Wondering about weather and demand for crab soup

October 16, 2002|By Rob Kasper

DOES CRAB SOUP taste better in cooler weather?

As is true with many matters swirling around crab soup, there are contradictory theories on this one.

Lining up in the cold-weather-is-better camp is Tim Mullen, executive chef of the Renaissance Harborplace Hotel. When the temperature drops, sales of cream of crab soup at the hotel's Windows restaurant shoot up, Mullen told me. He called the inverse relationship between falling temperatures and rising soup sales a "study in degree and demand."

Not so, said Anthony Marcello. Marcello, sous-chef at McCormick & Schmick's, said that the customers coming into his Inner Harbor restaurant crave vegetable-based, Maryland crab soup even in the heat of summer. "We sold 55 gallons, sometimes 80 gallons a week this summer," Marcello said.

Then there is Brian Bruso, executive chef at Birches Restaurant in Baltimore's Canton neighborhood. He likes the weather hot and the crab soup cold.

This summer, one of the hottest on record, he whipped up his crab gazpacho, a cold soup. As the temperatures soared, so did the popularity of the chilled offering.

It was difficult for me to quickly dismiss any of these theories because the guys professing them were carrying pretty weighty crab-soup credentials. Each had just won a prize in the Old Bay Crab Soup Stakes, held last week in Harborplace.

The Windows soup made by Mullen, for instance, was declared the best of five cream of crab soups entered in the competition. It was chosen as the top cream soup both by a panel of judges and by the eating public, folks who happened to be at Harborplace around noon last Wednesday and who took the time to sample the soups and vote for their favorite. It is a perennial winner, picking up top honors in almost every year of the 14--year-old contest.

The city's soup-spoon-wielding masses also picked Marcello's offering as the best of the six vegetable-based soups in the competition. The panel of judges picked Bruso's crab gazpacho as the best Maryland crab soup.

The judges' panel consisted of three out-of-town chefs, Geo Johnson of Bethany Beach, Del.; Sean Squires of Clearwater, Fla.; and Roger Paul Bono of Scottsdale, Ariz., as well as Roz Healy of the Baltimore Office of Promotion and yours truly.

The contest was held on a pleasant, cloudy afternoon with a slight breeze and the temperature hovering in the 60s. Ideal soup weather, I thought. After the contest, I called the winners and pressed them for more thoughts on how climate affects the appeal of crab soup and what kind of soup should be served in what kind of weather.

Basically the red-soup set, Bruso and Marcello, advocated serving crab soup in the sunshine, even on days that were broiling. They also advocated tossing lots of summer vegetables in the soup.

Bruso's summer-inspired crab gazpacho, for instance, is made from chopped raw tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, onions, vinegar, oil and back-fin crab meat.

Marcello's red crab soup, which is popular with the alfresco set of soup sippers who use his restaurant's outdoor tables, contains claw meat and nine vegetables - tomatoes, peas, carrots, onions, celery, green beans, potatoes, corn and cabbage.

By contrast, Mullen's cream of crab soup has fewer ingredients. "Good ol' carrots, good ol' cream, good ol' soup crabs," he said. While the soup is popular throughout the year, Mullen said it is lapped up in February, traditionally Baltimore's coldest month.

Eventually I settled on a method of settling the temperature-and-taste crab-soup conundrum. Taking a clue from color codes issued by the office of Homeland Security in Washington, I decided I will survey the weather, then issue a ruling.

If the sun is shining, the day will be declared a red crab soup day, a time to enjoy a soup made with vegetables and crab.

If it is cloudy and cool, then it will be a white crab soup day, an opportunity to savor a soup made with cream and crab.

That sounds like an ideal way to mark time and the weather.

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