I Got Crabs–Twice!

(For pics, see my Flickr page.)

Turns out Peter and I didn’t have to travel halfway around the world to slurp up the milk of human kindness–we just had to take the three-hour train trip to Baltimore.

Travelin’ fools that we are, we popped down there Saturday to attend a wedding. Food and transport geeks that we are, Peter charted a path that involved light rail and crab cakes before the wedding.

The light rail train was pulling away as we reached the tracks, which meant we had to abandon that plan and take a taxi, where our chatty driver said he wasn’t so into Faidley’s, but he always swore by G&M on Nursery Road. His only complaint was that it was a long drive, and by the time he ended up delivering all the crab cakes that his friends had ordered, “My own crab cake done got cold!” he declared, hitting his steering wheel for emphasis of the cruel paradox. I discreetly wrote down the name of the place while he was talking.

In we marched to Faidley’s, on the back side of Lexington Market. These crab cakes are so fucking tremendously life-changing that we’ve even ordered them for delivery to NYC–at horrific expense, as you might imagine. But eating at Faidley’s is really part of the experience. There’s the crab-cake part, but there’s also a whole seafood market part, and a huge raw bar. I don’t know why, but I love to see “normal” people eating stuff like oysters, lobster and crabs. Once upon a time, these weren’t luxury food–they were just the things people scooped out of the ocean they happened to be living by. So it seems only right to enjoy them standing up, with a can of Natty Boh and a squeeze-bottle of hot sauce.

But first: the crab cakes. To do a side-by-side comparison, we ordered a pure lump one and a backfin one–the backfin is smaller bits of more shredded meat, and five bucks cheaper. I think I liked it a little better, as you could get a whole bite of mixed texture, whereas the lump was so big and lumpy that you wound up with only one lump of crab on your fork.

But the taste–if you haven’t eaten these things, true Maryland crab cakes in the state of Maryland, well, do it now. They are sweet and buttery and purely crabby. Nowhere outside Maryland seems to get this, and chefs are always ruining perfectly good crab by putting their own “signature touch” on crab cakes. Bullshit–Maryland already did its “signature touch” and anyone else should get their grubby little hands off. Crab cakes should get DOC status.

Anyway: We also ordered, because we could, a soft-shell crab sandwich. I also love anything called a “sandwich” which is really just said item balanced on a couple of pieces of white bread. There was a little lettuce here as well, but that’s beside the point. And the point was a whole crab, battered and fried–looking perfectly lifelike except for the tasty little crust he was encased in.

The guys next to us at the long stand-up bar tables had ordered sandwiches as well. One guy picked his up to eye level, peered at it with a triumphant glare, and said, “I’m gonna eat you!” The fried crab’s pinchers poked out of each side of the white bread, helpless in their batter. Soon, he made good on his promise.

Then we proceeded a few steps to the raw bar and ordered up just half a dozen clams and oysters. The clams set me off on a terrible memory hunt–I swear I ate the most amazingly sweet and delicious clams sometime in the last six months, making me realize what all the fuss was about. I can’t remember where, or in what form. These clams were not the most sensational, nor were the oysters, but they were ridiculously fat. And they tasted great with beer. (The raw bar was out of soda, so we had to drink beer–really.)

We wandered out the far side of Lexington Market, past slabs of steaks, piles of snickerdoodles, rows of cakes, and even a nice stack of pig ears.

Then we hopped our light rail out to BWI airport–the wedding was at the neaby Ramada. The tremors of the light rail are good for digestion, I think.

The next morning, we woke up a little hungover, and hungry. The Ramada’s breakfast service looked unappealing, and in the course of the previous night’s revelry–in between Peter’s cop friends dancing to Meatloaf and Abba in equal measure–we got confirmation that G&M was the shit, and it was only “one exit away” from our hotel. (Ah, the charms of rural navigation…)

In the cab on the way to G&M, we of course talked about crab cakes. Our driver–like everyone else we’d asked–absolutely loved G&M, and got a little misty-eyed about it. “Oh, Sunday’s the best day for eating crab! Well, actually, crab cakes are good any day, of course–but on Sunday you really have time to enjoy them.” And here’s where the kindness really started to flow: Turned out we were in the cab of a woman whose mother had been a champion cook (her funeral lasted three hours, due to people standing up and praising her coleslaw), and she wasn’t so bad herself. She figured that yes, we could make crab cakes ourselves. So on the way to G&M, Amelia told us her technique. Not much goes into a quality crab cake, but just about the time she hit parsley flakes (“they’re only in there to make it look nice, really”) I realized I would certainly forget one essential ingredient.

We popped out at G&M, and arranged for Amelia to pick us up in half an hour to take us to the train station.

In that half-hour, we conducted serious comparison studies on the subject of Maryland Crab Cakes. We were not distracted by the fact that G&M made no indication from the outside that it even sold crab cakes.

Nor were we distracted by the baklava and Greek salads and massive list of sub sandwiches on the menu. (The owners appeared to be from the northernmost island in the Dodecanese, for the record.) After all, “crab cake” can only ever take up one line on a menu. There’s no real variant, except at Faidley’s, where they come in lump and backfin. Amelia had suggested the clam strips as well, but there was a glitch in our order, and we never got them.

G&M’s crab cakes were a different breed. Where Faidley’s stood up straight and tall, G&M’s slumped messily over the white roll they were served on. Faidley’s has a shameless butteriness, and maybe even a touch of sugar; and you can taste the mustard they put in the mix. G&M’s tasted like crab and nothing else. They were bound together with an almost souffle-like egg mixture, dotted with little flecks of Old Bay seasoning. I don’t know if they were better than Faidley’s, but they were fucking tasty.

We also were able to do right by Tamara, who’d been consumed by bitterness the day before when we SMS’d a pic of our Faidley’s spread. Faidley’s is closed on Sundays, but G&M was wide open, and happen to pack a to-go box with half a dozen of the guys–half a dozen because it didn’t seem worth packing just one or two in styrofoam with cold packs. (“There’s mayonnaise in them,” the counter girl told me sternly when I implied I might carry them home unrefrigerated.)

On the way out, a woman in the parking lot spied our box. “You can really get those to go?” she asked, wistfully. She stroked her chin, clearly doing the math. (Crab cakes are pricey–$12 for an 8 oz. delight. You do our math–and add a good $45 for cab fare.) “I live in Virginia now,” she said, “and boy, do I miss these.” Peter allowed how he was in the same boat, living in New York. “But in New York,” she pointed out, “at least you’ve got a lot of other stuff to choose from–pizza, Chinese food, hot dogs, corned-beef sandwiches…” We got a little sad imagining culinary life in Virginia, especially if you don’t like barbecue much, as this woman said. “I love seafood–that’s all I want!” she sighed as we got in the cab.

Amelia cheered us right back up. While we were eating, she’d been writing down her recipe for us. Of course no real amounts, but that goes without saying.

Here’s what goes in a quality crab cake, per a kindhearted taxi driver in Anne Arundel County: 1 lb. lump crab (“MD only”), “1 egg raw,” bread crumbs or crackers, Old Bay seasoning, mustard, mayo, baking powder, parsley flakes. Bake at 450 degrees.

But what to do if we had problems? Oh, there was Amelia’s name and phone number at the bottom, so we could call if we were confused.

Peter and I got out of the cab blinking back tears, toting our little box of G&M wonders and smiling like idiots. We took those crab cakes straight over to Tamara’s, and she forgave us for being so mean to her via cellphone the day before. See, New Yorkers can be sweet and kind too.

(For pics, see my Flickr page.)