RICHMOND — Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, never stingy with superlatives or shy about boosterism, has been bragging lately in a way that has neighboring Maryland steamed.
Maryland’s signature delicacy — the blue crab — really hails from Virginia, McAuliffe declared on a radio show last week. He proudly repeated the claim Wednesday.
“You know, Maryland talks about their crabs,” McAuliffe (D) said on WRVA radio. “If anyone from Maryland is listening, I want to be very clear: All the crabs are born here in Virginia and they end up, because of the current, being taken there [to Maryland]. So really, they should be Virginia crabs.”
The claim drew swift scrutiny from PolitiFact, an organization normally dedicated to separating meatier political truth from fiction. It also roiled Baltimore opinion writers, and Maryland’s crab-loving governor, Larry Hogan (R).
The hardest part to swallow for a people defined culinarily by their “Maryland” crab cakes and “Maryland” crab soup? McAuliffe knew what he was talking about.
Blue crabs are not picky about where they mate, and they do so all over the Chesapeake Bay. But when it comes time to release their larvae, only Virginia will suffice. Known as zoea and no bigger than the head of a pin, the larvae can survive only in the salty waters at the mouth of the Chesapeake, which is in — you guessed it — Virginia.
“Basically, all crabs are hatched as larvae in the lower bay, which is Virginia,” said Romuald N. Lipcius, a professor at the College of William & Mary’s Virginia Institute of Marine Science.
Thomas Miller, a professor at the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science, concedes not only that all mother crabs release their offspring in Virginia, but that they go to a lot of trouble to do so.
The crabs have the ability to swim — in fact, their Latin name, Callinectes sapidus, translates to “beautiful swimmer.” But for some reason, they walk — and walk and walk — traversing the entire length of the bay if they have to, to make sure their babies are born in Virginia.
“If they start in the bay above the Bay Bridge, they will walk the 200 miles down to the bay mouth,” said Miller, director of the center’s Chesapeake Biological Laboratory.
And so Virginia, mother of presidents, also has maternal dibs on every single one of the Chesapeake’s blue crabs.
Not that the crabs stick around all that long. The little pinheads, which have long trunks and look nothing like crabs, drift out to sea for months, traveling 50 to 100 miles off the shores of Maryland, North Carolina and, yes, Virginia.
They come back to the Chesapeake’s salty Virginia waters looking like tiny lobsters and measuring about a quarter of an inch long. They linger there, in the shelter of sea grasses and oyster reefs, through one more transformation, after which they measure up to an inch across and finally look like crabs.
Then they move on across the bay — with about half of them heading to Maryland, and the rest remaining in Virginia.
McAuliffe’s claim stood up to PolitiFact’s scrutiny, and he repeated it Wednesday on WTOP, joking that Hogan should mark every Chesapeake Bay crab with a stamp reading: “Made in Virginia.”
Hogan was unmoved, said Matthew Clark, his communications director.
“Like most Virginians with any sense, eventually the crabs move north to Maryland, where the waters are much more inviting and hospitable,” Clark said.
He also noted that McAuliffe took some liberties Wednesday, on the delicate subject of crab procreation. All Chesapeake Bay crabs are born in Virginia, but they are not all “conceived” there, as McAuliffe said on WTOP.
“There is a certain amount of breeding that takes place in Maryland waters,” Clark said. “It’s not just Virginia that’s for lovers.”
None of which answers this central question: Why are these creatures called “Maryland” crabs, if about half of them never set claw in the Old Line State?
Miller said the crabs are named for Maryland because 60 percent of the commercial catch has been in that state. “If you go for tuna to eat, you don’t care where it was born, you care where it was caught, because that’s an indication of whether it’s fresh or not,” he said.
One of Maryland’s leading crab authorities, Baltimore chef John Shields, has another theory: Maryland is known for crabs because it cooks them better. Which is why the owners of Wildfire, a fancy Tysons Corner restaurant, brings Shields to Northern Virginia every year to demonstrate for diners the art of eating steamed Maryland crabs: with a mallet, atop brown butcher paper.
“Just about everywhere south of Maryland — Virginia, the Carolinas, down to the Gulf — they boil the crabs, which takes all of the flavor away,” said Shields, who is the author of “Chesapeake Bay Cooking” and was set to appear at Wildfire on Wednesday night .
Instead of a Southern-style crab boil with Zatarain’s seasoning, Shields steams his crabs with Old Bay.
“We know how to treat them,” he said. “They might be born in Virginia, but they use their crab instincts and they head a little bit north — for the sweeter waters of Maryland.”