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July 30, 2009

Crab cake bling



In today's guest post, Professor OMG tackles a profound question, one that I addressed obliquely in an earlier post but had no answer for. Trust Owlie to come through for us. Here's Owl Meat Thursday. EL

Something is awry with our humble meat loaf of the sea. On a 1977 Haussner's menu a crab cake sandwich was $2.75, the same price as a sardine sandwich or a "hamburger sandwich." Crab cakes have morphed from a homely local staple to an over-hyped, perplexing, lower-quality luxury good. ...

Crab cakes as big as soft balls? Absurd. Using expensive, less flavorful jumbo lump? Curious. Sneaking vapid pasteurized Asian crab into "Maryland" crab cakes? Preposterous. For years I have wondered why people desire this increasingly inferior and bombastic product. To understand demand for a less tasty, more expensive product, we must consider psychology in addition to economics.
The crab cake is becoming food bling – an object of conspicuous consumption. It is for some an exhibition of vulgar materialism, a lumpen-luxury good, an ironic status symbol. It is a gesture of silly wealth as American as a $12 Grey Goose dirty martini, $300 Nikes, or designer baby clothes. Flavor is now Flavor Flav.
Note: A longer version that includes historical data, quotes, photos, and an explanation of why Tony Danza is like a crab cake is posted here.  

(Photo credit: Getty Images)

Posted by Elizabeth Large at 10:27 AM | | Comments (118)


Its like everything else: It must be constantly upgraded, super-sized, and hyped. Like $100 hamburgers. As Owlie said: "Food Bling." Your only hope is that the overblown overexcess will finally collapse under its own weight to bring the crab cake back to earth as the common food it used to be.

I like using canned, wild red alaskan salmon to make cakes. Great price, healthy and easy to make.

This may have been Owlie's shortest guest post. It's almost a tweet.

On the subject matter, I'm not familar with lump crab being less tasty than other crab meat. It could be true, and if so would be simlar to chicken. Dark meat has more flavor but is cheaper than white meat.

One important detail... I don't think the cow supply has deteriorated, whereas the crabs supply has significantly decreased since the 1970s.

I agree with you Owl, but I'm not horrified or surprised. Everything once "hot" becomes expensive. I noted Bourdain (on everybody's favorite episode) talking about "poor man's chicken" which was veal(!). At one time, lox was cheap, corned beef was cheap, monkfish cheap. lobster was actually thrown away or fed to prisoners!

So, the "blinging" of the crab cake is just a natural progression.

Another interesting thing that I've seen lately is claw meat. When I was a kid it was always shredded and never had any lump component. Now one can buy carefully extracted "whole" claw meat.

I'm not going to the crab blog. Never.

So there.

I don't have data on the crab supply i general. I think it has probably increased wildy due to imports. As for the blue crab production from the Chesapeake area I have a super awesome graph below that says a lot:

It shows MD and VA blue crab harvest separately from 1947-2007

Come Crabby Pete, you know you want to. It's got crab porn.

i just saw the dude in the picture get beat up outside of zissimo's in hampden.

Yes RoCK, it is very short. I love the photo so much that I think I could have made my point using only that. (I had to photoshop out his other bling and put mine in).

I started writing this and couldn't control myself with analogies to Tony Danza, etc. as you can see from the longer version here. I wrote this version from scratch like an abstract.

If for no other reason, check out the old Haussner's menu on my blog. It's form 1977 but it looks like 1937 from some of the odd foods there. I guess little Laura Lee's sardine sandwiches in her David Cassidy lunchbox don't seem so weird now.

The word "bling" in itself is fascinating. To me it's completely negative but to much of America it is a positive thing. It's like a Rorschach test.

unbelievaboh - I saw that too ;)

I was once told by a Phillip's exec that if they used Chesapeake Bay crabs exclusively, the entire annual production of the bay would be used up by the Inner Harbor restaurant location *alone* in a matter of a month or two (I can't remember the exact time).

That's why they started to source crab meat from the Gulf, Venezuela/South America and Asia.

No doubt... fresh, local meat makes the hands-down best cake.

Damn... Now I want a crab cake.

Hal and I discussed whether the jumbo and collosal lump meat is less flavorful than back fin or "special" and we really couldn't come to a conclusion because maybe it has to do with the source and whether it is pastyeurized. Anybody ever try different types at one sitting?

