Fried or broiled, worth the trip

Renowned crab cakes lure visitors to island


TYLERTON -- The aroma hits as soon as the screen door to the Drum Point Market swings closed. It wafts up from behind the ice cream cooler, near the cracker packs and stacked boxes of Jell-O, filling up the garage-sized general store in this remote Smith Island town.

The regulars - hardened watermen, tourists who keep coming back - know that smell. Those are Mary Ada Marshall's crab cakes in the deep fryer, and they might just be the best in the world.

In a place where crab is king and every island lady has her own closely guarded recipe, that claim is no small boast. But from the crab shanties lining the wooden docks to the homey living room in Tylerton's lone bed and breakfast, the story is the same: If Mary Ada's crab cakes aren't the best, they come pretty darn close.

"I'm pretty much a connoisseur of crab cakes, and you'll find none better," says Bobby Smith, a boat captain who grew up on the island and estimates that he's tried 300 types of crab cakes in his lifetime. "And the best part about it is that it's made with crab meat caught in the area, not that foreign mess you get anywhere else."

The lure of Marshall's crab cake has brought people to the island just for lunch - a trip that includes a drive to Crisfield and then an hour's ferry ride over choppy Tangier Sound to the most isolated of Smith Island's three villages. It has gotten the 59-year-old island native a tour of the White House at Christmas and a visit to the upper reaches of the State Department. And it has helped keep afloat a small country store that is the lifeblood of an island struggling daily against rising tides and falling crab harvests.

Marshall began making these crab cakes about 12 years ago, when her oldest son, Duke, bought the land and, with his brother Kevin, built the Drum Point Market. The island had lost its store the year before and Duke, an insurance agent who lives in Crisfield, wanted a product to bring in visitors as well as islanders. Nothing says Smith Island like a crab cake, molded with meat picked by the island ladies from crabs caught by the island men.

There was only one problem: Mary Ada Marshall is allergic to crab meat.

She'd discovered her seafood allergy a few years before Duke opened the market, when a piece of shrimp sent her into anaphylactic shock and she nearly died before reaching the mainland. When she recovered, she knew she'd never be able to eat crab cakes again.

But with Duke and her husband, crabber Dwight Marshall, as her tasters, Marshall began trying to resurrect from memory the recipe her family had always loved. She'd make a batch and send them over to the store for cooking. Word would come back: They were good, but they weren't the ones. For a couple of months, Marshall tinkered.

"After a while, I got one they liked better than any," she says, "and so that's what we stuck with."

Marshall won't reveal the recipe - only Kevin knows it, and she only told him so that the tradition would continue when she dies. But she says the secret is the local meat, picked from the claw as well as from the backfin.

There are only so many ingredients that one can put in a crab cake. Usually, there's mayonnaise, some pepper, a touch of mustard, maybe an egg - nothing that would make one so earth-shatteringly different from any other. But there is a distinctiveness in Marshall's crab cakes, and it's not just the bargain price - $7.50 for a softball-sized sandwich that could easily feed two. The NSA-like secrecy of the ingredients only adds to the pleasure.

Friends have begged for the recipe. Tourists call the market to have the crab cakes shipped as far as Florida. One island lady sheepishly gave Marshall some crab meat and asked her to make it into cakes -the woman's husband liked the Drum Point version better than hers.

A few years ago, David Harp, a former Sun photographer who specializes in the Chesapeake Bay, went on assignment for a regional magazine in search of the best crab cake. He ate dozens, he says, and after each one, his reaction was the same: Not bad, but not as good as Mary Ada's.

"It's crab cake held together by magic," Harp says. "I can't tell you whether I like them better broiled or deep-fried -they're just darn good either way."

Once, when Marshall made them for a group visiting the island, one man seemed particularly smitten. When Marshall asked what he did for a living, the man replied he worked for the president.

The president of what? she wanted to know.

The president of the United States, the man replied.

Turns out the visitor was a senior Bush administration official, and he offered Marshall and her husband a Christmas tour of the White House and the State Department. The Marshalls went to Washington with crab cakes in hand.

Tourists often ask innkeeper LeRoy Friesen about the crab cakes as soon as he greets them at the dock.

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