Spicing Up Summer With Liberal Dashes Of Crab Seasoning

July 22, 2009|By ROB KASPER

I call it cuisine creep: Crab seasoning is spreading beyond crustaceans.

It is being used in hamburgers, on crackers, in Bloody Marys. Moreover, it is showing up in communities a long way from saltwater.

Various mixtures of salt, peppers, paprika, mustard, celery seed, mace and cardamom have long been a staple of Maryland cooks. Besides coating steamed crabs with it, local cooks have traditionally sprinkled it in the fried chicken batter and on corn on the cob and snacks such as popcorn.

But now eaters a long way from saltwater seem to be developing a taste for the seasoning.

Joe Bernard, president of Wye River Seasoning in Queenstown, told me recently that this summer he has been shipping crab seasoning to accounts in Indiana, Illinois and Ohio. Since blue crabs are hard to find in those regions, Bernard said he was not sure what the Midwesterners are doing with the seasoning.

"Maybe they are putting it on corn, there is a ton of corn out there," he said.

He was confident, however, that Huskers love crab-flavored crackers. "I just shipped a bunch of it to Nebraska," he said.

Sales of Old Bay, which this summer is celebrating its 70th birthday, have increased 30 percent in the past decades, according Laurie Harrsen, director of consumer affairs for McCormick & Co, the Hunt Valley spice company that makes the seasoning.

Born in Baltimore, Old Bay has followers around the country. A Web site called Old Bay Nation was full of testimonials from admirers around the United States.

A body builder from Syracuse, N.Y., wrote that he "would not survive dieting for a body-building contest without Old Bay. The stuff is a lifesaver. There is no way I would be able to eat the cold, dry tilapia without it."

A booster in Phoenix contends that "nothing heats up the Southwest like fish tacos with Old Bay." A zealot in Las Vegas puts Old Bay on macaroni and cheese; one in Woodhaven, Mich., recommends a dose in scrambled eggs.

Don Ports, whose grandfather, J.O. Strigle, founded J&O Spice 64 years ago in Baltimore, said summer marks the peak of crab seasoning sales. The rush for crab seasoning starts around Mother's Day and continues throughout the summer, he said. "We ship out seasonings by the truckload," Ports said, adding that crab restaurants are among the company's biggest customers.

Recently J&O tweaked its traditional recipe and came up with a seasoning to use on wild game and waterfowl. Its Seasoned Southern Style Fish Fry seasoning is popular with bass fishermen, "all the way down to Florida," Ports said.

But while residents of other sections of the United States are discovering new uses for crab seasoning, its core constituency is still Marylanders, he said.

"There is little a Marylander won't put crab seasoning on," Ports said.

Believe it or not, there are a few chefs in the state who do not worship crab seasoning.

One of them is Tony Breeze, executive chef of Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay in Cambridge.

He makes crab cakes with freshly picked crab meat, Dijon mustard, mayonnaise, and the tiniest amount of crab seasoning. The chef, a native of Manchester, England, said he was not a fan.

"It is too salty for me," he said in a elephone interview. He added that the saltiness can "get in the way of the sweetness of the crab."

Breeze puts the small amount of seasoning in his crab cakes as a bow to local tastes. "People in this area like it," he told me.

At the Taste of Cambridge competition held last weekend, the Hyatt's crab cake was picked as the best both by a panel of judges and by the public.

The secret of the success of this crab cake, Breeze said, is the freshness of the crab meat, not the seasoning.

He works with Georgia Cephas, a former crab picker at J.M. Clayton Seafood. She picks the meat from the steamed crabs and hands it to Breeze. The chef quickly forms it into cakes, coats them in panko (bread crumbs from Japan) and cooks them in a little butter on a hot griddle.

I was one of the Taste of Cambridge judges and tasted that crab cake. It is outstanding. The flavor of the crab soars. It doesn't need crab seasoning. But saying that, in Maryland, is akin to committing heresy.

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