I had some sort of pasta dish a La Scala once that had what must have been collosal lump meat in it. Pieces the size of a boxer's thumb. I actually had to ask what I was eating. It tasted vaguely like bland lobster without the lobster texture. It sure didn't taste like crab. It looked impressive but tasted like nothing.

It's much more difficult to write something this short and get the point across, especially from a complex point of view. Bravo, Owlie. Bravo, too, for the longer version.

I woke up in love this morning,
I woke up in love this morning,
Went to sleep with you on my mind.

What is amazing is that they've managed to jack the price, due to lack of supply, while finding a supply of inferior product. Got to love capitalism.

Joyce, the veal pretending to be chicken is called "city chicken." I grew up on the stuff, you can only find it in a few Polish restaurants in Hamtramck, where it has, oddly, become very popular the last few years.

told by a Phillip's exec that if they used Chesapeake Bay crabs exclusively, the entire annual production of the bay would be used up by the Inner Harbor restaurant location *alone* in a matter of a month or two

Hmmm.... that sounds insane. I will assume that the graph on Owlie's blog is correct. It shows that the current amount of crabs harvested in Maryland and Virginia is 40 million pounds.

That would mean that Philips' Inner Harbor sells (assuming two months) 40,000,000/60 = 667,000 pounds of crabs a day. They must have a hell of a turnover of tables there.

Let's see 20 million lbs are harvested from MD and MD has 5.6 million people. So that's uh only 3.5 pounds per person per year. That's not much.

So are you saying that every "Maryland" crab cake sold is fake? ow can uou call it Maryland if it's from China?

so what your saying is CRABCAKES are pretensious? Look at YOU with YOUR stoooopid fancy words that you have to LOOK UP. I say YOU are PRETENSIOUS jerk wad. PEOPLE LIKE STUFF!!!! Why you have to HATE ON PEOPLE???? Don't CHOKE on your CAVIAR and other stuff like THAT!!!!

At a loss for words but laughing. Just give me time!

Yep. It's hot outside. The hoodlums are staying off the street by showing us how much knowledge they've retained since school let out...

Random posts like that always makes me chuckle.

what kind of STRANGE LANGAUGE are YOU wirintg in with your HIPPY hireogliphicks Yumpor? maybe YOU came to MOCK but I CAME TO ROCK!!!! IM gonna EAT A CRABCAKE the SIZE of YOUR GIANT stoopid HEAD!!!

Get RID of THESE FOREINERS and KEEP our CRABCAKES FREE from stoopid FAKE jerkwad professors. If I WANTED to rwead a bunch of stoopid professor JUNK I would goto some professor place. TAKE THAT!!!!

Thanks for the info, Maggi -- for a moment there, I was afraid that Springs1 had moved to Glen Burnie.

Lissa, when I was growing up in Pittsburgh, my mom made "city chicken", too. I never understood why she made faux chicken when she had perfectly good real chicken. You're the first person I've met outside of Pittsburgh who has eaten it. (Not that it's a popular topic of conversation with friends.)

the burnie ROCKS fools

In much the same way as Nugent rocks, Anonymous?

Hi glen burnie ROCKS, I see you must really, really love crabcakes as much as you love meth, and that's an awful lot. I can tell.

There's another blog that's a LOT of fun-- it's called Midnight Sun! Sam will be happy to talk to you. He REALLY likes it when people write in CAPITAL LETTERS and use lots of exclamation points!!!! Hurry-- he's expecting you right now! Have FUN!!!

glen burnie ROCKS sounds suspiciously synthetic, particularly in the second comment. .

To Anonymous @ 2:16 PM: Yes, Glen Burnie rocks -- but whether you do is an entirely different matter.



now you can ALL fo back to your jazz and pepperage farm cookies and puny tiny-baby crabcakes.

Could be the love child of Springs1 and Tim Lumber.

Hold your horses. I for one would like to see GBROCKS write some restaurant reviews. And I like the creative capitalization. You can almost smell the neurons frying. Tweek on tweeker.

As for picking on little YumPo, we cannot abide by such things here in the Pork Guild. Consider yourself warned.

HEY GB ROCKS!!! PLEASE don't Leave. Maybe YOU and ME can get TOgether for a SOFTBALL Sized CRABCAKE sometime!! AND I can show you all THE TRICKS I have Up my sleeve WHEN i eat OUT!!

Well done, YumPo and VDP!

Uh oh, you guys needs to stop saying SPRINGS1 and Tim Lumber or you may summon them from their methy meth something.

