History of: Maryland Crab Soup

maryland crab soup

Maryland Crab Soup

 

When the temperature climbs into the triple digits and the humidity sours from the nightly thunderstorms which swell the tributaries of the Bay, I, like all true Marylanders, am put in mind of the piquant blend of spices and the indescribably addictive, buttery flakes of the Maryland blue crab.

The blue crab has always had a storied history as a culinary resource.  The Callinectes sapidus (Tasty or Savory Beautiful Swimmer) is the only creature named for its culinary qualities.

The blue crab has a remarkable life cycle that is an average of three years.  It begins when the sook (female crab) beds down for the winter in the sandbars along the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia and North Carolina.  This area has a combination of fresh water from the tributaries as well as salt water from the Atlantic Ocean.  This and the regional temperature create the ideal conditions for the blue crab to give birth. At this point the eggs are already fertilized and the “sook” waits for the proper conditions (weather, temperature, salinity of the water) to release the catch of eggs.  During this time, the sook is sought after by dredging crabbers specifically for the roe and fat which make the basis of she-crab soup.  This practice is looked down upon by many crabbers as cutting off the much needed nesting grounds and contributing to the diminished crab harvests felt all over the Chesapeake in recent years.

The sook releases the larvae into the water once the proper conditions are met and from there it is believed that as many as 90% of the larvae will not make it to adult hood.  Nature has afforded the blue crab with an amazing versatility in the production and development of eggs.  If proper conditions are not met or a catastrophic event occurs to delay or prematurely release the eggs, more eggs can be fertilized and released again at a later date by the impregnated “sook”.

It takes about one year and three months for a crab to develop from an egg to an adult size.  During this time the crab is a creature that is a scavenger of aquatic life.  All through its existence it lives and thrives off of the remains of other animals and even their own species.  The blue crab is known for eating just about any form of bait.  In fact, the term “Chicken Necker” is a term used to describe the naive attempts of amateur crab men who use chicken necks as bait in an attempt to catch the crabs.

The next stage in a crab’s life is when they reach sexual maturity.  This occurs in the female (sook) crab by the development of a circular abdominal apron.  These changes in the life cycle of the crab are marked by what is referred to as “molts”.  This is where the crab sheds its hard shell.  At this point it is known as a “peeler” and when it sheds its shell for a brief time it has a soft leathery shell that slowly hardens into the new shell.  During this time he is much sought after in culinary circles as a soft shell crab.

At the time when the female is ready to molt, the “Jimmys” (mature male crabs) will engage in what is known as “the dance”.  It extends its legs and moves around frantically while the female (sook) waves her arms.  The female will then allow herself to be cradled under the male crab and the “doublers” (mating crabs) will seek out cover to consummate the ritual.  During this time, the female will make her final molt and receive the sperm packet from the male crab.  Once the process is complete and the shell of the “Sook” hardens again for the final time, she will seek out the natural conditions necessary in which to bed down and fertilize her eggs.  Most crabbers will respect this process and allow the “doublers” to go free or else take the “jimmy” and leave the “sook”.  There is a practice however where a mature “jimmy” will be placed in a crab pot in order to attract “sooks” which can then be sold as soft shell crabs.  This practice too is kind of looked down upon as diminishing the population of the blue crab in the Chesapeake.  The “sook” has a relatively short span of time in which to mate.  Once the time is passed, an additional “molt” could prove fatal for a larger crab.

                The sizes of soft shell crabs also play a factor in the price of the crabs both for the waterman as well as the consumer.  A medium is 3.5 to 4 inches in width from one end of the shell to the other.  Hotels are 4 – 4.5 inches, Primes are 4.5 to 5 inches, jumbos are 5 to 5.5 inches and whales or slabs are 5.5 inches or larger.  It is illegal to harvest crabs smaller than 3.5 inches in width.

Soft shell crabs run through several stages before and during the shedding process.  The signs must be read accurately or the shells will harden too much to be served as soft shells and a valuable harvest will diminish in value significantly.  The last segment of the swimmer paddle tells a careful observer the amount of time until the shedding.  A white sign indicates it will be one or two weeks.  A pink sign indicates that it will occur in three to six days.  A red sign also known as rank means that the shedding will occur in one to three days.

Up to 95 percent of the nation’s catch of blue crabs comes from the Chesapeake region.  Anywhere from 150 to 240 bushels were removed from the Bay during this time.  Late summer and autumn are the best time to catch blue crabs as the Sooks have gone through their first molting and the Jimmies are “heavy” and fully grown at this time.

