving the crab meat in lumps, he pureed the back-fin meat. The resultant smooth, white soup was topped with a sauce made of Old Bay, roasted peppers and shallots. "It is sweet and spicy," Widomski said. "Traditional cream of crab soup with a kick."
According to Widomski, this unconventional crab soup also pleased the crowd of folks who lined up at the event for free soup samples. "Not one person," he reported after the event, "said the soup was too hot."
The signs seem mixed on whether all Marylanders are willing to consider putting hot peppers in crab soup. The cream of crab soup that the Harborplace crowd picked as its favorite was not Widomski's, but one made by Berry & Elliott's restaurant in Baltimore's Hyatt Regency Hotel. It was flavored with sherry, a traditional companion for cream of crab soup.
The judges' picks for second-place in the vegetable-based part of the competition (there was a tie) were soups made by the Mount Washington Tavern and Pickles Pub. The crowd's favorite was made by Jeannier's restaurant. These three were traditional red crab soups, free of any Tex-Mex influence.
The second-place finisher in the cream of crab category was made by Elayne Catalano of Cafe Tattoo on Belair Road in Northeast Baltimore. Ms. Catalano said she used white port and the "mustard" from the crabs to flavor her soup.
When she told me this, I placed Ms. Catalano in the "reverential" camp.
But then she told me that when she made red crab soup, she threw in a few jalapeno peppers. "I just can't help myself," she said. That made her experimental.
Which means, I guess, that when she makes crab soup, she has a claw in both camps.