VDP, I see you're still not tired of playing with your shiny new pork toy. Get a room. ;-P

I, for one, like your hippy hireogliphicks YumPo ; - )

That one made me utter a Scooby Doo "Huh?"

Amanda C, "shiny new pork toy"? I resemble that remark. But it sounds vaguely obscene. (Have you seen the doggy toy on the Unleashed blog yet? Don't go there.)

Don't say I didn't warn you.

LQTM. I guess pork toy could seem salacious if your mind is so inclined. Oh no, now I have to visit dog town

Thank you Trixie. I think glen burnie ROCKS needs an intervention with the DVD.

Hey RayRay, where have you been. You have been missed!

Amanda, seriously, DO NOT go there! It's too late, isn't it? You tried YumPo, you tried.

Oh yeah, and who has the Pepperidge Farm cookies? I want some. Are they the Milanos?

Hold me closer

I think Glen Burnie is being portrayed in an unfair negative light. Perhaps we need Tony Bourdain to feature this area and tell the world about the real Glen Burnie.

too late. bad yumpo, bad yumpo.

Hope it's mint Milanos!

GBR, I love hippy chicks! hip hip hip hippy chicks!

Crazy busy @ work. I actually have to (GULP) work in the shop!!!

Maybe you could start a dog escort service, Yum.

Amanda, I warned you. Trixie warned you. Now that image is burned into your brain and will haunt you forever (or at least for the next few hours).

Have some tasty pork. It makes everything better.

Ooooo, this is some rough trade. Brutish hip-hoppy boys with toys and now agro hooligans from the hinterlands. Smack me bum, it's a glorious day. Viv, put some more maize in the kettle

I know, I know, I can't resist a dare.

I think I may need Tony Danza to hold closer.

Check out the "raw beef and onions" on the Haussner's menu. You won't see that on a menu today. The food police would be in a tizy.
Good fresh ground sirloin on pumpernickel with sweet raw onion, salt and pepper, to die for. Along with a cold beer of course.

The menu is great. It's like the contents of a food museum. I wonder what the menu looked like when they closed. I only went there once. It was weird. I wish I could get a Haussner's menu from the 40s or 50s. Any ideas?

Did people actually like Haussner's? I guess so. I have to admit I went there ironically. Got the hassenpfeffer, another ironic choice, due to Bugs Bunny. Yes, I'm nuts

I can get raw kibbee in Detroit, Anonymous. In fact, my favourite place to get it is Al Amir's, where Bourdain went. He had some. It is to die for.

But, yeah, raw beef is lovely. Got to trust the cook, though.

I'm sorry I missed Haussner's. I think I would have liked it there.

OMG -I have a Haussner's menu from 1997. What can I do for you?

Anon: Nice. Could you photograph or scan and send the images to EL? She can forward them to me. Or post on a photo site or blog. That would be great. I can use them in a future post. Thank you.

OMG - will do.

I always wondered how the first person to eat a crab decided that was a good idea? Or a lobster. Or Never on Sundays.

Joyce, is that "Hippy" chicks or "Hippie" chicks? One is the type of woman Paul Bunyan could love, the other is the emblem of an era.

Did people actually like Haussner's? I guess so. I have to admit I went there ironically

I think when Haussner's was in its prime, irony was not one of the things the people looked for in a restaurant.

It was a true Baltimore experience. The last time we went, when it had been announced that the place was closing, Helen Delich Bentley was there with a drink in one hand and tears in her eyes.

Doh! Caught by the spelling police! Yes, RIE, it's Hippie. Although hippy chicks not bad either in their own right!

City chicken is also a specialty in the Akron/Canton area and is sold in most of the grocery stores & butcher shops.

So what is City Chicken? I'm missing something

Good to know, Hotdog Barker. I actually get out that way fairly often.

VoodooPork, city chicken is cubes of veal, lightly breaded, on a stick. Depression food. My parents grew up during the Depression, so their comfort food was stuff like city chicken, old bread and gravy, jello salad, etc.

VDP, according to Wikipedia, city chicken's popularity seems to be concentrated in the Northeast and Midwest, in areas almost coexistent with (dare we say it?) Rust Belt locales. In the Depression, real chicken was fairly pricey, hence the creation of city chicken; even today, with dirt-cheap chicken prices, higher-priced meats (pork tenderloin, veal, or beef) are still used.

And, thus, my mom's 60's find of "veal on a stick", I'm quite sure.

