CAMBRIDGE — The Maryland Seafood Marketing Advisory Commission let some regional writers in on a fact many Mid-Shore residents already realize — fall is the best time to eat and buy Maryland blue crabs and crab meat.
Crabs are fatter at this time of year and more plentiful in mid-Bay waters. And cheaper. These were among the messages the seafood program of the Maryland Department of Agriculture wants writers to share in articles about food and travel in the Chesapeake region. Last week, a variety of journalists were invited on a tour to see for themselves
The group met at J.M. Clayton’s in Cambridge, then traveled aboard the Capt. Buddy, with Capt. Levin F. “Buddy” Harrison at the helm, to Suicide Bridge Restaurant in Secretary for a feast of steamed crabs, crab balls and dip.
It’s the busiest time of year for Dorchester’s crab meat processors, with many 14-hour days starting at 5 a.m.
“We get very, very busy in October,” said Jack Brooks of J.M. Clayton, a member of the seafood advisory commission. In October, J.M. Clayton processes up to 1,000 bushels of crabs a day.
“We need to keep busy,” Brooks said. “The crabbers need to keep working.”
Tour participants marveled at crab pickers working at J.M. Clayton, especially the overflowing containers of jumbo lump produced by Georgia Cephas. At the end of the tour each participant received a complimentary container of jumbo lump which verified the suggestion that crabs are now in their prime.
Clayton’s will continue to pack fresh crab meat through the season, but like other crab packing houses in the county, a stock of pasteurized crab meat is being packed away now for winter use.
Brooks said crab meat does not freeze well unless it is used within several weeks of being frozen. But pasteurized crab meat allows people to enjoy Maryland crab meat throughout the winter.
During last year’s Maryland State Fair, members of the Maryland Department of Agriculture Seafood Marketing Program offered samples of crab dishes prepared with both fresh and pasteurized meat. Few who tried both could tell the difference.
Crab potters working in the Bay provide the bulk of the crabs by late October. Part of the Sept. 13 tour was a cruise in the Choptank to speak to trotliners like Rudy Robbins, who was working 2,400 feet of trotline.
Through the years, a variety of bait has been used by trotliners. Eels are the traditional bait, once caught in wooden pots now valued as antiques and then in wire mesh cylinders.
Asian markets upped the price of eels. Robbins had been using bull lips for bait, but said when the price went to $80 a box, he switched to chicken necks.
Asked how this season has been, Robbins said, “Steady.”
On a good day this season, he caught 20 bushels, with Number One males bringing $110 at the dock at the start of the season. The price is less than half that now.
Robbins plans to keep trotlining as long as the crabs are running good in the Choptank, for at least another couple of weeks.
Nov. 1 is the start of power dredging season for oysters, in the limited areas where this is now allowed. In November, Robbins will be heading to the Honga River to dredge for oysters that have returned there since power dredging began there more than 10 years ago.
At Suicide Bridge restaurant, the group was treated to a feast of crab dishes and steamed crabs.
Restaurant owner Dave Nickerson greeted the group. He is also an owner of Kool Ice Seafood, one of several Dorchester crab processing plants which participates in the Maryland Crab Meat Quality Assurance Program. Members of this program allow their production plants to undergo an extra level of inspection above and beyond the normal inspection process.
Other processors in the region that participate in this program in addition to J.M. Clayton’s and Kool Ice include Todd Seafood in Cambridge; Fishing Creek firms including G.W. Hall & Son, Russell Hall Seafood, A.E. Phillips & Son and W.T. Ruark & Co.; Rippons Brothers in Hoopersville; Paul’s Pride in Church Creek (Golden Hill) and Lindy’s Seafood in Woolford.
For more information and Maryland seafood recipes, visit the Web site www.marylandseafood.org or send a self-addressed and stamped envelope t Nine Crab Recipes, 50 Harry Truman Parkway, Annapolis, MD 21401.