Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Seasoning Chesapeake Bay Blue Crabs Before There Was Old Bay

Maryland Blue Crab

Recipe Provenance
The following recipe comes from a collection of recipes found in a manuscript journal located in the H. Furlong Baldwin Library at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore. The manuscript is attributed to Ann Maria Morris and the date of 1824 is written on the inside cover. The recipe below is one of many from the manuscript that will be included in a book I am writing. The book will contain biographical information about Mrs. Morris, an annotated transcript of the entire manuscript as it was written, and a section of modern recipe adaptations.

The Recipe: To Boil Hard Crabs – from Mrs. Harris
Wash quickly in an open basket one or two dozen crabs, put them in an iron pot with half a pint of vinegar, two tables spoonfuls salt, one ground pepper cover the pot tight and do
not let the steam escape—

About the Recipe
No self-repecting Marylander would ever, ever boil their crabs!! Fear not, while Morris's recipe is named "to boil hard crabs" you will notice that the directions actually instruct the cook to steam them. I am not offering a recipe adaptation because this recipe is easy enough to follow in its original form.

About Crabs and Crab Seasoning
The classic culinary crab available in the waters of the Chesapeake Bay and in other regions along the Eastern Seaboard of the USA is the Blue Crab (Callinectes sapidus). Its range extends from the Delaware Bay to Florida.  Though indigenous to this particular area, it was introduced abroad to the Eastern Mediterranean and is now common there, as well. 

This recipe is way too early in time to use a commercial crab seasoning such as Old Bay. Instead, the crabs are seasoned much more simply in vinegar, salt, and pepper. Old Bay was not offered for sale until 1939 when it was developed by a German immigrant, Gustav Brunn, who came to Maryland  when he fled Germany. This recipe for this iconic crab seasoning mix contains mustard, paprika, celery salt, bay leaf, black pepper, crushed red pepper flakes, mace, cloves, allspice, nutmeg, cardamom, and ginger. This is a classic "kitchen pepper" which includes both savory and sweet spices. These mixtures were designed to be used to flavor savory dishes and were very common for centuries. Without Old Bay, crabs were clearly seasoned in a much less complex way, though good crabmeat hardly needs any seasoning at all!