Crab cake

Crab cakes: A Delaware tradition

March 18, 2022 Written by Mark Jolly-Van Bodegraven

While Maryland and the Chesapeake Bay get most of the attention, the blue crab (Callinectes sapidus) is also the most important and profitable fishery in Delaware. And just like their counterparts west of the Mason-Dixon line, Delawareans have a strong affinity and excellent recipes for steamed crabs, crab imperial, and especially, crab cakes.

With the women’s basketball teams for the University of Delaware and the University of Maryland facing off in the first round of the NCAA tournament, Delaware Governor John Carney and Governor Larry Hogan of Maryland bet crab cakes from their states on the outcome.  

UD has a more than 30-year history preparing for a crab cake challenge with a Crab Cake Cook-Off being a central feature of its Coast Day festival in Lewes every fall, running until the COVID pandemic drove Coast Day online in 2020. Starting in 1990, competitors from throughout the region have entered their crab cake recipes to be judged by a panel of chefs, food writers, seafood marketers and other experts. Delaware cooks have won 19 times. Marylanders: three.

Now retired, Doris Hicks was the seafood technology specialist for the Delaware Sea Grant College Program based at UD’s College of Earth, Ocean and Environment (CEOE) on the Hugh R. Sharp Campus in Lewes. She launched the Crab Cake Cook-Off in 1990, and it fast grew into a popular tradition. She writes about the inspiration for the contest in the preface to a cookbook collecting the top three winners of every year.

“It was an article in The Wilmington News Journal that gave me the idea for a crab cake cooking competition,” Hicks wrote. “The newspaper’s restaurant critic traveled to parts of Delaware and Maryland tasting and ranking crab cakes from various eateries. He found so many different crab cake recipes that I figured there must be lots of other cooks out there with treasured recipes passed down from generation to generation, or who had their own ideas about what makes the best-tasting crab cake.”

Winning recipes reflect the creativity that Hicks thought a contest might find. In some years, the top entries have been classic and simple, but other years have had crab cakes with unique spicing or toppings, like Greenwood resident Steven Ruiz’s 2010 recipe for Pan-Seared Blue Crab Cakes with Pepper and Onion Jam or Pecan-Crusted Crab Cakes with Fresh Creamed Corn from Lynne Laino of Lewes in 2017.

A Number 1 recipe is reprinted below, but the cookbook has recipes for all tastes. (You can order a Crab Cake Cook-Off Cookbook on the CEOE payment portal for $15 plus $2.50 shipping by entering “crab cake cookbook” under “Details of Payment.”)

Crab cakes are an important part of local culture throughout the Delmarva Peninsula, as are recreational crabbing, crab feasts, and restaurants with newspaper on the tables and wooden mallets at every place setting. Whether you’ve dropped a chicken leg tied on string off a pier or set traps in the Inland Bays, or just enjoyed steamed crabs in a friend’s backyard, living in Delaware means enjoying the Mid-Atlantic’s most iconic seafood.

Bonnie’s Delaware Crab Cakes

From Bonnie Robinson of Seaford, winner of the 2012 Crab Cake Cook-Off

2 lbs. lump crab meat

3 eggs, beaten

1 tbsp. ground nutmeg

1 tsp sea salt

1 tbsp white pepper

4 tbsp mayonnaise

2 tbsp parsley

1 tbsp mustard

2 tbsp Worcestershire sauce

½ c liquid margarine

1 tsp baking powder

¼ tsp garlic powder

2 dashes of cayenne pepper

2 tbsp Old Bay seasoning

2 c. Zesta crackers, crushed finely

½ c. Panko bread crumbs

¼ to ½ c of Puritan oil for frying

Prepare a mixture of Panko bread crumbs and ½ c. Zesta crackers for coating crab cakes.

Mix ingredients together except for crab meat and crackers; add crab meat, remaining crackers and lightly mix well. Make into crab cakes and then roll each cake in the Panko and Zesta mixture. Fry in Puritan oil.

Crab Cake Sauce

2 c mayonnaise

2-3 tbsp hot sauce

2 tsp garlic powder

2 tsp white pepper

1 ½ tbsp honey

2 tbsp pickle relish

Mix sauce ingredients and refrigerate until ready for use.

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