Young and Hungry

Maryland Crab Fakes

Maryland Crab Fakes: The Bait and Switch Behind the Signature Dish

Maryland jumbo lump crab cake appears three times on the menu at seafood-centric American restaurant P.J. Clarke’s, at 16th and K streets NW.

“Do you know where the crab in the crab cake comes from?” I ask our server as I order the $34 entrée, which consists of two fist-sized patties with tartar sauce and a side of sweet slaw.

“It’s all local,” he says. “The exact fisherman’s boat I can get for you.”

Another night, when I order the $17.85 Maryland jumbo lump crab cake sandwich and ask another server the same question, I get a similar answer: “Maryland,” he tells me.

In fact, the bulk of the crab at P.J. Clarke’s comes from Indonesia, says chef Scott Chatterton. Once a week, the restaurant gets “a few pounds” of Maryland crab and blends it in.

The little-known truth is that our region’s signature dish is rarely regional. More than 43 million pounds of crab meat are imported into Maryland each year, but the Maryland crab meat industry only produces about 700,000 pounds. That means less than 2 percent is from Maryland. The rest is shipped in from Venezuela, China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Mexico, and the Gulf Coast.

“For everybody that’s saying they have Maryland crab cake, it’s just not possible,” says Steve Vilnit, fisheries marketing director for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

Some chefs, including Chatterton, argue that “Maryland crab cake” refers to the style, not the ingredient. And it’s not illegal to call these Maryland crab fakes “Maryland crab cakes.” But the phrasing is misleading, especially at a time when consumers want to buy local and know where their food comes from.

Vilnit wants to bring a little bit of transparency to the marketing of crab cakes. The state fisheries service recently launched True Blue, a voluntary program to promote restaurants and retailers that actually use Maryland crab.

The initiative was inspired by a blind taste test of Venezuelan, Indonesian, Chinese, and Maryland crab at the Maryland State Fair last summer. More than 900 members of the public voted, and the overwhelming favorite was the Maryland crab.

“That started a discussion with a lot of people that the crab cakes in Maryland might not be Maryland crab meat,” Vilnit says. “People just couldn’t believe that.”

To qualify as True Blue, restaurants must use a minimum of 75 percent Maryland crab meat in their annual purchases. The reason it’s not 100 percent is because fresh Maryland crab meat is only available during about 75 percent of the year. Maryland’s fisheries service will do random invoice spot checks throughout the year to ensure the restaurants have purchased Maryland crab meat recently. The restaurants can then use a True Blue logo on their menus and marketing materials.

So far, 67 restaurants and retailers are certified as True Blue. But Vilnit has just begun recruitment.

Why do Washington-area chefs widely consider Maryland blue crabs to taste the best? The colder waters of the mid-Atlantic coast cause the crabs to store more fat, which lends to a sweeter flavor. “Crab is like truffles... It’s hard to put your finger on what that taste is,” says Equinox chef Todd Gray, who uses exclusively Maryland crab in his crab cakes. (If it’s not in season, it’s not on the menu.) “The meat is a little tighter and obviously sweeter. It has a little brininess to it. And there is something salty, a very gentle saltiness.”

Greg Casten, owner of local seafood distributor Profish, sells crab meat to over a thousand restaurants in the area. He says no more than 75 of his customers use only fresh Maryland crab meat, although the number is slowly growing.

After all, superior taste and texture come at a premium. Maryland crab can cost up to 33 percent more than crab from other places, depending on availability and the season.

P.J. Clarke’s Chatterton estimates that the $34 crab cake entree on his menu might cost $5 to $10 more with 100 percent Maryland crab. “People wouldn’t buy the crab cakes because they’d be too expensive,” he says.

As for branding non-local crab cakes as “Maryland crab cakes,” it’s unclear that most diners realize the phrasing refers to Maryland-style. “Restaurant people that go out often will know,” Chatterton says.

But the general consumer?

“Maybe not necessarily.”

If my experiences at P.J. Clarke’s are any indication, there’s a good chance that even the servers might make wrong assumptions.

The confusion is understandable, since chefs across the region disagree about just what constitutes the Old Line State’s recipe. They all seem to agree that Maryland-style crab cakes should have minimal bread filler, but ingredients and cooking techniques diverge from there.

On a recent outing to Busboys & Poets’ U Street NW location, I ordered the $24 Maryland crab cakes and again asked the server where the crab comes from.

“Frankly, from China. It says it’s from Maryland, but it’s from China,” she said.

She’s still off. The crab at all Busboys & Poets locations actually comes from Venezuela, says director of operations Hicham Baamrani. (The restaurants do not use any Chinese crab meat.)

Baamrani also tells me that Maryland crab cake refers to “Maryland-style.” But do his customers realize that?

