Turkey gets all the attention during Thanksgiving and its aftermath. We forget that it’s also the best time of year to get the state’s favorite crustacean. Blue crabs are at their largest and lowest-priced just before the end of November, the official finale to crab season.
I was reminded of this while scrolling through the Facebook page for Curtis Bay’s Pasadena Seafood, owned by former waterman Sam Werner. “We’re still catching some AWESOME Local Crabs and still have these GREAT DEALS going on,” said a post, calling it the “best time of the year” for crabs.
Effective advertising. I decided to make the drive down to the shop to check out the goods — and of course, pick up some crabs.
Real Maryland blue crabs are a treat. In the past few decades, more purveyors have switched to crabs sourced from outside the state, and even as far as Indonesia and Venezuela, to meet our voracious demand as the crab population in the Chesapeake Bay has dwindled.
Restaurants in Maryland that serve local crab meat are in the minority. One is Gertrude’s Chesapeake Kitchen, owned by chef John Shields, host of public television’s Chesapeake Bay Cooking and Coastal Cooking with John Shields.
“It is, is the best time” to eat crabs, he said, adding that he’d just picked some up from Conrad’s Crabs in Bel Air. “They were amazing,” he said. Big and fat, with a complex flavor.
This November culminates what Shields called “a challenging season” for local crabs. The task of getting Maryland blue crab meat was even harder for restaurateurs than usual; this year’s crab survey showed some of the lowest numbers on record.
“There just wasn’t enough,” said Shields. What was available “was massively expensive,” he said. Gertrude’s supplements its local supply with crab meat from Venezuela — both because of the higher cost of local crab meat and it not being as widely available.
He thinks that imported, processed crab meat, which tends to have a more neutral flavor, has become so dominant that many diners prefer it to the local stuff, which reflect the brackish water of the Chesapeake Bay. But they’re missing out.
“Our crabs feed all along the tributaries,” he said. Though we might not typically think of crabs as being high in fat, at this time of year, they are. The fat “gives so much flavor,” said Shields.
He compares the difference between imported crab meat and local blue crab to the difference between a factory-raised egg versus a free-range one. Of the latter, he said: “They taste real, they taste full, the flavor is full and complex.”
I was determined to try the real thing.
Pulling up into the parking lot where Pasadena Seafood sits, I realized I was the only shopper at the store. Despite the robust crab catches in November, Werner says business is “really slow” this time of year.
He led me behind the counter to the shop’s walk-in refrigerator to check out the recent catches. As he lifted open baskets of crabs, he wore heavy gloves to handle some of the extra large males. The crabs’ strong claws can puncture skin — or one another.
I admired the brilliant blue color of the males, something I don’t usually get to see. The blue disappears when the crabs are steamed, giving way to a deep orange-red.
Starting next month, Pasadena Seafood and many other local seafood purveyors will be looking to the Carolinas and beyond to order crabs. Shields will shift to using pasteurized Maryland crab meat.
Like anyone whose livelihood depend on the bay’s crabs, Werner says he’s hoping for a mild winter. “The colder it is, the more crabs get killed in the area.” With temperatures already dropping steadily, he’s not keeping his hopes up. He has a bad feeling about this winter.
While I was there, I purchased half a dozen extra large crabs, steamed to order. The total came to $55. Prices were substantially lower for smalls, which can cost as little as $2 apiece.
Steamed crabs are good in the fridge for a few days, says Werner, but my husband and I picked them that evening.
We loosely followed a recipe attributed to Faidley Seafood, skipping mustard and Tabasco, which we were out of. We also used breadcrumbs because we didn’t have any saltine crackers. The meat gave us more than enough for six small crab cakes.
Even with all the substitutions, they were sublime. Simultaneously rich and light, sweet and salty. Just the antidote to the heavy Thanksgiving feast.