I proved this point to myself during lunch this week at Faidley’s Seafood, where I scarfed down the signature jumbo lump crab cake and their more economical backfin version to get a side-by-side comparison. Both were delicious, but the backfin one packed even more flavor and cost a whopping $10 less.
The difference in price is due to crab anatomy. “Every crab has two pieces of jumbo lump and only two,” said Damye Hahn, co-owner of Faidley’s, which is still operating out of the old Lexington Market while it awaits construction on its new space next door.
As a result, it takes an entire bushel of crabs to make just one pound of jumbo lump, which in turn can make just three or four crab cakes. Doing the math, that’s more than 20 crabs to go into one cake. When eating crab cakes herself, Hahn said, “I like to see it mixed.”
The terms we use to describe crabmeat have changed over the years. At one point, the term backfin was used to refer to what we now call jumbo lump. “It all tastes good,” Hahn said.
Yet somewhere along the line, Baltimoreans have become convinced that when it comes to crabs, it’s jumbo lump or bust. At restaurants and grocery stores, diners don’t care whether their crab is from the Chesapeake Bay, Louisiana, Indonesia or Venezuela, so long as the meat comes in glistening, white chunks.
Just ask Capt’n Crabby’s owner M.J. Medlar, who fielded countless questions from customers this past weekend about whether the signature “crabby patties” she was selling during HonFest were made with jumbo lump.
“All weekend long it was like that,” she said. Many locals, particularly older generations, “want the softball, broiled jumbo lump crab cake.” But Medlar uses lump, not jumbo lump, in order to keep costs down at her soon-to-open Hampden restaurant. “That’s our whole thing,” she said. “Nothing on our menu is over $20.” She often finds that younger, price-conscious diners are more receptive. “We’re all on a budget,” she said.
Lump has another advantage: It binds together more easily, requiring less filler to hold it together. “I think lump is the way to go,” she said. (Medlar said she doesn’t like backfin because of its fishier taste. To each her own.)
Some local fine dining establishments seem to be charting a path away from jumbo lump land. When chef Zack Mills is looking to add a crab cake to the menu at True Chesapeake Oyster Co. in Hampden, he prefers to use lump or backfin because, he said in a text message, “I believe the flavor is great and the price is much lower.”
At Charleston, Baltimore’s epicenter for elevated eating, I enjoyed a decidedly non-jumbo-lump crab cake last summer. It featured a gorgeous and delicate combination of backfin with no discernible filler.
But when it comes to flavor, it’s Maryland crabs all the way. “When they’re here, I don’t think there’s anything better,” said Spike Gjerde, owner of Woodberry Tavern.
One caveat, though, is the shells. Gjerde said smaller flakes of crabmeat are more likely to contain tiny bits of shell ― definitely not something you want to bite into. His staff at Woodberry use a blacklight to help illuminate any remaining shards, which tend to reflect the light more brightly than the crabmeat. It’s a better option than rummaging through with your hands: “You’re basically running it through your fingers and degrading the meat,” he said.
Kara Mae Harris, the food historian and blogger behind the Old Line Plate, has long rejected Baltimore’s jumbo lump fervor, writing in her blog in 2017 that: “The best crabcakes are made at home. And of those, the very very best… turned out to not be jumbo lump meat at all.”
Crab cakes, Harris said, are “our iconic food, but most of us can’t afford to get crab cakes all the time … partly because of this jumbo lump mania.”
She has history on her side. Some of the city’s earliest crab cakes were made and sold by African American street vendors called crab men, and they certainly utilized meat from all parts of the crab.
In 2011, Maryland’s Smith Island Crabmeat Co-op, now closed, was one of the last places to buy picked crab meat from a whole crab. According to an article in The Baltimore Sun, the group’s Facebook page told consumers: “We do not separate because receipe’s are much better with the whole crab included.”
Harris, who likes to pick her own crabs, said crab cakes made with a combination of jumbo lump and other types of crabmeat offer a “more interesting and more ‘crabby’ flavor’” than jumbo lump counterparts.
Want to really save some cash on crab cakes? Order small crabs and, like Harris, pick the meat yourself.