That's weird since I would figure that veal would be 2-3 times the prices of chicken and more tasty. Unless it was really hobo chicken, ie., cubes of hobo.

Mmm... you can really taste the tattered tweed hobo jacket. I don't even want to know what hobo gravy is.

Joyce W., I can recall when swordfish in the 1960s was so cheap that we ate it every week (or so it seemed). I was so sick of the stuff that I actually welcomed the FDA's 1969 ban on swordfish with high levels of mercury. That ban pretty well killed the East Coast swordfish industry, and led to today's higher prices.

VP, chicken was very expensive in the Depression.

I think chicken was very expensive, relative to other meats, until after World War II. It's my understanding that Chicken Fricassee was Abe Lincoln's favorite dish, and it was considered something served for special occassions.

Swordfish is one of four fishes that the FDA recommends that pregnant women not eat.

Is it just me or has the right hand column completely disappeared here and in the main page? Anybody home? I checked another browser and same thing

Never mind. It's back

OMG- you people rant on and on endlessly. I want to vent on two topics
!. Is anyone aware of a new patented process whereby foreign crab body meat is being formed under pressure somehow to become perfectly matched jumbo lumps? I saw it with my own eyes last year using pasteurized Asian jumbo lump. Every lump the exact same size.
2. If you make your crabcakes using Old Bay, how can you tell the different? All I ever taste is the seasoning, that to me is what makes a great crabcake. Any how, I prefer crabcakes made with
backfin or lump

A most excellent comment mdtopdad.

The shape processing thing makes obvious sense. I'm surprised that nobody thought of it before.

Ta da. Here is the patent info on Phillips's machine that makes big lumps out of smaller pieces of crab meat. Amazing.

Now they can charge exhorbitant prices for jumbo lump and collosal lump that is just mashed together from small pieces.

That is not "jumbo lump crab". That's a tumor.

I'd rather eat meatballs.

I wonder if they can still call it jumbo lump?

Sad sad bling. Now that stuff is like the cubic zirconium of crab meat.

Thanks for the tip mdtopdad. I couldn't find any mention of this process on the Phillips web site or elsewhere. You can learn a lot from the Patent Office web site.

MDtopdad, you are now one of "you people" and you are perpetuating the on and on endlessly thing. I'm just sayin...

you are also not right about Old Bay. When used in proper amounts and made with good product, Old Bay enhances crab cakes (and just about any other food there is) without overpowering. It is only when it is shaken in mindlessly without measuring that it can overpower.

That method is only appropriate for steaming shrimp with shells on.

Yet another reason for having Appellation d'Origine Controlee.

I agree completely with mdtopdad on Old Bay. It's great smell, but a terrible flavor.. Does that make sense? I like the way my hands smell when I'm peeling shrimp, It's a sledgehammer as an ingredient.

I think applying French terms to local blue crabs is kind of against the entire Bay culture.

The idea is good, though. What is wrong with knowing where your food is coming from? After all, when I make meatballs, I can give you the street address of the cow the meat came from.

Didn't mean to be gauche. Please forgive my gaffe.

If there is a widely accepted English translation of the French term, I'll gladly use it.

Laura Lee, I would never accuse you of fabrication d'une erreur, but c'est nécessaire pour employer le contexte correct.

How about "accurate and useful food labels?"

This is going to sound nuts but is there any sane world where you could combine crab meat and chocolate? And bacon?

And Vodka?

Don't laugh RayRay, I was thinking about crab-infused vodka the other day.

The best "Maryland Crab Cakes" I have tried outside of Baltimore was in Atlanta, Georgia and Louisville, Kentucky. They were fried and the meat was definetly not lump. Also, there were no fillers or peppers, onions, etc. like the chefs in fancy DC restaurants like to use. Though I must say, there was a restaurant on P Street in Dupont Circle that made a good crab cake.

Correction to my last post. I couldn't remember the name of the pub in Louisville where I had the Maryland Crab Cake. I did a some searching on the web and discovered the place is no longer a pub, but is now a bistro. The new restaurant does serve a crab cake, but, it is pan seared :( I guess I won't be going there on my next Derby trip.

Stupid question... is there such a thing in the U.S. as a non-Maryland crab cake? Is there a Cleveland crab cake, for example

Stupid question... is there such a thing in the U.S. as a non-Maryland crab cake?

Yes there is. In Alaska, made with Alaskan king crabs.

