The world of crabmeat has become so complicated — and so international, with producers in Venezuela, China, the Philippines and Indonesia — that it’s nearly impossible to know which country’s product (or even what species) has been used in your “Maryland crab cake,” that iconic sandwich of the Chesapeake region. That, in part, is what drove the Maryland Department of Natural Resources to launch a program in May
called True Blue, which certifies and promotes restaurants that use 100 percent Maryland blue crab.
True Blue has received scads of publicity since its debut over the Memorial Day weekend, many of the stories emphasizing the years of fraud perpetuated on an unwitting public, which has apparently gobbled down oceans of imported Indonesian blue swimming crab billed as Maryland blue crab. But the premise of the program has rarely been challenged: that the 600,000-plus pounds of blue crabmeat pulled annually from the Chesapeake Bay is worthy of state protection, sort of like French champagne or Italian Neapolitan pizza.
Could a diner even tell the difference between, say, the fresh blue crabmeat imported from Venezuela and the fresh blue crabmeat processed from the Chesapeake? That was the underlying question of our taste test, which Dino chef and owner Dean Gold hosted at his Cleveland Park restaurant in June.
Historically, the strike against the tens of millions of pounds of imported jumbo lump and backfin crab — at least the stuff from countries other than Venezuela — has been the pasteurization process. After the crabs are harvested, cooked and picked, the meat is sealed into airtight cans and heated to a temperature of about 185 degrees, then cooled quickly. The process kills off any pathogens in the tins. Critics have accused pasteurization of adversely affecting crabmeat’s natural sweetness and texture.
But veteran crab men like William Ruark, the 80-year-old president of W.T. Ruark & Co., a Maryland processor that has been in business since 1948, say that’s just not true. “It’s the closest thing you can get to fresh,” Ruark says. “If it’s done right, there’s not that much difference” between fresh and pasteurized crabmeat.
One step that may affect flavor is the cooking of the crabs. Some processors boil the shellfish, but in Maryland, they steam them under pressure, with equipment that cooks the meat to a temperature of 235 degrees. Steaming doesn’t inject water into the crab, says Jack Brooks, the 60-year-old owner of J.M. Clayton Co., a seafood processing facility in Cambridge, Md. With boiling, Brooks adds, “you’re introducing a lot of water into the crabs,” which adds weight and reduces flavor.