In Maryland, crab cakes are practically a religion, which means it’s almost heretical not to have them on your menu. Just ask Spike Gjerde, chef and co-owner of Baltimore’s Woodberry Kitchen. “As a young chef at my first restaurant here, I wanted to make a ‘statement’ to signal how different we were from everything that came before, so I settled on the bold stroke of not serving a crab cake,” Gjerde recalls. “One painfully dead night, word came back to the kitchen that we just sat a table of four, and the president of the city council was in the party. But before bread or water hit the table, menus were closed and seats emptied. ‘They wanted crab cakes’ was the four-word epitaph for the table. Lesson learned.”
Long a staple of Maryland, crab cakes are traditionally prepared with Chesapeake Bay blue crabs, which have been making a comeback after reaching a record low in 2007. A winter survey by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources found populations had nearly doubled since new management practices took hold. “We get fresh Chesapeake Bay crab from April to early November,” Gjerde says. Different picking houses may produce crab that is more or less “clean,” but the meat still needs a final check, and the chef is particular about the process. “The hallmark of a great crab cake is that it’s devoid of shell but with the lumps intact,” he says. At the restaurant, Gjerde uses a black light to illuminate any remaining bits of shell. But for the home cook, his advice is simple: Take your time.
And while Gjerde has now embraced crab cakes on his menu, he doesn’t make concessions when it comes to their quality, serving the cakes only during the season. “We want our crab cakes to reflect the true taste of the local crab, and our customers understand that,” he says. “We’re all trying to listen to what the bay is telling us.”