Behind the Recipe: Crab Cakes

As one of our cooks explains, sometimes traditional family recipes—like these meaty Maryland crab cakes—are bought, not made.
crab cakes

My maternal grandparents lived on the Severn River, an inlet of the Chesapeake Bay, and my mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother all used the same recipe for crab cakes. That exact recipe is in our June issue. We’ve kept the recipe in our family through all these generations, and my great-grandmother was the source; but she did not write this recipe, she bought it.

In the early 1930s she would take regular trips to the inner harbor of Annapolis with my then very young grandmother, to go shopping for food and wares. There, they would pick up the week’s coffee, sugar, and other sundries. Various merchants peddled their goods at the market, including an old black woman who sold crab cakes out of a cloth-covered basket.

My great-grandmother would buy these crab cakes every week, and every week she would ask the old woman for the recipe. The answer was always the same: No. Week after week, she’d buy the cakes and plead her case, but always: No. Eventually, though, they became friendly, and the woman finally conceded, on one condition: If my great-grandmother would promise to continue buying the crab cakes once a week, the woman would sell her the recipe for $50. My great-grandmother agreed to the deal.

$50 was a lot of money in the 1930s, but it was money that my great-grandmother considered well spent. She continued to buy the woman’s crab cakes and also started making them at home. She taught her daughter, who taught her daughter, and today we still make them all the time. It’s a family tradition we cherish.

Because of this, I have never ordered crab cakes in a restaurant. I know that it would only lead to serious disappointment. I’m sure that once you make these crab cakes, you’ll agree: My great-grandmother got herself a bargain.

After one taste of these hearty crab cakes, you too might give up the restaurant variety.

Subscribe to Gourmet