ONE CHARACTERISTIC of Marylanders, whether they are born here or have moved here, is that they have strong opinions about crab cakes. Another characteristic is that they tend to believe the best crab cakes known to mankind happen to be made by them.
This was the case at a recent Saturday night dinner party held at the Ruxton home of Jim and Anita Gabler. There, a dozen Marylanders -- some natives and some immigrants -- held a crab-cake tasting.
The idea for the contest stemmed from boasts made at a previous gathering of the group, whose members meet in one another's homes about four times a year to eat good food, drink fine wine and engage in spirited conversations.
At one of these gatherings the topic turned to crab cakes, and according to Gabler, virtually everyone in the group claimed to possess the recipe for the world's greatest crab cake. And so, Gabler, a local attorney who has written several books on wine, organized a crab-cake tasting to coincide with the group's next dinner party. I was invited, along with my wife, as guest eaters.
The crab-cake portion of the evening was marked with displays of secrecy, precision and hooey. The crab-cake mixtures had been prepared by the contestants in the quiet of their own kitchens and then carried to the Gabler's house, where they were handed over to a caterer who was presiding over the kitchen for the evening.
Instead of carrying the name of their creator, each of the seven competing crab cakes was assigned a letter, A through G. Just as Miss America contestants are required to appear in a basic black swimsuit, these crab cakes were uniform in appearance.
Each was formed by the same ice cream scoop, ensuring they were all the same size. Moreover, all the crab cakes were cooked the same way, broiled.
When the seven sizzling beauties appeared next to their appropriate letters on the diners' plates, the tasting began. Twelve hungry men and women -- the Gablers, Nancy Sandbower, Jim and Ginny Ryan, Ed and Loretta Lakatta, Sue Powers, Hank and Kathy Sabatier, and my wife and I -- tasted the crab cakes and recorded our top three choices. As we tasted, we sipped a magnificent white wine that Gabler had pulled from his cellar. In keeping with the custom of this group, the wine bottle was wrapped in foil, and imbibers were encouraged to guess where the wine came from. I guessed heaven. The correct answer was Burgundy, a 1995 Premier Cru from Puligny-Montrachet, La Truffiere.
As the scoring sheets were then read aloud by Jim Gabler, the count was tallied by Kathy Sabatier, Ed Lakatta and Sue Powers. When the crab-cake title was on the line, this was not an especially trusting group.
Even when the tally was completed, the results were questioned. The scoring system gave three points for every first-place vote, two points for every vote for second and one point for third. The crab cake made by Hank Sabatier finished with the most total points, 16. But the crab cake made by `D Sandbower finished with 15 points and ended up garnering the most first-place votes, five. The crab cake made by the Gablers finished third, with 14 points.
The results were subjected to more questioning when it turned out that both the first- and third-place winners had used the same recipe. Both had mixed a pound of fresh crab meat with half a cup of mayonnaise and the ingredients found in the 1.24-ounce package of Old Bay Crab Cake Classic mix. This mix has been around since 1985 and contains the same ingredients found in the familiar blue and yellow can of Old Bay Seasoning, plus bread crumbs and dried egg. Supporters of this Old Bay crab cake cited its ease of preparation -- simply open a $1.80 package of ingredients -- and they reminded all that it had garnered the most points.
Supporters of the Sandbower crab cake -- made with capers, fresh red pepper and paprika -- countered by saying that because the Old Bay crab cake had two entries in the event, it had an unfair advantage. They said this procedure reminded them of the technique Maryland political machines used to employ to win elections: Namely, if you load the ballot with your candidates, one of them is likely to win.
Later when I called McCormick and Co. and told Old Bay brand manager Art Zito about the results of the contest, he scoffed at the notion that two spots on a ballot was an advantage. "It could work the other way -- it could split the vote," Zito said. Championing the crab-cake makers who had used Old Bay, Zito added, "We got a win, we'll take it."
Sandbower, a Catonsville potter who teaches at Towson University, said the tasting was fun, but the results did not change her opinion. She was sticking to her family's recipe. She said she was taught to make crab cakes this way -- adding red pepper that has been sauted in butter, adding capers, keeping the cakes in the refrigerator before cooking them -- years ago by her grandmother, Katie McLean, who lived in Baltimore's Charles Village.