Crab Fight: Which Coast has the Better Crab?
Food scribes from opposite coasts settle it once and for all.
By Cynthia Nims
July 17, 2017
There we sat in the shade of enormous walnut trees in late June, a cove that meanders in from the Chesapeake Bay just steps away. Across the table from me was Lorraine Eaton, food writer for the Virginian-Pilot. Between us were two piles of crab: three fat Dungeness crab facing her, and a mound of recently-harvested blues in front of me.
It was on. A friendly showdown to see which was the best crab in town. And it was a Baltimore chef I’ve never met who started it all.
“Our [blue] crabs are the sweetest and most tender. By comparison, Dungeness doesn’t even rate.”
I’m sorry…doesn’t even RATE?!?!
It was chef Spike Gjerde who made the brash claim in the Wall Street Journal earlier this year, a reflection made to accompany his recipe for Maryland deviled crab dip presented in the paper. I just couldn’t let it go without comment.
As it happened, I was heading to Virginia in a few weeks’ time. I’d be staying at a place called Baytop Cottage that I had randomly chosen while hunting on VRBO. I picked it because of the size, location and mention of a dock with crab pots on hand, a near-guarantee of fresh blue crabs. (Serendipitously, I knew the owner Pamela Barefoot from my days editing Simply Seafood magazine; we often featured products from her Blue Bay Crab Company.)
After some friendly whose-crab-is-best banter on Facebook (heavily weighted toward cheers for Dungeness with a few staunch blue fans and some diplomatically calling them both good, too different to compare), I decided to take some Dungeness on vacation with me. We’ll settle the matter over an amazing feast of both coasts’ prized crustaceans.
I was flying east five days before hitting the Eastern Shore, so I couldn’t pack them with me. Mutual Fish Company came to the rescue, as owner Harry Yoshimura picked out three huge crab (all 2 ½ pounds or more) that had just come in from Alaska and shipped them out.
The beauties arrived the next day in the nick of time, making for a grand unveiling to the audience of Pam and her husband Jim, Lorraine and her photographer. It took a good five or 10 minutes before they stopped remarking how big the crab were. Yes indeed, big and delicious.
The blues were cooked without much embellishment, outside the customary Old Bay seasoning or similar spices, to better appreciate the crabs’ inherent flavors side by side. Lorraine kindly picked up one of the bigger blues and deftly went straight for the prime nugget of backfin meat. She handed it over and I took a bite. Delicate, tender and sweet, it brought to mind eating a scallop.
OK, I’ll give you this, Team Blue. That backfin lump meat is pretty tasty, particularly when a native expertly picks it for you.
Next, I pointed her toward one of the front legs of the Dungeness, noting they hold gloriously big pieces of prime meat. As she put a perfect, whole piece into her mouth, her eyebrows popped up. Delicious, huh?
We continued to pick and eat, first focusing on the alternate-coast’s offering, then turning our attention to our favorite. This was an uncommon opportunity to taste them side by side in their pure and natural state, for a better understanding of what each brings to the newspaper-covered table.
As the feast began to wind down, they wondered aloud how many people one of those big Dungeness could feed—two? Three? One average Northwesterner?
Compared to the delicate, sweet meat of blues, it was easy to detect the more complex nutty-briny flavor of the Dungeness, its meatier texture—which my East Coast pals liked, but it didn’t sway them from preferring their local crab. I had no delusions about changing their mind.
In the end, we decided those diplomatic folks from my Facebook post had the right idea. The two crab are quite different creatures, both delicious in their own way. With little fanfare, and lots of crab consumed, we opted to call it a draw.
“Love the one you’re with,” is how my husband put it when he sauntered in near the end to enjoy a bite or two. Whichever coast you’re on, that’s the crab to eat.
Though secretly, we all know the truth. Dungeness is best.
You can read Lorraine’s recap of our crab caper here.