“I’m not sure, to be honest with you,” Baamrani says, then adds: “I don’t think it’s misleading.”

Maryland crab isn’t the only food whose region is frequently mislabeled for marketing purposes. The U.S. Champagne Bureau estimates that nearly half of the sparkling white wines labeled as Champagne in America aren’t actually from the Champagne region of France. Coffee labeled as Kona coffee isn’t always from the Big Island of Hawaii. And many pizzerias call their pies Neapolitan, even if they don’t have certification from the Associazone Verace Pizza Napoletana, which has strict rules about the type of flour, dough kneading technique, and type of oven that must be used to produce a true Neapolitan pizza.

Mislabeling is also pervasive in the larger seafood world—not just at the restaurant or retailer level, but by distributors and fisherman too. International ocean conservation nonprofit Oceana released a seafood fraud report last year, in which it ran DNA tests on fish in Boston supermarkets and found that 18 percent of the samples were mislabeled. The organization followed up with tests of seafood at grocery stores, restaurants, and sushi bars in the Los Angeles area and found that 55 percent of the 119 samples were mislabeled.

Born-and-bred Marylander Richard Young, who’s been crabbing commercially since 1991, says Maryland’s True Blue program is a step in the right direction. After all, it’s his reputation and product on the line.

“The Maryland crabbers work very hard to provide a premium product, and their product gets confused with the out-of-state product, and they don’t really get the credit for it,” Young says. “When the Maryland crab season is closed in January and February, I see places with signs up that say Maryland crab. Now, you can’t possibly have Maryland crab when the Maryland season is closed. But they get away with doing that.”

Even Young says he’s been duped by restaurant labeling, but wouldn’t specify where.

“I tried the crab cake and it wasn’t very good. It didn’t have lumps; it had stringy meat. You could tell that it wasn’t Maryland crab,” he says. “It may not have even been crab.”

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to hungry@washingtoncitypaper.com.

  • Gabby

    Great story idea. This is just the kind of story I was looking forward to in the new Y&H. can't wait to read more!

  • Guest

    Excellent story

  • #1 Jsidman fan

    Excellent article !! Informative and inquisitive...

  • http://www.goproaccessories.net/gopro_pole_mount.html Alex

    Great story. I usually love anything crab cakes but fresh ingredients do make a huge difference.

  • BehradB

    This is a great story, well done! I hope the True Blue program takes off, restaurants that make the effort and pay the premium for locally sourced products should be recognized for it.

  • http://dino-dc.com Dean Gold

    We at Dino proudly use 100% Maryland crab: lump and jumbo lump, in our cakes. And we sell 2 4 oz cakes for $24.

    The bull of chefs and owners saying they can't is just that: bull! They just don't want to pay for quality. So take that $34 cake and enjoy knowing full well that you could be supporting local industry and a great local product for a lot less!

  • http://www.dnr.maryland.gov/fisheries/trueblue/ Steve Vilnit

    If you would like to view the full list of restaurants that are certified 'True Blue' please visit this website:

    http://www.dnr.maryland.gov/fisheries/trueblue/

    If you are interested in signing up click the link on that page!

  • Jimmy

    It doesn't make alot of sense to push a product so hard that has been in such short supply for so many years. Will this now lead the Maryland crab down the same path as the Venezuelan? That is, to near extinction??? BAD IDEA!!

  • I’m hungry!

    Dean- your crab cakes show quality. They're the best I've ever had. Thank you for staying local and paying for the quality.

  • David

    @Jimmy, apparently the restocking program from Maryland and Virginia, with some help from global warming, has been a success in that regard: http://dcist.com/2012/04/maryland_and_virginia_have_big_case.php

  • http://www.dnr.maryland.gov/fisheries/trueblue/ Steve Vilnit

    Jimmy - This will not lead to extinction. There is a management system in place in this state that keeps the harvest at a sustainable level in Maryland waters. In fact, this fishery is under pre-assessment by the Marine Stewardship Council to be rated as a sustainable fishery.

  • http://www.everybodyeatsnews.com linda eckhardt

    You want genuine Maryland crab cakes? Order from Kent Island Crab Cakes. all jumbo lump blue crab and all hand made. just like your grandmother made. yes.
    http://www.kentislandcrabckaes.com

  • A.R.

    Any chef/restauranteur claiming that their guests know that the label "Maryland jumbo lump crab cakes" is referring to the style of crab cake is flat out lying. They know full well that people expect meat from Maryland crabs otherwise they would call them Maryland style jumbo lump crab cakes. These are just a bunch of opportunists taking short cuts and misleading their guests. I hope the True Blue program takes off and these frauds are forced to come clean.