The pleasure of eating blue crab comes at a high price, in order to obtain the delicious morsels one must be prepared to tuck in and work for it.  While picking a crab is not difficult, many people find it burdensome and not worth the effort.  The modern popularity of the crab cake is a testament to this, but the pasteurized meat sold to prepare these treats is but a pale shadow of the real thing when it is first brought out of the steam pot.  The prepared meat lacks the “butter” or yellow fat which is an essential ingredient in any crab dish.

Maryland crab soup owes its unique existence to the collective pots of the Native American tribes which flourished along the bountiful estuary.  Harvests would be gathered and the days catch and the spoils of the hunt would all be added together to feed the tribe.  This unique blend of seafood, meat and vegetables has evolved into Maryland crab soup and stems from these communal pot lucks.  The liquid used to make the soup was also used to boil the soft shell crabs and may be the origin of the modern crab boil as well, although it was not the spiced version we are familiar with today.

Old bay seasoning has long been called “Maryland Curry” but it was actually common for every early American household to have their own seasoning blend or “curry.”  Old bay seasoning actually came about in 1939 by a German Immigrant, Gustsav Brunn who created the seasoning blend for spicing crabs.  It caught on and he benefited from the beginning of the era of mass production, but really any one of the millions of seasoning blends used in the Chesapeake region could just have easily taken up the mantle of being the regional seasoning blend.  It was the diversity of the many groups of immigrants that came through the region that allowed the cuisine to become so radically diversified.  Early influences from British colonists exposed to the Empires holdings in India and the Asian spice trade, allowed for the creation of a unique experiment in early fusion cuisine.

Old Bay Seasoning Recipe:[1]

Old Bay Seasoning

Old Bay Seasoning (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

1 Tbsp. Celery Salt

1 Tbsp. Whole Black Peppercorns

6 Bay Leaves

½ Tea. Whole Cardamoms Pods

½ Tea. Mustard Seeds

4 Whole Cloves

1 Tbsp. Sweet Hungarian Paprika

¼ Tea. Mace

 

                In a spice grinder place all ingredients and grind well.  Store in an airtight container and use within 6 months.

We cannot discern definitively how the crabs were prepared by the Native Americans, but archeological evidence shows that the crab played an important part of the native diet and we can conclude that a similar cooking method was well established in the region long before the arrival of the European settlers.

After the establishment of the colonies the crab fell out of favor with the well to do as beef, deer and fowl became the desired food of choice for colonial Maryland.  These foodways were more acceptable and familiar to the new immigrants coming to the country and the establishment of successful colonies allowed for the surplus necessary to maintain livestock.

Crab pots were first developed and used during the 1920’s which revolutionized the crabbing industry and lessoned the amount of effort required to harvest crabs in the Chesapeake.  It also made it more expensive to crab.  The crab pots even the ones made by the crabber’s themselves still required a higher investment to start.  The most common design was patented in Virginia in 1938 by B.F. Lewis and the same basic design is still used to this day.  There are two basic designs used and both are off the same patent.  The first one has two compartments; the top chamber has the bait and lures the crab inside through a one way tunnel.  There is a small hole in the side to allow small crabs to leave and retain the large ones.  The other one is the same, but only has one compartment which allows the crabs to continue to eat the bait inside until they are pulled up and because of this it has to be checked more often.

The harvesting of crabs became a great deal more efficient with the development of the crab pot in the 1930’s after ten years of experimenting.  It took a while to develop since the blue crab has excellent vision and will not be lured into anything that it cannot see its way out of.  Crab pots are made of thin 18 gauge wire as a standard, thinner wire would fair even better, but the corrosive nature of the Bay waters would soon render them useless

The other influence on this dish is the Mediterranean bouillabaisse which is a similar dish that incorporates all sorts of shellfish, not just blue crab.  I have come across many references to this dish in American cookbooks where it is referred to both directly and indirectly as a bouillabaisse.

The modern version of the dish developed out of the famous crab boil, in which spices and vegetables were added at various times to a pot steaming away the blue crabs.  The liquid that remained in the bottom of the pot became the condensed essence and the base of the Maryland crab soup.    It contained the fat and stock from the cooked crabs as well as the spices and aromatics of the vegetables and became a valuable source for future meals much like the “pot liquor” used in Southren cooking after cooking greens.