I've heard that only the leg meat is good on king crabs.

Also, Wikipedia claims that Dungeness crab cakes are popular in the Pacific Northwest and Northern California.

Yes, hmpstd. My friends in Seattle say that they'd put their Dungeness crab cake up against our blue crab cakes anytime.

Such silliness.

I've had dungeness crab cakes in Seattle. They're not even close

VP, it was probably Asian dungeness crab.

That's a dope chain there man. Any ideas where I could get somethiing like that? I;m a DJ and that would represent good.

Owlie, now is the time to take this crab soda idea to Jones Soda. If crab cakes are for those who like crabs but don't like to pick them, then crab soda is perfect for those who like crabs but don't want to chew them.

Crab vodka not crab soda

OMG, sorry I'm late.
I'm delighted to see you put your hand to a Crab Cake Effect post, however suspiciously measured -- and I mean that as a compliment, you sly old owl.

Oh, gods, please not Jones soda! I still haven't recovered from trying that salmon pate soda 4 or 5 years ago. Yech!!!!

As lovely BG says, everybody loves a crab cake.

Having spent much time in San Francisco, and eaten a lot of Dungeness, I think Maryland blue is sweeter and more flavorful.

Finally, after all these years, others who know what the hell "city chicken" is/was.
My mom fed us a LOT of that in Pittsburgh (age birth-12). Nobody I've ever asked in Balto or now in FL had ever heard of it. When I said "breaded veal on a stick" they told me I was crazy!
Thank you Yumpo, Lissa and Joyce W. for letting me know I'm not crazy.
BTW, sometimes mom made a sauce out of Campbell's tomato soup with I'm not sure what else, and poured it over my city chicken.

It has been more than 6 months since I wrote to Steve Phillips and told him what a rip-off his crabcake dinner is at his Inner Harbor restaurant. It was $29 for two, and the crabcakes were "fair" at best! And medium size. They were served with cole slaw; everything else was a la carte! I had to ask for rolls! When I didn't hear from Mr. Philips within a couple of months, I wrote to him again. No response. I personally think the crabcake dinner at Phillips Inner Harbor is a tourist rip-off. I heard that local people know it and don't go there. Have you heard anything about Phillips Inner Harbor? And their crabcakes?

Phillips Inner Harbor or Phelps Inner Harbor?

Mr. Boyd, it seems like the only things we're hearing these days about Phillips Inner Harbor's crab cakes are from your incessant posts. We bloggers do not handle correspondence to and/or from Phillips, so we are at a loss as to why you keep asking us to respond on behalf of Phillips.

Ahoy ahoy ... Avast ye bloggers. Please forward all mail to me at the Phillips Tower in Phillipsville. Keep on bloggin' mateys!

It clear that Mr. Boyd had a bad experience at Phillips, and he thinks he can get back at the restaurant by reposting the same message again and again. I expect this tactic will be highly effective, and by next week we will reading about the bankruptcy of Phillips.

Anyway, I don't think $29 for two fair crab cakes is the culinary crime of the year. Is it clippy, sure, but it is not unusual.

You've got game today Laura Lee.

Why, thank you Amanda C.

It was awhile ago, about 10 years ago, but I had dungeness crab cakes at Alioto's in SF, in Fishermans Wharf. They were okay, but not as good as a MD crab cake.

Just my .02

Sorry, I'm not a good blogger, when there is so much to choose from. I got lost in the blogs and didn't think my message came up. Evidently it came up more than once. I think it was Laura who told me which site (title) to try. Many thanks. I still think the lack of a response from Phillips headquarters was in bad taste. (pun intended!)

I don't eat crab cakes - or lobster - or fish - or shrimp.
Yes, I am from Maryland.

I was just strolling down Suspicion Lane ... They put hateful chemicals in scallops to artificially plump them up by retaining more water. I wonder if they do the same to lump crab meat? I bet they do.

That is the desert. From here until we reach the other side, no water but what we carry with us. For the camels, no water at all. If the camels die, we die. And in twenty days they will start to die.

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About this blog
Richard Gorelick was appointed The Baltimore Sun's restaurant critic in September 2010. Before joining the paper staff fulltime, he contributed freelance criticism and features articles about food to area and regional publications. Along the way, he dispatched for short-distance trucking companies, shilled for cultural non-profits, and assisted in cognitive neurology research – never the subject, always the control.

He takes restaurants seriously but not himself, and his favorite restaurant is the one you love, too.

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