Celebrity chef suffers post-mortem blowback

The late Pierre Franey (fre-NAY) was one of the early celebrity chefs, with a TV show and his popular NY Times column “The 60 Minute Gourmet.”

The eponymous cookbook is one of my most dog-eared. Unlike many others of his profession, Franey steered clear of controversy.

That is, until now.

Yes, 2017 — a full 11 years after his death, after suffering a stroke giving a cooking demonstration on a cruise ship, Franey has offended almost everyone up and down the Chesapeake Bay.
It seemed innocent enough.

The NY Times recently reprinted one of Franey’s old 60 Minute Gourmet columns, entitled “Crab Cakes, Baltimore Style.”

He wrote, “This is a classic crab cake inspired by those that were served at Obrycki's Crab House, a rollicking fish restaurant in a former row house on East Pratt Street in Baltimore. They are simply delicious.”

Then he printed the recipe. Based on the readers’ comments, you’d have thought he posted directions for an insurrection.

“Baltimore Girl comments. For real Baltimore crab cakes: No pepper flakes, parsley, scallions. No breading. Bake crab cakes in oven at 425 degrees F rather than fry — they are less likely to break apart if the oil is not perfect and they will have less fat and more crab flavor. Remoulade is for my Richmond husband.”

She went on to say that “real Baltimorons use a tomato, horseradish, lemon, Worchestershire sauce-based cocktail sauce.”

(Love the self-deprecatory “Baltimorons,” by the way.)

Another reader adds, “Forget the celery, hot pepper flakes, finely chopped scallions probably the Worcestershire sauce and one of those eggs.

“Change the mustard to a bit of Colman’s dry mustard, maybe some lemon juice and a little onion juice (grate the onion) and you have it.

“I am from Baltimore, believe me we prefer our crab cakes to taste like crab and not something else.”

Meg in MD states: “These crab cakes may be delicious, but you can't call them Baltimore style. No self respecting Marylander would ever put so many filler ingredients in their cakes, and we definitely do not use a remoulade.”

The Baltimore Sun recently waded into this controversy with an interview of a “Chesapeake culinary expert,” John Shields, on the “care and handling of crab cakes.”

Shields tactfully notes the regional variations, from East Shore, to southern parts of the bay, to the cities.

He observes: “Now the crab cake may well be a unifying source of fierce regional pride, but its many recipes produce more squabbling, feuding, and heated family debates than either the local ball club or politics. Tucked away in each family’s archives is The Crab Cake Recipe. It is the only one; it is the best; and all the others are wrong. Period. I’ve witnessed barroom brawls over which restaurant or tavern serves the best crab cake.”

Shields then surveys the history of the crab cake (a Native American recipe, mixed with cornmeal and fried in bear fat), and all the different variations of ingredients, preparation and cooking.

Shields also owns a Baltimore restaurant, “Gertrude’s,” and this is his recipe:

1 egg

2 tablespoons mayonnaise

1 teaspoon dry mustard

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon Chesapeake Seasoning (such as Old Bay or Phillips)

2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce

Dash of Tabasco Sauce

1 pound backfin crabmeat, picked over

1/3 cup saltine cracker crumbs

Vegetable oil, for frying (optional)

Clarified butter and/or olive oil, for sautéing (optional)

Tartar Sauce and lemon wedges, for accompaniment

1.  Mix the egg, mayonnaise, mustard, pepper, Chesapeake seasoning, Worcestershire, and Tabasco together in a blender or mixing bowl until frothy.

2. Place the crabmeat in a separate bowl and sprinkle on the cracker crumbs. Pour the egg mixture over the top. Gently toss or fold the ingredients together, taking care not to break up the lumps of crabmeat.

3. Form the cakes by hand or with an ice cream scoop into 8 mounds about 3 inches in diameter and ¾ inch thick. Do not pack the mixture too firmly. The cakes should be as loose as possible, yet still hold their shape. Place the cakes on a tray or platter lined with wax paper, cover, and refrigerate for at least 1 hour before cooking.

4.  To fry: Pour oil into large skillet to a depth of about 1½ inches. Heat the oil and fry the crab cakes, a few at a time, until golden brown, about 4 minutes on each side. Remove with a slotted utensil to paper towels to drain.

5. To broil: Slip them under a preheated broiler until nicely browned, turning to cook evenly, about 4 to 5 minutes on each side.

6. To sauté: Heat a small amount of clarified butter or olive oil, or a combination, in a skillet and sauté the cakes, turning several times, until golden brown, about 8 minutes total cooking time.

7. To bake: Shields doesn’t mention this method, but my sister recently made hers this way, and they were delicious!

Serve at once, with tartar sauce and lemon wedges on the side.

Authentic, right? No celery, parsley, or red pepper flakes — Baltimore Girl should be satisfied. And while you might enjoy Pierre Franey’s version instead, avoid serving to Baltimorons, or prepare for some serious culinary blowback.


Nick Roumel is a principal with Nacht & Roumel, PC, a firm in Ann Arbor specializing in employment and civil right litigation. He also has many years of varied restaurant and catering experience, has taught Greek cooking classes, and wrote a food/restaurant column for “Current” magazine in Ann Arbor. Follow him at @nickroumel.