Maryland Crab Soup

Christopher Gobbett

2009

 

10 Green Bell Peppers, Diced                                                   

8 Yellow Onions, Diced

2 # 10 Cans Fire Roasted Tomatoes                                         

6 Zucchini, Diced                                             

6 Yellow Squash, Diced                                                                

4 # 5 Cans Tomato Juice                                               

4 Stalks Celery, Chopped                                                            

1 Pint Minor’s Chicken Base                                      

½ Cup Old Bay Seasoning                                                            

2 Gallons Water                                                              

2 Lb. Bags Frozen Peas                                                                  

2 Bags Frozen Diced Carrots                       

2 Lb. Bags Frozen Corn                                                                  

5 Lbs. Claw Crab Meat                                  

A Dozen Bay Leaves

 

                In a large stock pot, sauté onions, celery and bell peppers until translucent.  Add squash and cook until softened.  Add canned tomatoes, tomato juice, bay leaves and old bay.  Add water and frozen vegetables and allow to come to a boil.  Add crab meat and simmer 5 minutes.  Serve or allow to cool before placing in refrigerator.  This is a commercial recipe and will yield about 80 servings or more.  

There are thousands of variations on this recipe, some include ham hocks and others take advantage of beef bones and meticulously prepared stocks.  In most cases, it takes about 50 years of use before a recipe finds its way into a print form.  The earliest known copy of this recipe in book form is from 1879, the dish had been a popular staple for hundreds of years before it first appeared in publication, so it is difficult to determine exactly how this dish had evolved in the years before.

Since that time it has taken on many forms and incorporated all sorts of ingredients, from the populist nutritionist movement of New England to the industrial convenience foodways of the mid-twentieth century to the modern fast food world.

It is now possible to find canned verities of Maryland crab soup available at supermarkets in condensed and concentrated forms and Old Bay Seasoning has gone from a local specialty to a mass produced seasoning blend consisting of several different verities sold all over the world.  The rights and properties of this once local seasoning now belong to the McCormick/Shilling Company and can be found anywhere you shop.

This dish is one of many local flavors which have been incorporated into the American identity of food, classifying it now as an American dish as opposed to a Mid-Atlantic specialty.  The reach of the blue crab has expanded all over the globe, as now most of the commercial blue crab produced come from South America and the Gulf region.  The once opulent bounty of the Bay now serves the local region mostly with steamers and soft shells as the picking houses that once flourished along the Eastern Shore have given way to suburban sprawl and development.

We now come to the great debate of Maryland crab soup, shredded cabbage.  Some people claim that it is essential and others claim that it no more belongs in the soup then an honest man in the Annapolis statehouse.  This debate will go on and it will not be resolved.  It is part of the lore of the soup and has become part of its tradition.  It may stem once again from the infusion of New England Cuisine which much favored the use of cabbage as a primary vegetable, due to its yield, nutrition and cost.  At one point in American history it was served alongside potatoes as the primary vegetable in almost every home in America.

Every year the annual Old Bay Soupstakes is held and one of the primary competitions is awarded for the best Maryland crab soup.  Other dishes are also included in the event, but the highlight of the event is the liberal use of Old Bay in various dishes and any respectable modern version of Maryland crab soup now contains this ingredient.  You could also substitute J & O Seafood Spice or even Joe’s Dirt, but Old Bay has become the most well known specialty seasoning of the region.

This dish has not seen its final transformation yet as new ingredients and flavors flow into the region as well as the constant flow of immigrants who settle down and once again begin the process of transforming local ingredients into new and exciting combinations.  As a communal dish of ingredients, it is well suited for the inclusion of ethnic influences and we may soon see ginger and green onions make their way into the pot as well as Thai chilies, cilantro, jalapeno and cumin.  All of these ingredients would refine this dish into something new and wonderful as each new generation sits down to enjoy the bounty of the Bay.

The Evolution:

This dish might have started from the communal pots of the Native Americans.  The process of cooking this dish would fit easily into the known style of cooking at the time.  Documentation regarding Native American cuisine is very sparse and highly prejudiced so not much is known about the specific recipes used.  Archeological evidence can show us what they ate and in some case if it was cooked or not, but it offers very little as far as the details of the cooking process.  It is known that Native American tribes in the region did harvest the bounty of the bay and the blue crab in particular, but little else is known about the preparation of the dishes they ate.