  • Andy

    Scott Chatterton can kiss my ass. With what they charge for crabcakes and that prick thinks it is ok to call that shit Maryland crab meat. I am the chef at Colonel Brooks Tavern in Northeast and we use Maryland crab meat in our Maryland crabcakes. A blend of Maryland lump and jumbo lump. Once the season ends, we remove them from the menu. I grew up on the Chesapeake(well a mile off, but still) and I find it disgraceful to use anything else in this area. Why the fuck would I live by the best crab in the world and use Indonesian shit- and then to lie about it on the menu. What a classless dick.

  • Matt

    The same goes for Kobe Beef. By Japanese law, kobe beef can not be sold outside of Japan.

  • tomaj

    There's a difference between substance, source, and style that you approached in this story but didn't fully address. You need crab, from a certain place, done in a certain way. There's leeway, as there are different crabs and the style can vary. From your examples: with champagne, one can see its origin, and assume it's made in a certain way, though the grapes may be unknown. Neapolitan pizza is not assumed by the (American) consumer to rigidly conform to all the Naples standards; it's more about style, with basic ingredient expectations that can vary somewhat. No one expects their bar serving Buffalo chicken wings to be shipped from Buffalo; again it's style with some ingredient expectations. American Kobe beef is wagyu (substance), but is a farce because of source (clearly) and the style (American cows are not feed beer nor massaged). So your examples vary by their expectations. We need to consider the phrase "crab cakes" by itself, as it gives enough expectations for the style and the substance (though it could be any crab). Adding "Maryland" to the front adds an expectation to the source, and, by extension, clarifies the substance to be not just crab, but a certain type of crab.

  • Jane

    God bless Todd Gray. No pretentious self-righteous bullshit, just real food. His tomato dishes are especially brilliant.

  • VoiceofBinky

    $34 for two crab cakes? Keep it. I don't want it.

  • er

    great article.

    also, i have more respect for colonel brooks right now.

  • Cosmo

    I thought you guys did this story years ago...

    http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/cover/2005/cover0715.html

  • Anon

    Keeping kosher to an extent, I don't eat (and have never eaten) shellfish. From my non-consuming consumer standpoint, I had thought that Maryland crabcakes was a style and not a sourcing of ingredient, just as Boston Creme Pie is not expected to come from a Boston-based bakery and New England Clam Chowder can be made anywhere with clams from anywhere.

  • Kim

    Excellent article on the difficulties of managing supply, cost, competition, consumer expectations and fair trade. Now tell me how much confidence I can have in claims that a product is "Made in USA" in general? What does that really mean if the contents all come from Mexico or Brasil. Isn't it time that the Government and Industry work together to protect 100% genuine American producers and did something to protect consumers from misleading advertising? Surely this is only the tip of the iceberg.

  • Pingback: MD CRAB FAKES: THE BAIT AND SWITCH BEHIND THE SIGNATURE DISH | Watermen Way

  • andrewi31

    Linda Eckhert's comment about Kent Island Crab Cakes is a perfect example of this article. They import most or all of their crab meat from very far away, assemble and freeze the crab cakes in Maryland and ship it out as "genuine Maryland", "Maryland style", or "natural Maryland" crab cakes. These crab cake warehouses are located in Maryland just to look authentic.

  • U Street area resident

    If they taste good, I don't mind if they come from Venezuela or Vietnam or Indonesia. But yeah, they shouldn't mislead people .

    Some marketing genius needs to figure out a way to make Vietnam sound like a delicious crab-producing country.

  • http:/www.everybodyeatsnews.com linda

    you want authentic Maryland crab cakes made only with blue crab? order from Kent Island Crab Cake Co. yum.

  • brigitte

    Thank you for the story. Sooooooooo anyone recommend a mail-order source that will send 100% maryland crab?

  • brigitte

    Oh I see
    Kent Island Crab is the place. Thanks yall

  • http://magnoliacaterers.com Jimmy Reynolds

    I am with Chef Andy from Northeast. We have been catering for DC brides for 20 years on thew Eastern Shore - Magnolia Caterers - and we don't use anything but Maryland Jumbo Lump. If you say you use Maryland Crab meat then do it. Or change the menu description. For the uninitiated, there is a huge difference in taste and texture of fresh Maryland meat and crabmeat from anywhere else, even North Carolina and Louisiana crabmeat is a pale comparison to the local stuff. Virginia meat is fair, but I would pay for it. Hell, if you want to get technical the crabmeat should be out of the Lower Chester or the Wye or the Miles Rivers - anyone who grew up along the Bay knows the difference between local and foreign stuff. If you don't care then by all means eat the Indonesian of Venezuelan crap and leave the real crabmeat to those of us who value the difference.

...