Crab fans having it their way

Local aficionados offer alternatives to traditional spice

August 11, 2004|By Ellen Uzelac | Ellen Uzelac,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

For most Marylanders, crab seasoning can be summed up in two words: Old Bay.

Over the years, the spice has achieved almost iconic status. Crabs without Old Bay? Unthinkable.

"We set the trend for crab cooking throughout the country and when you say Chesapeake Bay seasoning, there isn't anything that compares with it," says Crisfield cookbook author Whitey Schmidt. "Besides, I want my lips to burn a little bit when I'm picking crabs."

Not to be crabby, but some beg to differ.

"Especially here, we're so conditioned that there's only one way to do it," says celebrity chef and author John Shields, who owns Gertrude's at the Baltimore Museum of Art. "It's just not right."

In fact, there are plenty of alternatives to Chesapeake Bay seasoning - a catchall phrase to describe the peppery spice made famous by McCormick's Old Bay but produced by other manufacturers as well - among them, J.O., Vanns, Wye River and Phillips. As Schmidt, author of The Chesapeake Bay Crabbiest Cookbook (Marion Hartnett Press, 2000, $29.95), puts it: "Even if it's something else, it's called Old Bay."

The alternatives, however, don't all come out of a shaker, according to Fred Thompson, whose new cookbook, Crazy For Crab: Everything You Need to Know to Enjoy Fabulous Crab at Home (Harvard Common Press, 2004, $19.95), looks at traditions across the country.

On the West Coast, for instance, where Dungeness crab is found, enthusiasts like to mix the crab meat with mayonnaise, ketchup and pickle relish into a dish that winds up something like a Crab Louis.

In Louisiana, a bag of coriander, cumin and oregano is added to the water when crabs are boiled. Another seasoning that Thompson likes, plain old cider vinegar, has some appeal on the East Coast and into the Gulf. Then there is crab stir-fry, which can be enhanced with Asian flavors like fermented black beans, Thai chiles, fish sauce and tamari.

Cajun seasonings, too, are popular in both the South and in California, according to Shields, whose new book, Coastal Cooking With John Shields (Broadway Books, 2004, $32.50), is due out this month with a companion TV series set to air on Public Broadcasting Service stations early next year.

In fact, Zatarain's makes a crab seasoning available in local supermarkets and online that Shields says is "a little different but works great." The company also produces a New Orleans-style crab-cake mix and crab boil. This time of year, Shields adds, cooks don't have to wander past their own herb gardens for such crab accouterments as basil, tarragon, lemon grass and oregano. There's also an ethnic component at work, Shields says. In Baltimore's Little Italy, for example, cooks will use tomato sauce, fresh oregano and basil to make crab meat linguine. "They would use the things you'd expect," he adds. "Different ethnic groups will use the ingredients and seasonings they're accustomed to." And Shields says, "No seasoning goes a long way, too. Sometimes the best way to season crab is not to season it and just let that flavor come through."

With so many options out there, how did Chesapeake Bay seasoning gain such a foothold in the market? Thompson believes that Old Bay, the linchpin of steamed crabs, crept into other dishes from crab cakes to casseroles popular in the Chesapeake region. "Part of the problem is there tends to be an overuse of it," he says. "As that spreads, unfortunately, more and more people fall in love with the taste of the seasoning, not the crab."

Take soft-shell crabs, for instance. "They have so much flavor that once you get past salt, pepper and a little cornmeal to batter them with, I think you start detracting from the taste," Thompson says. "I like that crisp, bright taste that a soft-shell has. It's also a very delicate taste. You just don't want a whole lot of seasonings around that."

As popular as Old Bay has become, its origins remain something of a mystery. Ann D. Wilder, the founder of the Baltimore-based Vanns Spices, says: "This is a story I've asked every historian I run into: How did it develop? The truth of the matter is this is the only place in the world I can find that crabs are treated this way."

Wilder in 1981 even interviewed German immigrant Gustav Brunn who "invented" Old Bay in the late 1930s. "He told me he'd opened a small grocery near the Inner Harbor and that the crab men would come in and buy all these spices and put it on their steamed crabs. So he decided he could put it together for them and charge a little bit more," says Wilder. "But what I don't understand, and what absolutely fascinates me, is: Who ... ever thought of it?"

The closest thing Wilder has found to Old Bay is a black-pepper-and-cayenne seasoning that the French-speaking fishing guides pat on their fish in Canada.

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