Crab Soup[2]

1634

 

                2 dozen live crabs.  Clean and save fat.  Break the crab in half.  Fry 6 slices bacon.  Put in pot with 3 Qts. Water.  When nearly done, add a little finely cut parsley and 3 large potatoes, which have been boiled in a small amount of water and cut fine.  Cook soup for 2 hours.  When the soup is done, take a fork and hit some, not all, of the crabs until some of the meat falls out of the shell. 

 

This dish reflects the influence of European settlers in the region by the inclusion of bacon and potatoes, two ingredients which predominate the British Empire and the cuisine that they brought with them to the new world.  The dishes obvious predecessor would be the Spanish bouillabaisse, but it is uncertain if that is the true ancestor of the dish or if it was a result of copying a preexisting dish prepared by the Native Americans.

Crab Soup[3]

1879

 

                Open and cleanse of the dead man’s fingers and sandbag, twelve small fat crabs raw.  Cut the crabs into two parts.  Parboil and extract the fat and the back shells of the crab.  Scald eighteen ripe tomatoes, skin them and squeeze the pulp from the seeds through a colander.  Chop them fine and pour boiling water over the seeds and juice, and strain them.  Stew a short time in a soup pot one large onion, one clove of garlic, in one spoonful butter and two spoonfuls lard, and put them in the tomatoes.

                After stewing a few minutes, add the meat from the claws, then the crabs, and lastly the fat from the back shells.  Season with salt, cayenne and black pepper, parsley, sweet marjoram and thyme, one half teaspoonful lemon juice and the peel of one lemon.  Pour in the water with which the seeds were scalded, adding more should there not be the quantity of soup required.  Boil moderately for one hour.  About a quarter of an hour before serving, sift in grated bread crumbs and pounded crackers as a thickening.  Any firm fish prepared by this recipe is excellent. 

This dish, by the description above must have been referring to the use of soft shell crabs.  Removing the dead man’s fingers would be a reference to the lungs which are removed from the crabs when cleaning.  To clean a soft shell crab you must first trim off a small portion of the face, you can then flip up the sides of the shell and expose the lungs.  These are also removed.  Then, you turn the crab around and remove the apron as well, in the above recipe; this is referred to as the sandbag.  Once this is done, the crab can then be prepared in any way you desire.

Crab Soup[4]

1879

                One dozen crabs to one gallon of water.  Take off top shell; clear body of crabs.  Cut through the middle, put them into a kettle, mix with some butter, and brown them.  Then add one gallon water, and simmer for half an hour.  Skim slightly, and add the hock of an old ham, and strained tomato juice one pint.  Boil two hours.  Season with pepper, spice if liked, and half pint wine. 

                The claws are to be cracked and divested of the jaws.  A Hampton Recipe. 

 

In this recipe, unlike the above one from 1634, we see a little more refinement on the part of the cook towards the dish.  The back shells are removed and the bodies are broken into pieces, at the end of the cooking process, the claws are also cracked and the tips of the claws removed.  This will facilitate the process of eating the dish at the table since the meat will readily fall out rather than having to be picked through, but the body shell and the claw shells still remain a part of the dish and enhance the flavor of the soup.

Crab Soup Shore Style[5]

1932

 

Put two ounces butter, one chopped onion and one chopped green pepper in casserole and simmer until well done, add two quarts of fish broth, one half cup rice and boil away for 15 minutes.  Add three peeled tomatoes diced one spoonful of Worcestershire sauce, the meat of two large crabs, one pound of fresh okra cut in pieces one inch long.  Cook slowly twenty minutes, season well with salt & pepper, sprinkle with a little chopped parsley. 

Hotel Rennert, Baltimore

In this dish we see the final stages of the refinement of the dish.  The meat is picked out of the crabs which have been cooked separately and added into the dish after the other ingredients have already been cooked.  This particular recipe shows a much more Creole or Southren influence on the dish.  The inclusion of rice and bell peppers as well as Worcestershire sauce.  The final part of the recipe also includes instructions on the presentation of the dish, showing this to be a more formal establishment and less of a home cooked dish.

