Curious Hard Fry

First, clean a blue crab. Stuff it with a crab cake. Dredge it in batter. Plunge it into hot oil. Sound like overkill? Not for fans of

August 30, 2006|By STEPHANIE SHAPIRO | STEPHANIE SHAPIRO,SUN REPORTER

With the bloated proportions (in miniature) of a Thanksgiving Day parade float, a fast-food calorie count and a puzzle-box construction that defies the most rudimentary of table manners, the fried hard crab is a celebration of culinary excess and old Chesapeake Bay ingenuity.

Once a widespread specialty, it still can be found at a smattering of local crab houses, including Tall Oaks in Pasadena, L.P. Steamers in South Baltimore, Gunning's in Hanover and Magothy Seafood Crab Deck and Tiki Bar in Arnold.

Most cooks begin with steamed blue crabs, a few with live specimens. Otherwise, the indelicate delicacy generally is prepared in the same, improbable way:

Pop the top shell and apron of a large blue crab, scoop out the devil's fingers and mustard, insert a crab cake into the cavity. Dredge the works in seasoned batter and deep-fry from a few minutes for smaller, pre-steamed crabs to more than 10 minutes for large, raw crabs. Remove and allow to drain.

The fried hard crab begs a bushel of questions: Who invented it? Why? Isn't it work enough to pick a steamed crab, let alone one that's been stuffed, battered and fried? How do you eat such a concoction? Why bother?

Stalwarts praise the "hard fry" for its multiple layers of fun and flavor. All in one, the fried hard crab is crunchy, greasy, chewy, spicy, doughy, hot, thick, sweet. It's a novelty of a meal with a cryptic past and a loyal, if fading, following.

Fried hard crabs have been a staple of his family business as long as Leroy A. Hale can remember. His parents opened Hale's Seafood in Parkville in 1953. But Hale, 58, has no clue as to the hard fry's origins. "I haven't the slightest idea," he says.

Nor does his mother, Mary Freeda Hale. As she mixes coleslaw in the restaurant's kitchen, Hale, 88, ponders the same question. "It wasn't me, I'm sorry to say," she says.

She and her son agree, though, that it was an employee they called Miss Mary who introduced the hard fry to Hale's menu. "I made most of the batter," says the elder Hale, who still puts up elderberry jelly and vegetables from her expansive garden.

The fried hard crab and its origins "have always been kind of a mystery to me," says John Shields, owner of Gertrude's, a Baltimore restaurant that features crab cakes and other seafood.

Growing up in Parkville, Shields was introduced to hard fries at Hale's. "I was kind of baffled by the whole thing," he says. "Why would you want to do that? I could see eating the crab cake thing out of the shell, but then you have to go into trying to pick the meat out as well."

Timing the cooking process so that the hard crab, crab cake and batter are done simultaneously poses the greatest challenge, says Shields, who doesn't prepare hard fries at Gertrude's.

At Magothy Seafood, bartender Cobie Van Metre describes a hard fry as it "puffs up" in the deep fryer. It looks "like an alien," she says. But Van Metre's not sure who created the hard fry.

The crab concoctions "aren't real popular," says Don Broglie, Magothy's co-owner.

Broglie compares the consumption of a hard fry to that of a Tootsie Roll Pop. "You get the batter off, then the crab cake and, once you eat the crab cake, you have a steamed crab."

After you "get down to the crab cake, some people might put on some tartar sauce or mustard, whatever they like," Broglie says. But, "Pretty much the way it comes is the way you eat it."

At Gunning's Seafood Restaurant, "I think it's been a good 25 years [that] we've had them on the menu," manager Cheryl Mullen says of hard fries. "They're very popular. We serve ours with french fries and coleslaw."

Anecdotal evidence suggests a tossup between Baltimore and the Eastern Shore as the hard fry's place of origin. (Hard fries and variations also have been documented in coastal Virginia, Louisiana and Texas.)

Twenty-five years ago, Baltimore native Robert Wittman, co-owner of the Stevensville Crab Shack on Kent Island, routinely ordered fried hard crabs at Glenmore Gardens and Bo Brooks, both Belair Road mainstays at the time.

When she was young, Wittman's wife, Cheri, and her South Baltimore family would head to the Lighthouse Inn on Fridays for a fried hard crab feast. "That was the big thing," her husband says.

Robert Wittman's grandmother, a Highlandtown native who relocated to Kent Island, brought with her a decadent hard-fry recipe. "My grandmother used to make them in a skillet, two at a time," Wittman says. "She would take a raw crab, stuff it with a crab cake and she also put crab meat in her batter."

At their crab shack, hard fries "are still popular," says Wittman, 39. "We sell a lot of those. A couple each day. On weekends 10 or 20." Those who request them are "usually from the Baltimore area who move down to the Eastern Shore. It's usually an older crowd, people between their 50s and 60s."

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