If you ignore the fact that he'd choose a plate of barbecued baby back ribs over a bushel of steamed crustaceans "any day" of the week, Bobby Higgins -- caterer, restaurateur, entrepreneur and all-around nice guy -- is a walking, talking and extremely convincing promotion for Maryland's crab industry.
Now, at the height of the crab season, he's devoting himself "to bringing the Eastern shore to the Western Shore." Via crab feasts, of course.
On this occasion, he's had less than five hours of sleep (after feeding more than 1,600 guests the previous day), having arisen early to prepare for the immediate gathering in Baltimore's Dundalk Park, and he's less than half a day away from yet another feast for hundreds more. But that doesn't keep Higgins from his official duties, and at the moment, that means officiating a crab race.
Except that the Maryland blue crabs, dumped in a heap in the middle of a 6-foot chalk circle, aren't racing. In fact, they're not doing much of anything, which prompts one observer in the crowd to remark that "we'd be doing just as well with steamed crabs."
Water and seasoning mix are thrown on the crabs "to get 'em agitated," explains Higgins. Looking over the lot, he makes predictions. "Crabs are just like kids . . . the little ones run faster than the big ones." They're just like fat adults, too, says Higgins, pointing to a specimen with blackish claws, a sign that the crab is molting (shedding its hard shell).
"He's really fat now, he won't be moving much," says Higgins with a smile, implying that the inert creature hasn't a chance of winning the race. Though Higgins claims that female crabs run faster, the contest -- like those involving real people -- is limited to a single sex, in this case an all-male coterie.
At age 27, Higgins is certainly one of the youngest of the major figures in the world of crabs, not to mention one of the most ambitious, yet he is no newcomer to the food business.
His father owned a restaurant on the waterfront of St. Michaels Harbor, and as a 9-year-old, Bobby ferried boaters from their positions in the water to his father's establishment on shore in a 16-foot, custom-built skiff. He made so much in tips -- from $90 to $150 a weekend, mostly in coins -- that his father insisted he come ashore frequently to empty his earnings into a blender jar, kept for him in the bar of the restaurant. "He reasoned that if I fell overboard, I'd drown with the weight of all those coins," recalls Higgins.
Lazy he is not. As head of the Chesapeake Seafood Caterers, Higgins toils 14 hours a day throughout most of summer. But crab feasts aren't the only things on his mind: he also manages the Salty Oyster Seafood Restaurant and Ocean Cove Seafood Market in St. Michaels on the Eastern Shore (where about 80,000 crabs are processed weekly), and owns, along with his father and brother, two other restaurants -- both called Yesteryear's -- in Easton and Annapolis.
He caters pig roasts and cocktail parties, lobster and clam bakes, but it's the crab feasts that seem to be the most popular, and anyone who's been to such an event knows why. For one thing, the sheer messiness of it all discounts wearing a suit and tie: "These things allow you to let your hair down," says Higgins. Judging from his list of clients, crab feasts are egalitarian, too. Higgins has catered for functions as diverse as corporate picnics, school fundraisers and a sales party for a car dealership (where he served crabs from inside a body shop).
Like foie gras or lobster, "crab is a delicacy, not something you'd eat every day" -- not so much due to the expense, but because of the arduousness of handling live crabs in the kitchen. Says Higgins of his business, "We handle all those things that make it so aggravating." A visitor to the crab race nods in agreement as a bushel of wriggling, snapping crustaceans try to latch onto the gloved hand of the workers/sorters, and extricate themselves from one another.
Finally -- and Maine lobster aficionados might disagree -- it's the taste of the delicately seasoned, steamed crab itself that draws the crowds and gives feasters good reason to celebrate. Higgins is justifiably proud of his product. In a contest held last year in Annapolis, where crab-eating standards might be considered to be higher, Higgins won the People's Choice award for his crab soup, a chunky, vegetable-laden version that also received accolades from a "celebrity" panel, including the city's mayor and Chef Tell of television fame.
