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Crab Cakes: The Chesapeake's Culinary Gift to the World

Posted by Schaefer's Canal House on 3/8/2015 to Restaurant
Whether you come down on the side of those who believe the tastiest dish to come out of the Northeast was a product of English settlers’ adaptation of European croquette dishes to their new ingredients, or believe it to be yet another instance of Native Americans providing colonists with new food groups, everyone can agree that there’s just nothing quite like a crab cake. 

Culinary experts are split as to the genesis of the delicacy, but all agree on the basics of the recipe, largely unchanged since the mid-1600's, and now split into three Maryland/Pennsylvania/Delaware sub-regions: North, East, and West. Blue crab is considered the appropriate variety to incorporate into the dish, and they are still plentiful here in the Chesapeake Bay, but in other parts of the world, bulk crab meat of any sort is often substituted.  The Northern version is held together by the starchy moisture of a cornstarch thickened, creamy roux, and requires several hours to “rest “before broiling or frying so the moisture bonds are well-set. The Eastern version is the least pretentious, using just some beaten egg, dredged in flour and spices, and broiled. The Western recipe varies by adding bread or cracker crumbs as a filler/bonding agent, and allows for all manner of other fillers in its “continental” cake.

Here’s an original recipe purported to date back to 1685 by Robert May.

To fry Crabs.
Take the meat out of the great claws being first boiled, flour and fry them and take the meat out of the body strain half if it for sauce, and the other half to fry, and mix it with grated bread, almond paste, nutmeg, salt, and yolks of eggs, fry in clarified butter, being first dipped in batter, put in a spoonful at a time; then make sauce with wine-vinegar, butter, or juyce of orange, and grated nutmeg, beat up the butter thick, and put some of the meat that was strained into the sauce, warm it and put it in a clean dish, lay the meat on the sauce, slices of orange over all, and run it over with beaten butter, fryed parasley, round the dish brim, and the little legs round the meat."
---The Accomplist Cook, Robert May, 1685.

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