Crab Soup[6]

1948

 

1 # Crab Meat                                                                                   

2 Stalks Celery

2 T. Butter                                                                                          

1 Grated Carrots

1 T. Flour                                                                                            

2 T. Chopped Celery

1 Onion, Grated                                                                              

1 Tsp. Worcestershire Sauce

3 Drops Tabasco                                                                              

3 C. Water

Salt, Pepper, Dash Paprika                                                         

1 Pt. Tomato Juice

 

                Brown the onion in the melted butter, add the flour.  To this paste add the water, seasonings, carrot and parsley with the crab meat.  Simmer fifteen minutes.  Add tomato juice simmer 5 minutes.  Serve with hot buttered French bread.

                                                                                                                -              Kathleen Rover

                                                                                                                                Westminster, Carroll County

In this recipe we see the formation of the standardized units of measure created by Fannie Farmer and the New England School of Cooking.  It is also the first example to indicate the crab meat as a separate ingredient sold by weight individually.  We also see the inclusion of specific spices as opposed to household spice blends which were used in earlier times.

This was the beginning of the processed food era, after World War 1 and 2, canned goods and processed foods became household staples.  Pints of tomato juice were readily available as opposed to earlier recipes in which extractions were called for using whole tomatoes.

This dish also shows the classic French roux being used as a binding agent.  The adding of the onions into the butter and flour combination is a Southren American innovation and again we see a sort of Creole influence in the dish.

Crab Soup[7]

1959

 

6 Potatoes, Chopped                                                    

2 Onions, Chopped

3 Carrots, Chopped                                                        

3 Stalks Celery, Chopped

2 Qts. Tomatoes                                                              

1 Pt. Each, Peas, Corn, Lima Beans

4 Qts. Water                                                                     

2 Tbsp. Worcestershire Sauce

2 Tbsp. Sugar                                                                    

Dash Cloves

Salt & Pepper, to Taste                                                

10 Hard Crabs, Cleaned For Frying

 

                Break or cut in quarters – drop in when vegetables are half cooked and cook all together until vegetables are very well done may be thickened or clear. 

This recipe is sort of a hybrid version of the recipe from 1932 recipe.  It is sort of a throwback in that it calls for the use of whole hard crabs as opposed to picked and cleaned meat.  It also includes a much larger variety of vegetables than the previous dish.  In professional kitchens, a lack of ingredients mentioned in a recipe may be due to the fact that during different time different vegetables are added depending on what is available and in season.  Soups often act as a sort of catch-all in many kitchens and are considered to be a good way of using up leftovers.

Maryland Crab Soup[8]

1968

 

8 Cups. Water                                                                                  

3 Medium Stalks Celery, Diced

3 (1 Lb.) Cans Whole Tomatoes, Crushed                             

1 Medium Onion, Diced

2 Tbsp. Seafood Seasonings                                                       

1 Tsp. Salt

2 (10 Oz.) Pkgs. Frozen Mixed Vegetables                           

¼ Tsp. Pepper

2 Cups Diced Potatoes                                                                  

1 Lb. Maryland Crabmeat

 

                Put water in a large pot. Bring to a boil.  Add all ingredients, except crabmeat, and cook until vegetables are done.  20 – 30 minutes. 

                Remove cartilage from crab meat and add crab meat to soup.  Heat through.  Makes about 6 quarts of soup. 

In this recipe we see the culmination of the processed food industry.  There is very little non-processed food used in this recipe.

Crab Soup[9]

1969

 

Soup Bone with Meat                                                                                   

1 Lg. Can Tomatoes

Ham Bone                                                                                                          

String Beans

Onion                                                                                                                  

Lima Beans

Cabbage                                                                                                             

Peas

Carrots                                                                                                                

Celery

2 Lbs. Crabmeat                                                                                               

Salt

Dash of Sugar                                                                                                    Pepper

Thyme

 

                Boil ham bone and soup bone to make stock.  Remove bones and add more water.  If needed and dash of sugar.  Add all vegetables, Fresh or frozen, add seasonings to taste.  Cook as you would for vegetable soup, and then add crabmeat.  Makes 4 – 6 quarts.

In a modern evolutionary sense we begin to see some radical development in the dish.  This recipe includes many of the more modern components we are familiar with and includes the cabbage, which is still a topic of debate and probably stems from the New England influence as it predominated what is termed “American cuisine.”

This dish also uses the soup bone and includes beef into the dish.  This may have been done all along since even the oldest recipe from 1634 includes bacon as an additional form of meat in an otherwise seafood stew.  The cabbage and beef takes the place of the Worcestershire sauce which was used in previous recipes adding the sulfuric compounds from the cabbage to replace the flavor of the fermented product.

