Every spring and summer, Marylanders will head to the shoreline restaurants just as their grandparents did and enthusiastically dig into all things crab: crab cakes, crab imperial, crab drip and good old-fashioned steamed crabs.
But unlike in their grandparents’ day, those “Maryland-style” crab dishes they’re enjoying probably didn’t come from the Chesapeake, or anywhere near it. About 98 percent of the crabmeat served in Maryland each year is imported from Venezuela or Indonesia. Even many of the steamed crabs hail from the Gulf of Mexico.
Steve Vilnit, director of fisheries marketing for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, does not expect that number to change overnight. But he has launched a campaign to at least educate Marylanders about what they’re eating, with the hope that more of them will start asking for Maryland crab.
The campaign, called True Blue, will certify all restaurants that serve Maryland-only crabmeat as “true blue.” The participating restaurants will be able to put the “true blue” logo on their menus, along with an explanation of how using Maryland meat supports Maryland watermen and helps retain local jobs and culture. The campaign officially rolls out Memorial Day weekend, although some restaurants are already letting their customers know about it.
“One of the main reasons restaurants use imported crabmeat is because it is cheaper…we can't pay our workers the same rates as they do in Asia” Vilnit said. “It’s not about getting every single restaurant to use Maryland crabmeat; it’s about recognizing the ones that do.”
So far, about 75 restaurants have signed on. They include places noted for their focus on local sourcing, such as Woodberry Kitchen and Gertrude’s in Baltimore; Dino in Washington, DC; and Wild Orchid in Annapolis. But other places have signed on, too: Alewife, where chef Chad Wells is well-known for serving snakehead and blue catfish; Ryleigh’s Oyster Bar in Federal Hill; and a new restaurant, Kettle Hill, opening near the tourist-packed Inner Harbor.
Vilnit said there is enough crabmeat produced in Maryland to comfortably take on about twice that many restaurants if more become interested. The program will offer short exceptions if watermen can’t get fresh local crabs, such as in the event of a hurricane.
The program has cost only about $1,000 so far, Vilnit said, and funds for it come from a surcharge added to the waterman’s license. Virginia has no similar branding program, said John M.R. Bull, spokesman for the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. Vilnit said he knew of no others in the country.
Jack Brooks, owner of J.M. Clayton Co. in Cambridge, said he and his coworkers are “ecstatic” about the program. Already, he said, Vilnit has helped his picking house score more customers. Vilnit takes many of the region’s chefs on fishing and crabbing trips to the Eastern Shore, and they often stop at Clayton’s for a tour.
J.M. Clayton offers fresh crabs in season, as well as fresh-picked crabmeat and processed and pasteurized meat, which restaurants can use in the winter.
“What our hook and niche is, is that this is real Maryland,” Brooks said. “We have a good healthy resource, and it’s sustainable. We’ve got a lot to offer, and we have a real flavor to offer.”
That is the bone Brooks and many restauranteurs have to pick with the foreign crabmeat: It doesn’t taste as good. To prove that point, Vilnit ran a taste test at the Maryland State Fair; 60 percent of the visitors preferred Maryland crabmeat.
But Baltimore Sun restaurant critic Richard Gorelick wondered if diners would feel the same if the crab cakes were prepared exactly the same way. So a few months ago, Vilnit asked Woodberry Kitchen chef Spike Glerde to prepare three different crab cakes for an audience of Sun reporters. Unanimously, they chose the Maryland cake over the foreign competitors.
It was at that point that Gjerde told Vilnit they needed a way to market the Maryland product. Thus, “True Blue” was born.
While imports have depressed the price of crabmeat, they have also made the availability more consistent, Brooks said. Maryland processors have risen to that challenge, he said, and their quality “has never been any better.” The imports have also expanded the market for crabmeat beyond the Virginia-to-New York City corridor. Home cooks in the Midwest can buy frozen crabmeat at their local grocery store.
Maryland crabmeat is not going to serve that Midwestern market on a consistent basis. But, Brooks said, there’s plenty of supply in the region for those who want it, and some supply beyond.
“Every year, we get a booth at the Boston Seafood Show, and we have people who come by the booth, and they take samples, and they say, ‘what do you have in this stuff?’ We say we didn’t add anything, it’s just Maryland crab meat. They say, ‘we’ve never tasted anything like that before,’” Brooks said. “We’ve had people come to the booth and say, ‘we didn’t know Maryland crab was available anymore.’ And we tell them, ‘yes, it is, and we go door to door, and if you need some, we can get it to you.’ This year was probably our best in terms of finding and hooking up with some new customers.”