I recently made crab dip for 75 people. We threw a party for my son and his fiancée, and this ubiquitous dish has always been one of his favorites.

And why not? Made with generous amounts of backfin crabmeat, tangy cheese, mayo, spices and heated to browned perfection, it is Maryland’s comfort food. My wife likes artichoke in it; I prefer un-choked. The dish is good almost any way you serve it.

A few weeks later, a drive through Virginia challenged that idea. Crab dip served with pork rinds — flash-fried puffs of crispy swine skin. Pork rinds? That bleary-eyed drunk snack from my college days in the South?

“It’s not very common that you see it with pork rinds,” said Destiny Cook, kitchen manager at Randolph’s on the River in Port Royal. “But we make our own.”

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Right about now, we could all use a little crab dip. It’s a long seven months to Inauguration Day 2025, and it will take some magic to get us through the coming wave of rage.

Randolph’s on the River in Port Royal, Virginia, serves crab dip with a basket of pork rinds.
Randolph’s on the River in Port Royal, Virginia, serves crab dip with a basket of pork rinds. (Rick Hutzell)

Rather than mull the mystical meanings of 34 (the number of former President Donald Trump’s criminal convictions for defrauding voters — and Taylor Swift’s age) or divine how President Joe Biden’s alter ego (Dark Brandon) mind-melded with 12 New York jurors to control the verdict, we need a serving of calm.

That is the power of crab dip — you can’t be upset while scooping up this warm, creamy panacea from the center of a shared table.

Where does this edible balm come from? Someone was first to cast its spell.

“Oh, you’re never going to find that,” said Scott Cook, co-owner of the Crab Shack in Edgewater.

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“It’s just a traditional thing in Maryland. It’s like lobster dip in Maine but it’s evolved over the years. They mix in whatever’s left over from crab cakes with Old Bay or whatever.”

A bold statement from a man whose blog touts one possible source: 17th-century chef Robert May.

“Take a boil’d crab,” May wrote in his 1660 work “The Accomplisht Cook, or the Art and Mystery of Cookery.” “Take the meat out of the shell, and mince the claws with a good fresh eel, season it with cloves, mace, some sweet herbs chopped, and salt, mingle all together with some yolks of eggs, some grapes, gooseberries, or barberres, and sometimes boil’d artichocks in dice-work, or boil’d asparagus, some almond-paste.”

May studied abroad as an apprentice and his recipes reflect French and Italian cooking from the Middle Ages. In his “To Farce a Crab,” he stuffs this mix into a crab shell or rolls it into balls, then tops them with bread crumbs and bakes it. To serve it, he added a sauce of butter melted with spices, fruit and wine.

English cook Robert May wrote the reciepe "To Farce a Crab in his 1685 cookbook, "Accomplisht Cook." About 200 copies were printed.
Chef Robert May included the recipe “To Farce a Crab” in his 1660 cookbook, “The Accomplisht Cook.” It was republished in 1685 and is a landmark of English and American food. (Rick Hutzell)

Chef May never made it to America, but maybe his ideas did. He worked for 13 Catholic households around the time Maryland was carved out on the map, and when some of those families became its first colonists, they brought their appetite for his dish.

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They found Chesapeake tribes already feasting on crabs, but not the stingy green and brown crabs of Europe. It was the beautiful savory swimmer, claws the color of a clear sky stretching out nine inches from shells olive to blend with the green underwater grasses. Made sweet by the flushing nature of the estuary, they are the true king of crabs.

Blue crabs were eaten across the region long before, and well after, the ravenous English arrived, a 2015 review of archaeological findings by the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of Natural History found.

“From the 1800s right on up through the 1950s, if you wanted to impress some guests, you’d serve them crabmeat picked from the crab, mixed with an assortment of seasonings, packed into the crab shell with some breadcrumbs on top and baked golden brown,” food researcher and blogger Kara Mae Harris wrote on her excellent website Old Line Plate.

Writers have long gushed over this dish, calling it “crab imperial.” It was a summer treat, served when the crustaceans were fresh out of the bay. Ingredients were simpler than May’s — an incantation of flour, butter, cream, parsley, salt, black and red pepper with a pound of crab “flakes,” all stuffed in a shell, topped with buttered bread crumbs and baked hot for the table.

“Between the heat, changing one’s limp and wilted garments and flying to close the windows when it rains — and rains every hour on the hour and between whiles — life would not be worth living in this bailiwick were it not for the frequent possibility of Crabs Imperial as a first course at lunch,” one anonymous writer for The Baltimore Sun wrote in July 1916.

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No place was more about the bay’s luxuries in the early 20th century than Carvel Hall, the famed 200-room hotel in Annapolis. Its “Imperial Crab” from summer 1959 was so good that the New York Public Library preserved it in its collection of menus. The cost was $2.75 — about $29 today.

Home cooks put their spin on it too, even if they were 1,000 miles from the bay.

Mrs. Donald K. Leaky’s recipe was shared in the 1957 food pages of The Kansas City Star. Canned crab in a thickening roux, heated as a casserole and eaten with crackers prompted The Star’s unnamed food writer to give it a less imperious name.

“A recipe she considers her own is one she ran across while working in Baltimore: Maryland Deviled Crab Dip.”

Dip had arrived, but a key to the modern dish was still missing. Roux made it creamy when hot. Served cold, the texture came from sour cream, chopped egg or cottage cheese.

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Then Ann Mar broke the cream cheese barrier in a moment of Baltimore TV history.

The host of “The Woman’s Angle” every afternoon on WMAR from 1950 until 1959, she made “Sizzling Seaside Treats” live in August 1957 — crab, cream cheese, chopped onion, chili powder, salt and lemon juice. She broiled it quickly on an English muffin, keeping the kitchen cooler in summer.

“I was pleased to discover the popularity of the crab mixture since it included cream cheese,” Mar wrote in her companion column in The Evening Sun a few days later.

Ann Marr, food writer for The Evening Sun in 1957, published a recipe for "Sizzling Seaside Treats" in August 1957 that is may be one of the first crab dips with cream cheese.
Ann Mar, a TV host in the 1950s, published a recipe for “Sizzling Seaside Treats” in August 1957 that may be one of the first crab dips with cream cheese.

Harris, the food historian, said this is the era when “crab dip” exploded.

“It became really, really ubiquitous in Maryland cookbooks in the 1960s.”

May lit a fuse that smoldered along for 300 years before igniting Mar’s televised explosion. Or maybe not. Many cultures do creative things with crab, and this Maryland favorite seemed inevitable once sweet blue crab cooked to dusky red found its way into a warm dish with rich, melty cheese.

You can find bad crab dip, made bland with too little crab and spice in a gooey sponge. My party dish used always-available Asian swimming crab, but what it gained in convenience and scale was lost by its lack of charm created when leftovers from a table of peppery, steamed crabs become something, well, grander.

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Food travels in odd ways.

Turns out pork rinds are better when they carry a load of crab dip. Camden Yards served it in 2017.

And Destiny Cook, the kitchen manager on the Rappahannock, enjoyed this most Maryland of foods long before her parents moved her to Virginia.

“I’m from Maryland,” she said. “Growing up in Maryland, every seafood restaurant had crab dip.”

Rick Hutzell is the Annapolis columnist for The Baltimore Banner. He writes about what's happening today, how we got here and where we're going next. The former editor of Capital Gazette, he led the newspaper to a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 2018 mass shooting in its newsroom.

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