Maryland Crab Soup[10]

1969

 

6 Steamed or Raw Crabs                                                                              

½ Lb. Bacon

Small Steak                                                                                                       

4 Tomatoes

3 Potatoes, Diced                                                                                           

1 ½ Onions, Chopped

2 Stalks Celery, Diced                                                                                   

2 Carrots, Diced

2 Cups Shredded Cabbage                                                                          

¼ Cup Chopped Parsley

1 Cup Lima Beans, Corn & String Beans                                                 

1 Bay Leaf

Pinch of Thyme                                                                                                               

1 Tbsp. Old Bay Seasoning

3 Quarts Water                                                                                                

2 Tbsp. Flour

1 Tsp. Dry Mustard                                                                                         

¼ Cup Butter or Margarine

1 Tbsp. Worcestershire Sauce                                                                   

Salt & Pepper to Taste

1 Lb. Crabmeat

 

                Clean crabs.  Combine crab, Bacon, and beef to water and simmer 1 ½ hours.  Add vegetables and cook until tender crisp.  Add crab meat.  Blend flour, mustard in butter and add with Worcestershire in soup and simmer for 5 minutes.  Makes 12 servings. 

In this version we see the culmination of all the previous recipes.  This one includes everything from cabbage to bacon to Worcestershire sauce and even Old Bay seasoning.  The dish also uses whole crabs, but requires you to cook them and clean them, adding only the meat back into the soup keeping with the more modern refined “hands off,” style of food.

Crab Soup[11]

1976

 

1 Lb. Crabmeat                                                                                 

1 Tsp. Worcestershire Sauce

2 Cans Pepper Pot Soup                                                               

1 Tsp. Old Bay (Optional)

2 Cans Vegetable Soup                                                                

Salt and Pepper

5 Cans Water    

 

                Toss all ingredients in a large pot.  Bring to a boil, then turn down to simmer for 6 hours.

In this recipe we see the use of other soups to make up a sort of modern catch all crab soup.  This could be considered the modern version of the communal pot.  It is essentially the realization of the old “open up a can and put it in a pan” kind of cooking which swept this era in history.  The industrial food movement took the work out of cooking and freed the average person from the necessity of daily cooking as well as many household maintenance chores.  This freed up a large portion of the population to enter the workforce and remove themselves from the traditional “nuclear family,” of the 1950’s.

Crab Soup[12]

1981

 

½ Lb. Crab Meat, Regular                                                            

14 ½ Oz. Can Whole Tomatoes

10 Oz. Package Frozen Vegetable Mix                                   

½ Cup Egg Noodles, Uncooked

½ Cup Diced Baked Ham or Lean & Fat                                  

¼ Cup Shredded Cabbage

½ Tsp. Salt                                                                                          

1 ½ Tsp. Old Bay Seasoning

5 Cups Water

 

                Combine all ingredients, except crabmeat, in a soup pot.  Cover and cook over medium heat until vegetables are tender and noodles are cooked.  Add crabmeat and simmer long enough to heat crabmeat.  Serve hot.  The larger the soup quantity, the better the resulting flavor will be. 

This recipe can be seen as a variation on the original recipe from 1634.  It incorporates several of the more modern ingredients such as cabbage and old bay, but the main point of change is the inclusion of egg noodles.  This is similar to the inclusion of rice in the 1932 recipe, but the influence here is probably more due to the availability of processed foods in supermarkets and the plethora of casseroles which rose from this era in our culinary history.

Clear Crab Soup[13]

1982

 

¼ Lb. Sweet Butter                                                         

1 Lb. Fresh Lump Crabmeat

¾ Cup Chopped Onion                                                 

1 Tsp. Thyme

½ Cup Chopped Carrots                                                               

½ Tsp. Salt

1 Leek, Washed Well & Chopped                           

1/8 Tsp. White Pepper

1 ½ Qts. Chicken Stock                                                  

2 Tsp. Worcestershire Sauce

1 Cup Chopped Tomato                                                               

3 Dashes Tabasco Sauce

1 (8 Oz.) Can White Corn                                             

2 Tbsp. Chopped Fresh Parsley

 

  1. Melt the butter in a 4 quart saucepan over medium heat.  Add the onion, carrot, and leek.  Cook until soft, but do not brown.  Add the chicken stock, tomatoes, and corn with liquid.  Bring to a full boil.
  2. Add the crab, thyme, salt, white pepper, Worcestershire and Tabasco.  Simmer 1 – 2 minutes.  Taste and correct seasoning, if desired. 
  3. Sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve at once.

