The Time the US Senate Debated Crabcakes

But is it a Maryland crab cake? (Bryan Costin/Flickr)

At 1:45 in the afternoon of January 18, 1963, Senator James Glenn Beall of Maryland hurried back from the Senate dining room to the Senate floor where the Democrats were filibustering. “Atmospheric condition: somnolent,” New York Times columnist Russell Baker recalled. “The dead air of the chamber has the stale morning smell of Pullman cars.” Alabama Senator Lister Hill droned on about the history of the filibuster rules. A smattering of Senators and about 75 school children struggled to stay awake. “The visitor,” the reporter went on, “has the eerie sensation of being sealed deep in impenetrable depths of stone, encased against time and circumstance.”

Beall, a Republican, tugged at Hill’s sleeve. “Mr. President,” he thundered, “I rise to defend the fair name of the great Free State of Maryland against an insult.” The insult wasn’t the filibuster. The insult was lunch.

That day, the Senate dining room listed six lunch choices. Alongside pork chops, seafood creole casserole, chopped sirloin steak, stuffed tomato, and “low calorie” shrimp salad, there was offered a platter of fried fresh “Maryland crabcakes” with tartar sauce, macaroni au gratin, and coleslaw—$1.05. Even though Beall was from Frostburg, about as far away from the Chesapeake as you can get without leaving Maryland, it was this last choice that irked him.

“Just as the distinguished Senators from Georgia would resent a knotty little peach being called ‘a Georgia peach,’” he proclaimed, “just as the Senators from Idaho would resent a puny little spud being called ‘an Idaho potato,’ just as the distinguished Senators from Maine would resent a crawfish being called ‘a Maine lobster,’ and just as the distinguished Senators from Kentucky would resent cheap bootleg being called ‘Kentucky bourbon’ I resent the crabcakes being served in the dining room being called ‘Maryland crabcakes.’”

“On the menu,” he continued, “it says, bold and brazen, ‘Maryland crabcakes,’ but no Marylander would recognize what is served. Now, I do not say that the crabcakes served in the Senate dining room are bad; I simply say they fall far short of the high standard of ‘Maryland crabcakes,’ that tasty dish which has helped to make the name ‘Maryland’ loved throughout the Nation.” Humor columnist Dick West proclaimed Beall “the crustaceans’ Patrick Henry.”

In fact, Beall complained off the floor that the crab cakes were 80% cracker. They reminded him, one newspaper quoted him, “of the rabbit stew that has some horse meat in it—one rabbit and one horse.” The “tasteless blobs,” he reported called them, tasted like sawdust. “Patrons of our dining room should be protected from deception,” he said on the Senate floor. “I want the world to know that those crabcakes are not ‘Maryland crabcakes.’” Hill said they might enjoy a “demonstration of the superiority of Maryland crabcakes to those served in the Senate dining room.” Beall promised it would be done.

Helen Avalynne Tawes with her portrait, 1966 (Maryland State Archives)

Sometime over the weekend, Helen Avalynne Tawes wrote to Beall from Annapolis. Tawes was the wife of the state’s Democratic governor. She was a native of Crisfield, a small fishing town on the Eastern Shore, and a well-regarded cook. In 1958, she had written and distributed 12,000 copies of a booklet, called My Favorite Maryland Recipes, in support of her husband’s gubernatorial run.

“Dear Senator Beall,” she wrote him, “I have just read this article in the Baltimore News-Post about our Maryland crabcakes, and I’m sending you this little cookbook of mine. How about giving it to the chef of the U.S. Senate dining room? Please tell them to try the recipes with some real Maryland seafood. Is there any reason why they can’t serve superb seafood dishes there? It’s too bad to serve the kind mentioned in this newspaper article, since we have the best seafood in the world. Do you think you could get them to try some of these recipes? When I serve them here at Government House, people seem to rave about the flavor.”

Beall read the letter aloud on the Senate floor on Monday morning. He touted her words as evidence that “Marylanders are quick to place their gastronomic achievements above politics when their worldwide reputation has been maligned.” The state government also offered Beall a hundred copies of her booklet, and he vowed to distribute them “with justifiable pride” to each of his colleagues. In the meantime, the First Lady’s recipe was published first in the Congressional Record, on page 669, and then in newspapers across the country. It called for a pound of crab meat, without filler, because it is “unforgivable,” she was later quoted, “to mask the delicious, true flavor of crabs and oysters.”

CRABCAKES

One pound crab claw meat.

Two eggs.

Two tablespoons mayonnaise.

One tablespoon Kraft’s horseradish mustard.

One-fourth teaspoon salt.

One-eighth teaspoon pepper.

Dash of tabasco sauce.

One tablespoon parsley chopped.

Combine all above ingredients including the unbeaten eggs and mix lightly together. Form mixture into desired size of cake or croquette. Do not pack firmly, but allow the mixture to be light and spongy. Roll out a package of crackers into fine crumbs. Do not use prepared cracker crumbs. Then pat the crumbs lightly on the crab cake and fry in deep fat just until golden brown. Remove from hot fat just as soon as golden brown.

Drain on absorbent paper and serve hot.

I think this is the best crabcake recipe I know of.

Beall gave the First Lady’s recipe to Senate chef Ross Destito, but Destito complained he would need to increase the price if he followed it. “Crackers are, of course, cheaper than crabs,” West cracked,” being more plentiful and easier to catch.”

Nor was the recipe without its detractors even in the Old Line State. Magazine editor and cookbook writer Poppy Cannon wrote that many Marylanders disapproved of their First Lady’s use of horseradish mustard, “insisting that nothing but good old-fashioned dry mustard will do.” Bread crumbs, too, were considered preferable to crackers.

On January 31, Beall finally delivered on his promise. That morning, Baltimore’s Thompson’s Sea Girt House restaurant—the birthplace of crab imperial—delivered a hundred pounds of back fin crab meat to the Senate dining room’s underground kitchen, courtesy of the Maryland Independent Retail Grocers Association. As the restaurant’s owner, a “third generation specialist in seafood dishes,” oversaw the crab cakes’ preparation, Beall and Maryland’s other senator, Daniel Brewster, posed for photographs in chef’s hats and whites. “You look better as a Senator,” Destito sniped as the two legislators grinned and the cameras flashed.

Beall invited every senator to his crab cake feast. They ate more than 300 crab cakes and nearly ten pounds each of coleslaw and potato salad. After numerous senators called him to praise the fare, he declared the response “universally favorable.” Even Vice President Lyndon Johnson phoned his office. “Tell Senator Beall those are the best crab cakes I ever ate,” he said, “and I want him to have them served once a week until my term runs out.” Crab cakes appeared again, a few weeks later, at the Republicans’ annual Lincoln Day Dinner, and Thompson’s began a brisk mail-order crab cake business. Even Frank Sinatra reportedly ordered some.

In 1964, Random House published My Favorite Maryland Recipes after the renown Tawes gained through the Senate incident. That year, she also debuted a fast-food adaptation, called the “crab burger,” at the Maryland Pavilion of the New York World’s Fair. And though she had criticized Tawes’s recipe earlier, Poppy Cannon included it in her 1968 cookbook The President’s Cookbook: Practical Recipes from George Washington to the Present. Two years later, in 1970, Beall’s son, in his own Senate run, distributed crab cake recipes as a campaign tactic.

The crab cake platter finally returned to the Senate dining room on April 20, 1963. They were the same as before, and still cost only $1.05, but for one small change. They were called, simply, “fried fresh crab cakes,” without mention of the great Free State of Maryland.

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