By Cecil Scaglione
Baltimore MD— It was time to test the proclamation, made in several television shows, that this town on the Patapsco River is the “Crab Cake Capital of the Continent.”
We’d sampled crab cakes over the years prepared in kitchens throughout Pennsylvania, New York, Louisiana, and Virginia. Our only rule was: eschew any that involved the “F” word frozen.
We set up our central command post in the Peabody Court Hotel overlooking Washington Square, the platform for the nation’s first official monument to our first president that caps the tiny Mount Vernon District. It was built in 1829 by Robert Mills, the same man who a couple of decades later designed the D.C. obelisk honoring Washington.
Across the square is Mount Vernon Place Methodist Church. A wall-mounted plaque commemorates this as the site of Francis Scott Key’s death.
We initiated our crab-cake mission at Phillips Harborplace restaurant overlooking the inner harbor. This outlet is part of the family firm that opened its first dining room in 1956 and currently makes more than 100,000 crab cakes a day for distribution around the globe. Our server, Jacqueline Richardson hailed from the nation’s capital 35 miles south but moved to “Bawlmer” because “the cost of living here is half the price it is in D.C.”
As we munched on our miniature crab cakes and a soft-shell-crab sandwich, our server said the key to these seafood succulents is simple: “They’re 98 percent crab meat and prepared with tender loving care.”
As we ambled back to the hotel, we stopped to ask a local soaking in the sun from stoop of his townhouse for his favorite crab-cake 000000.
“I’ve never had a bad meal in Little Italy,” he said. He just finds a restaurant that isn’t busy in the eight inner-city blocks that boasts more than two dozen restaurants “and get served well because the competition is so keen.”
We opted for Aldo’s, where we were introduced to the jumbo-lump crab cake. No one worth their crab-cake credentials will settle for less.
Every crab has two large cartilage-free muscles, one on each side, that power and propel their rear fins. These are used for the top-of-the-line jumbo-lump crab cakes.
The next morning, we trundled down to the harborfront, where the tall ship USS Constellation, America’s last all-sail warship anchors the revitalized harbor that just a half hour or so from the nation’s capital.
Water taxis depot here and get you anywhere the harbor. Our first stop was Tide Point, where we boarded a jitney to Fort McHenry, the birthplace of our national anthem.
The garrison at this fort three miles from the city’s commercial core held off an attack by the British fleet in September 1814. The 25-hour siege was witnessed by a young attorney named Francis Scott Key. When he saw the 32-foot U.S. banner still blowing in the wind behind the fort’s cannons after the British departed, he wrote a poem called “The Defense of Fort McHenry.” The words later were tacked onto the melody of a bawdy British beer-drinking ballad and became “The Star Spangled Banner.”
Our next water-taxi segment was to Fell’s Point, the former Polish section east of downtown that’s touted for providing the best ice cream in the city. We picked up a couple of take-out dishes of ice cream at spooned our walk back to the inner harbor through Little Italy. We wanted to see the neighborhood in the daytime to get a glimpse of a Baltimore tradition painted screen doors.
As screen doors became popular during the 20th century, passers-by would peer into the houses that were built right up to the sidewalk’s edge. Residents painted scenes on the screen doors as a
tromp d’oeil to distract the eye and have the outsiders look at them rather than through the screen.
That evening, we followed the red-brick road around the inner harbor past the National Aquarium at Baltimore and the Maryland Science Center to get to the Rusty Scupper to continue our pursuit of crab-cake perfection. The crab cakes there were tanged with sweet mustard.
However, we saved what was repeatedly reported as the best for our last day.
The “Queen of Crab Cakes” worked daily at the Lexington Market, which hasn’t closed its doors since 1792. This longest continuously operating market in the country is a 15-minute walk from
the Peabody. We took longer as we detoured through the Westminster Church burial grounds.
Edgar Alan Poe’s grave there is marked by a concrete stone carved with a black bird and one of the writer’s most famous lines “Quoth the Raven, ‘Nevermore.'”
And then we learned the final crab-cake “secret” as revealed by the folks at Faidley’s seafood stand that’s been staffed by members of the same family since 1886. Boiling takes the flavor and fat out of crabs, we were told, so most crustaceans in these cakes are steamed broiled.
But Faidley’s top of the line entrees are fried, which gives them a crusty exterior and moist interior. Fry them like a steak, they said, very hot to seal in the juices and flavors.”
They offer the traditional claw-meat crab cakes as well as jumbo-lump.
It takes about 24 crabs to make one pound of jumbo-lump crab meat. Each crab cake uses about six or seven ounces whatever your hands can hold. They’re bigger than a baseball but smaller
than a softball.
The rest is Tender Loving Care. The results are Cosmic Crustacean Cuisine. And a new crab-cake rule: eschew them all until we return to Baltimore.
About Cecil Scaglione: Cecil is a former San Diego Union-Tribune writer and for a number of years has been a world traveler, writer and currently a syndicated columnist.