The clear that is referenced in this dish is not due to clarity, but rather to the fact that no binding agent is used.  The 1959 recipe makes reference to serving the soup thickened or clear.  The soup like consistency of a “clear” soup is actually more like a broth as opposed to “nappe”, which is the term used to describe a sauce or soup that will coat the back of a spoon.

Crab Soup, Eastern Shore Style[14]

1983

 

2 Lbs. Stew Meat, Cut into 1 Inch Cubes                               

2 Large Onions, Chopped

1 (20 Oz.) Package Frozen Green Beans                

4 Stalks Celery, Chopped

3 (15 Oz.) Cans Tomatoes                                            

1 Bunch Carrots, Cut into Cubes

1 Lb. Bacon, Fried Until Crisp and Crumbled, Save Some of the Grease

2 Lbs. Potatoes Cut into Cubes                                 

2 Lbs. Crab Meat

1 (20 Oz.) Package Frozen Lima Beans                   

1 Bay Leaf

1 (20 Oz.) Package Frozen Peas                                 

2 Lbs. Crab Meats

1 (20 Oz.) Package Frozen Corn                                 

Salt & Pepper, To Taste

3 Quarts Water, or as much as you like

 

                Brown stew meat, add 2 quarts water and celery, onions, carrots, bay leaf, simmer 1 hour.  Add potatoes, lima beans, peas, corn, green beans, one quart water, simmer another hour.  Add tomatoes, salt & pepper to taste.  Add crab meat and bacon, simmer about 30 minutes.  Add about ½ cup flour to one cup of water, stir until dissolved, and then add to soup.  Stir until thickened.  Freezes well.  About 30 servings.

This version of the dish is more of a stew than a soup.  Stewing is a compound cooking method where the meat is browned and then simmered or boiled until the desired tenderness is achieved.  This dish is actually more of a beef stew as opposed to a Maryland crab soup.  This shows the diversity and range of cooking styles that can be incorporated into this dish.

Eastern Shore Crab Soup[15]

1998

 

6 Tbsp. (1/2 Stick) Butter                                                             

1 Tbsp. Worcestershire Sauce

1 Lg. Onion, Diced                                                                          

1 Tsp. Dried Thyme Leaves

4 Cups Sliced Okra                                                                          

1 Bay Leaf

1 Green Bell Pepper, Diced                                                        

1 Cup White Rice

1 Tbsp. Chopped Garlic                                                                

1 Lb. Claw Crabmeat, Picked Over

4 Lg. Ripe Tomatoes or 1 can (14 ½ Oz.) Whole Tomatoes, Diced with Juice

Salt & Freshly Ground Black Pepper, to Taste

 

                Melt the butter in a large pot.  Add the onion, bell pepper, okra and garlic.  Cook over low heat, stirring occasionally for 15 minutes.  Add the stock, tomatoes, Worcestershire sauce, thyme, and bay leaf and bring to a boil.  Reduce the heat and simmer 20 minutes.

                Add the rice and continue to cook for 30 minutes.  Add the crab meat and simmer for 5 minutes longer.  Remove the bay leaf and season with salt & pepper.  Serve hot. Serves 6 – 8.

 

This dish is much more of a gumbo than a traditional Maryland crab soup, so once again we see the Creole influence hundreds of years later.  It could be that the Maryland crab soup is some sort of offspring of the Creole crab gumbo, but logic would seem to indicate that its origins are more grounded in the Native American preparation as well as the Spanish Bouillabaisse.  In this time we see sort of a homogenization of American Cuisine and dishes that developed in different parts of the country are sort of blending together in their claim to the origin of the recipe.

Old Town Alexandria Crab Soup[16]

1999

 

1 Medium Carrot, Diced                                                              

1 Small Onion, Diced

2 Tablespoons Vegetable Oil                                                    

1 (14 ½ Oz.) Can Whole Tomatoes, Undrained

1 (15 Oz.) Can Lima Beans                                                           

1 (14 ½ Oz.) Can Corn

2 (10 ½ Oz.) Cans Beef Broth, Undiluted                                               

1 Cup Frozen or Canned Green Beans

1 Beef Bouillon Cube                                                                    

4 – 5 Teaspoons Seafood Seasoning

Freshly Ground Pepper, to Taste                                             

1 Pound Fresh Lump Crabmeat, Drained

1 Tablespoon Dried Parsley

 

  • Sauté carrot and onion in hot oil in a large Dutch over 10 minutes or until tender.
  • Drain liquid from tomatoes, beans and corn.  Add broth and enough water to vegetable liquid to measure 2 quarts; add to Dutch oven.
  • Chop tomatoes; add tomatoes, beans, and next six ingredients to soup.  Cook, covered, over low heat 10 to 20 minutes.
  • Stir crabmeat and parsley into soup and cook until thoroughly heated.  Serve hot.