But one can't throw a decent crab feast without decent crabs: this year's harvest is "the most plentiful, superior" yield Higgins can recall, and he credits an abnormally warm spring with little rain "for getting the crabs moving out of hibernation earlier than usual. The crabs caught now aren't usually in this abundance."
He says he was "awestruck" at the sight of the natural sea grasses he saw recently, in the coves where the crabs are harvested. It's among those grasses that the creatures hide from predators before and during shedding, when they're most vulnerable -- and those grasses don't grow well if it rains, for the overflow from nearby herbicide-sprayed fields runs off into the rivers and does to the grasses what it does to field weeds -- destroys them.
On site are army-size pots of Higgins' prized soup, gallons upon gallons of cole slaw and platters of lightly battered, beautifully fried Maryland soft-shell clams, in addition to the featured steamed crabs. What brought them to the feast is a caravan of trucks, now connected by ramps in a semicircle, and including three refrigerator trucks, a fryer operation and a steam trailer, with both frying and steaming capabilities.
To a large extent, it's the steam trailer that separates the crab meister from his competition, says Higgins. "Most cook their crabs at restaurants and bring them in refrigerated trucks."
The Chesapeake Seafood Caterers, on the other hand, steams the crabs on site using a process Higgins devised himself. Black rubber hoses, crisscrossing the ground like so many garden snakes, pump "live" steam into the unwieldy two-bushel cauldrons filled with crabs. As the moisture-laden crabs interact with the salt, the pots must be drained of the resulting condensation. With great care, Higgins tips the cauldron forward, spilling the steaming brown liquid into a trough. "You don't want to spill this on yourself -- it makes for weak ankles," says Higgins of the 250-degree fluid.
Higgins isn't anxious to divulge any trade secrets (he spent an entire summer devising the current portable steaming process), but he acknowledges that competitors eager to copy his style of serving fresh-cooked crabs with gas burners inevitably fail; not only is gas more dangerous, but crabs thus prepared require a much longer cooking time, 45 minutes a bushel as opposed to 12 minutes of steaming. With the steam process, then, the catering firm can feed 250 people in an hour -- and speed is important when almost 2,000 feasters must be fed in a four-hour period, which will be the case at the Rotary Club crab feast July 26 in Annapolis.
Fortunately for Higgins, his restaurant and market staff, about 80 employes, is trained to double as catering backup. "We work when others are having fun," Higgins says in reference to the busy, near round-the-clock weekends.
Perhaps most important to the continued success of his operation is the fact that Higgins has assurance of getting the best fish on the market, for he acts as his own middleman, using the catch sold in his fish market in St. Michaels for both his restaurants and the catering service. (The surplus is sold to other restaurants, and to markets in Jessup and along Washington's Maine Avenue.)
Throughout the crab season, from May to mid October, Higgins goes to the Bellevue Ferry docks in Bellevue to pick his crabs from among the 25 independent crabbers he buys from. Back at the Market, eight full-time pickers, two of whom specialize in extricating the meat from the claws alone, sort the meat into two cans, one for backfin or lump (for use in crab salads and imperials), the other -- referred to as "special" -- for crab cakes and soups. A good picker, notes Higgins, can pick about 40 pounds (about a bushel) of crab meat a day. "Most picking crabs are female," says the caterer, adding with a shrug, "maybe that's why they're so sweet."
Similar to the way other foods are classified, crabs are graded on a scale of one to three, one being the largest (and by law, measuring at least 5 3/4 inches from point to point across the top of the shell). Number two crabs are all male, lighter in weight (having recently shedded), while number three are all female crabs. (The latter, notes Higgins, are often thought to be an illegal catch; he points out, however, that only egg-bearing specimens are verboten.)
While there is no taste difference among the three grades, Higgins almost always uses the large number one variety for his crab feasts, though some customers -- like a recent party of orientals, who insisted on being served only female crabs -- sometimes specifically request another grade.
Despite the labor involved in catering, Higgins maintains it's easier than managing his restaurants. "With catering," he explains, "I know at least five days in advance how many people are coming and what they'll be eating."
