Crazy for Crabs
Get ready for crab season with our guide to crackin’ crabs in the Bethesda area
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Diana Rutberg eats steamed crabs for dinner about four times a week when they’re readily available, from May through November. On average, the Potomac resident can polish off a dozen in one sitting, but has been known to eat 18 or 19 at a clip. “I probably eat my weight in crabs,” says Rutberg, who doesn’t even top 100 pounds. “I could pick for hours.”
She’s not alone in her passion for crabs—among our region’s foods, there’s nothing more iconic and beloved than the Maryland blue crab, the official state crustacean. When the weather gets warm, it’s fun to gather with friends for a communal crab feast on the Eastern Shore or at a Baltimore crab house. But what if you’re craving crabs in Montgomery County? What are the options for those who love Old Bay but hate the Bay Bridge? Where are the crabs really coming from? And how do you stage a crab feast once you’ve got them?
Our crab compendium dives into all you need to know.
Crackin' the Maryland Crab Myth
Yen Lee, general manager of the Bethesda Crab House, turns to suppliers outside of Maryland for many of the crabs served at the restaurant. Photo by Skip Brown.
Since crabs are nearly synonymous with Maryland, it’d make sense that the crabs you’re eating here are themselves Marylanders. Sorry to ruin the romance, but a lot of the crabs we get in Montgomery County are not even from the Free State. There are a variety of reasons for this, not the least of which is that crabs are a fresh living product with an unpredictable supply, given weather conditions, water temperatures and migration patterns. The sourcing, availability and price, therefore, can fluctuate daily.
Blue crabs mate and grow in many waters, primarily along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the U.S. and in areas of Central and South America. While the Chesapeake Bay produces half of the blue crab harvest in the United States, that statistic also includes Virginia. And the quantity isn’t on the upswing. According to the Chesapeake Bay Program, an organization in Annapolis that works to restore and protect the bay, the total number of blue crabs in the Chesapeake has lingered below the long-term average for most of the last two decades.
Another reason we may not be getting Maryland crabs is that consumers in our area prefer large crabs, according to some seafood sellers and restaurateurs. Maryland crabs tend to be small during the spring and summer. They are larger and more locally available in the fall, but that’s when vacations are over and fewer people are gathering for crab feasts.
Maryland crabs often cost more, says Jesse Lowers, a crab salesman at Congressional Seafood Co., a large distributor in Jessup, Maryland, that does business in Montgomery County. Nantucket’s Reef, a restaurant in Rockville, has tried serving Maryland steamed crabs every now and then, but they’ve been “so small, and for the price people pay, they need to see what they’re paying for,” says general manager Katharyne Murphy, who adds that the larger, heavier crabs the restaurant serves from Texas deliver “the most bang for the buck.”
Yen Lee, general manager of the Bethesda Crab House, agrees that the Gulf crabs are bigger and says that 90 percent of the blue crabs served at this Bethesda institution are trucked in from dependable and consistent suppliers in Louisiana and Texas, even during the Maryland crab season.
In addition, the demand for crabs within Maryland is so huge that it couldn’t be satisfied without reinforcements from other states. Crabs are an integral part of our culture, heritage and tourism industry, and everybody knows it.