 

Serves 4 to 6

Here we see modern imitations of the dish masquerading as local specialties.  The importance of assigning a location to the dish to lend it authenticity is an obvious indication that it is not a real or true representation of the dish.  The importance of local cuisine developed during this time as the scientific microscope began to divide and subdivide cuisine into smaller and smaller regions within the country.  This is the time when people began debating in earnest the authenticity of their recipes and which dish was a more genuine representation of the region.

This version of Maryland Crab Soup is keeping in line with the more recent innovations in the dishes development and is therefore tagged with a local destination in its name to try to certify its claim to authenticity.*

* Keep in mind that no dish should be dismissed due to its authentic claim, but rather should be tried and enjoyed and judged based solely on the quality of the finished product.  A good soup is to be treasured and savored regardless of its regional claims.

Beyond this point we see only more variations on the same theme.  Some people include whole crabs and some include cabbage while others leave it out.  I am hoping that in the future we will begin to see more of a Latino influence come into the dish since they are beginning to make up more of the local population.  I can see the introduction of cilantro and jalapeno and other ingredients making their way into this dish and changing it once more into something new and exciting.

Too often we lose sight of the idea that any food dish is in a constant state of evolution and we become fixed into thinking that one way is the right way and the only way.  As I have illustrated above, there are indeed many ways to make this dish, ranging from the colonial to the modern industrial style, but the idea of this recipe is always in a state of flux and is different with every cook that makes it.  Taste is a subjective concept and no dish is ever truly made the same way twice.

Homemade Maryland Crab Soup


[2] Treasured Recipes of Old St. Mary’s 1634 – 1959: compiled by the alumni of St. Mary’s Academy Leonardtown, Maryland: 1959

[3] Housekeeping in Old Virginia: Marion Cabell Tyree, John P. Morton and Company Louisville, KY. 1879

[4] Housekeeping in Old Virginia: Marion Cabell Tyree, John P. Morton and Company Louisville, KY. 1879

[5] Eat, drink & be merry in Maryland: Frederick Philip Stieff, john Hopkins University Press 1998

[6] Maryland Cooking: Compiled by the Maryland Home Economics Association: 1948

[7] Treasured Recipes of Old St. Mary’s 1634 – 1959: compiled by the alumni of St. Mary’s Academy Leonardtown, Maryland: 1959

[8] Maryland Menu Magic: The Maryland Federation of Republican Women; Circulation Service Inc. 1968

[9] Shoreline Kitchen Treasures of Riva, Maryland: Sylvan Shores Community Club; North American Press: 1969

[10] Shoreline Kitchen Treasures of Riva, Maryland: Sylvan Shores Community Club; North American Press: 1969

[11] Fond Favorites of the Severna Park Jaycee Wives:  Cookbook Publishers, Inc. 1976

[12] Mrs. Kitching’s Smith Island Cookbook by Francis Kitching & Susan Stiles Dowell: Tidewater Publishers 1981

[13] Dining In – Washington DC Cookbook by Vicky Bagley & Rona Cohen: Peanut Butter Publishing 1982

[14] The Chesapeake Collection: A Treasury of Recipes and Memorabilia from the Maryland’s Eastern Shore by Women’s Club of Denton Inc.:  Wimmer Brothers books 1983

[15] Chesapeake Bay Cooking with John Shields by John Shields: Broadway Books 1998

[16] What Can I Bring? Sharing Good Tastes and Times in Northern Virginia by The Junior League of Northern Virginia: Wimmer Cookbooks A Consolidated Graphics Company 1999

About midatlanticcooking

Chef in the Mid-Atlantic region for over 20 years. Painter, writer and traveler.
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One Response to History of: Maryland Crab Soup

  1. Pingback: History of Maryland Crab Soup from Seafood Restaurant in Baltimore | Costa's Inn

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