Maryland's soup

The right stock, tasty vegetables and lots of crab meat make a warm start to autumn meals

October 25, 2006|By Susan Reimer | Susan Reimer,SUN REPORTER

Crab soup is like mother's milk to Marylanders, who are likely to begin any seafood feast with a cup of steaming tomatoes and vegetables that are host to chunks of gleaming crab meat.

Cream of crab soup, with its thick base of cream and its hint of sherry, certainly has its devotees. But there is something common, and comforting, about the spicy vegetable soup, especially at harvest time.

Overripe tomatoes, the last of the Maryland sweet corn, fresh beans and limas and our old friend Old Bay make this soup a winner - literally - at seafood festivals and cooking contests.

"I make the soup from anything that's in the garden and freeze it for the winter," said home cook Betsy Dawson of Annapolis.

Her husband, Ron, crabs on Sundays. They pick the meat out of the leftovers on Mondays and she makes the soup on Tuesdays.

She uses a range of vegetables, from cabbage to okra - whatever is handy - but there is one ingredient that doesn't change.

"You can't have too much crab meat in it."

Homemade may be the best crab soup. The delicate meat and vegetables do not do well after hours on a restaurant steam table.

Jerome Dorsch, executive chef of Skipper's Pier in Deale, who recently finished second in the Maryland Seafood Festival crab-soup competition, knows that.

"Fresh vegetables and fresh crabs," said Dorsch, an Anne Arundel County native who sharpened his knife under Emeril Lagasse.

"For me, it absolutely must have fresh corn. And fresh green beans. And fresh tomatoes. I can't believe people make it with frozen diced vegetables."

Diced tasso ham and applewood bacon, cooked on a very low heat, are his secret ingredients. He uses the rendered fat to saute the vegetables.

And the crab?

"I add the lump meat just before it is served."

Clearly a purist, Dorsch has created a middle ground between those who believe the soup should be made with a fish stock, as it often is in Southern Maryland, and those who favor beef stock.

He makes a crab stock with female crabs that have been roasted and simmered with roasted vegetables and herbs. And he makes a beef stock and a chicken stock and combines them all for his soup.

"The Germans would put a beef bone in everything," said chef John Shields, who is a student of Chesapeake cooking.

His research suggests that the German-style crab soup - with the beef bones - has its roots in Baltimore and the urban areas.

"Over on the Eastern Shore, they did it a little more simply. Tomato, okra and rice. Almost like a gumbo. But the stock was a crab stock either made out of a lot of live crabs or a lot of crab backs.

"They always believe that the backs were essential because there was a lot of fat in the backs.

"A lot of people started putting in ham hocks. That was more of a nod from the Southern or African-American style of cooking."

His conclusion is that Maryland crab soup was a natural evolution - cooks adapted their traditional vegetable soup to crabs.

"Every neighborhood would be a little different."

Shields said the writings of explorer John Smith include descriptions of Native Americans cooking crabs and combining the meat with sweet potatoes and cooking it in bear fat - an early crab cake, perhaps.

"It isn't hard to imagine them cooking crabs in water with whatever vegetable is around," he said.

Though there are recipes for cream of crab soup in old cookbooks, crab vegetable would have been considered a meal for the lower classes and recorded recipes are rarer.

"Crabs were a trash fish. Poor people would go to the harbor and get the small crabs or the she-crabs that were left over and take them home for soup," said Shields.

From a Lighthouse Window, a cookbook compiled by the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, includes a recipe from 1895 from the nearby Wades Point Inn on the Bay, known for its ham, fried chicken and crab soup.

Mildred Kemp's Secret Ingredient Crab Soup is a kind of combination of cream-and-vegetable crab soup. It has a tomato base that is thickened with flour, milk and half-and-half. (The "secret ingredient," a visitor recorded, is a pinch of sugar.)

Smith Island, which is often said to be the birthplace of Maryland's traditional foods, claims vegetable-crab soup, too, said Helen Van Fleet, who has worked for the Maritime Museum for more than 20 years.

"My aunt had a recipe that she got from her great-grandmother. That would put it in the 1800s.

"But it probably changed daily. They threw in what they had."

Tom Horton, a former Sun columnist and environmental writer who grew up on the Eastern Shore and says he has eaten crab soup since birth, remembers his mother's crab soup was full of - well - crabs.

"Shells, legs, chunked-up back fin, swimmers and all," he said.

He was shocked when his first bowl of city crab soup had nothing that needed to be pulled out.

Modern recipes for vegetable crab soup include everything from ketchup to mushroom pieces. From barley to rice to egg noodles. From a can of clam chowder to a can of V8.

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