And on this particular day, 300 feasters are eating steamed crabs, of course, and crab soup, perch, fried clams and platefuls of cole slaw and french fries. If that doesn't satiate the participants, he's got beans and sauerkraut -- two rather unlikely "filler foods" -- for dispatching.
In addition to his steam operation, Higgins is exploring the possibility of nitrogen quick-freeze methods so that crabs can be purchased when their market price is down (crabs run about $25 a bushel in September, double that in January) and frozen in less than 60 seconds (which breaks down cells less than more typical, slower freezing methods). Freezing can not only save money, it can ensure an adequate supply of crabs, year round. Higgins recalls too well the time several years ago when a passing hurricane disrupted crab harvesting for a week. "People don't want to hear any excuses, they just want their party to go on."
Crab catering consumes Higgins from mid April to mid November, but when the crab feasts fade with the warm weather, he turns his attention to his eateries. "The restaurant season is from November to February," he remarks. "People move away from the waterfront toward the end of October, when it gets too cool for outdoor eating," and "by that time, everyone's had their fill" of crabs anyway. Higgins has the tents and heaters to experiment with cold-weather feasts next year, though oyster and bull roasts are more traditional during the winter months, around Christmas in particular.
Here, for year-round enjoyment, are some of Higgins' most popular crab meat recipes. HOT BACKFIN CRAB DIP (10 appetizer servings)
1 pound sour cream
1 pound cream cheese, softened to room temperature
1 teaspoon seafood seasoning or more to taste
2 teaspoons minced onion or more to taste
1 teaspoon horseradish or more to taste
1 pound backfin crab meat
Mix the sour cream, cream cheese, seasoning, onion and horseradish in a large bowl. Add crab meat and mix well. Place in a casserole dish and bake in a 350-degree oven for 20 minutes. Serve hot, preferably with good quality wafers. SALTY OYSTER RESTAURANT CRAB CAKES (Makes 6 crab cakes)
1 pound backfin crab meat
1/2 cup bread crumbs
2 eggs, beaten
1/4 cup chopped parsley
1/2 teaspoon seafood seasoning
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/3 cup prepared mustard
2 tablespoons good quality cooking oil
In a large bowl, gently toss crab meat while adding bread crumbs. Combine the eggs, parsley, seasoning, mayonnaise, mustard and worcestershire in a bowl and add to the crab mixture. Blend gently to incorporate ingredients. Form the crab meat into six patties and fry in oil until golden brown, approximately 2 minutes for each side. CHESAPEAKE SEAFOOD CATERERS' AWARD-WINNING MARYLAND CRAB SOUP (Makes about a gallon)
1 quart diced celery
1 quart diced potatoes
3 cups mixed vegetables (a combination of corn, peas, green beans, carrots and lima beans)
2 quarts water
1/4 cup minced onion
1 tablespoon marjoram
1 tablespoon beef bouillon (granules)
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon seafood seasoning
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon parsley
2 12-ounce cans crushed tomatoes
1 pound special or claw crab meat
In a large, heavy-bottomed kettle, combine celery, potatoes, vegetables and 1 quart water; bring to a boil, lower heat and cook approximately 30 minutes, until vegetables are tender.
Add remaining ingredients, bring to a boil, and cook for 10 minutes at a boil. Reduce heat, and simmer 1 hour. Leftover soup should be cooled to room temperature and kept in the refrigerator not more than five days. SAUTEED SOFTSHELL CRABS
4 medium softshell crabs per serving
Flour for dusting
Salt and pepper to taste
Butter or high quality oil
Clean the crabs by removing the eyes, mouth and lungs. (Most seafood shops will do this for you at no additional cost.)
Lightly dust the crabs with flour, and season with salt and pepper. Use enough butter or oil to fill a pan 1/4 inch deep. Fry crabs over medium to medium-high heat approximately 4 minutes per side or until the legs are golden and crisp. (If using butter, take care to avoid burning by using medium heat or adding a tablespoon of oil.)