Chesapeake Bay seafood
by Ann Levelle
photography by Vince Lupo

I haven't met too many foods I don't like. In fact, save for Belgian endive, I can find the good side to just about any food. If you put a steaming bowl of cream of crab soup, a crispy rockfish filet or a bubbling crock of crab dip in front of me, you might actually see me drool.

And it's not just the food that I love, it's the skill involved in cooking it. I'm amazed by the subtle difference that sherry makes in a crab soup, the myriad ways to make a crabcake, the talent and know-how required to keep an oyster from turning to rubber.

You can imagine, given my love affair with our fair Bay's seafood offerings, my excitement when I was asked to be a judge for last year's Taste of Cambridge Crab Cook-Off. I was giddy with the prospect of mounds of crabcakes for the eating (little did I know how difficult the task would be; see Confessions of a Judge, page 29). But more important than being a judge, the opportunity brought the concept of the Chesapeake cook-offs to mind and I wanted to find more of them. Because 'really, there's no better way to find your favorite Bay dish than having the opportunity to taste a dozen at once!

Below you'll find a dossier of all the delicious details about four of the Bay's biggest cook-off events: The Taste of Cambridge Crab Cook-Off on the Eastern Shore, the Upper Bay Soup Challenge in Havre de Grace, Md., the Capital Crab Soup Cook-Off in Annapolis and the National Oyster Cook-Off in Southern Maryland. We give you the who, what, where and when for each, of course, but also the skinny on how to best enjoy each cook-off experience. So this year, when the weather warms and you're ready to grab the family and head out to the seafood festivals around the Bay, you'll know exactly when and where to go to enjoy some of he Bay's best. And after you've picked your favorite soups, stews, crabcakes, and oyster dishes from the cook-off tables, you'll know too, which restaurants will be serving up your favorites on their menus.

Taste of Cambridge Crab Cook-Off

Where and When -- Cambridge, Md., early July (July 10, this year).

Venue -- Poplar and Race streets, aka the Cambridge Main Street district, which is closed to traffic for this crab-themed street festival.

Rules of the Game-- Cambridge, Md., and Dorchester County restaurants put their best crab dishes forward in up to four categories: crabcakes, crab soup, crab dip and specialty crab dishes. Judges' and People's Choice awards are given for each category.

How to Get Your Taste On-- Entrance into the festival is free; Crab Cook-Off tickets are $20. Get yours early, only a limited number are sold. Once at the festival, you'll get your official ballot and can meander through the festival and taste at will. Each restaurant has its own small tent set up where it preps, cooks and serves all of its dishes. Small standing-height tables are set up along the street for tasters to use. Then vote for your favorite in each category and wait for the results.

Watchability Factor:High -- While some restaurants prepare only soup or dips, which aren't the most fun things to watch cooking, others are cooking crabcakes and specialty dishes and are constantly turning out fresh batches for the crowd, giving you a show to enjoy while you eat.

Other Stuff to Do-- As if a walk around a street festival sampling 19 crab dishes isn't enough to occupy you for an evening, there are plenty of other fun things to do at this crabby celebration. There is a professional crab-picking contest featuring pickers from local crabhouses, a watermelon-eating contest, a hula-hooping contest, live music, environmental displays, beer and other food vendors, and plenty of stores to browse through. Keep an eye on the schedule and get a spot for the crab-picking contest early, it gets crowded fast and it's very fun to watch.

2009 Cook-Off Judges-- Victoria Jackson-Stanley, mayor of Cambridge; Rob Kasper, food columnist at the Baltimore Sun; Ann Levelle, managing editor of this here Chesapeake Bay Magazine; Roger Mallon, host of the Fishin' Kitchen radio and television show; John Shields, host of PBS's Coastal Cooking, cookbook author, and chef/owner of Gertrude's restaurant at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Caloric Intake Quotient:Very High -- This is definitely dinner. Last year's contest had six crab soups, five crabcakes, six crab dips and three specialty crab dishes to sample. Try to not get full, we dare you.

Aroma Quotient:High -- Although this is an outdoor cook-off, you can get a pretty good whiff of what's cooking while you're up close to any of the booths.

Highlights From 2009-- (1) Jimmy & Sook's crab soup; everyone -- judges and public alike -- were in love with this silky, creamy crab soup, which exhibited the perfect balance of Old Bay and crab flavors, sherry and great big lumps of crabmeat. (2) The crab-picking contest: This is an absolute ball to watch. These professional pickers can pick a crab clean at an alarming rate, finishing off a dozen in about four minutes.

For More Information-- Visit or call 410-228-0020 for the 2010 contest details.

Chesapeake Bay seafood, crab soup The Capital Crab Soup Cook-Off

Where and When-- Annapolis, the Saturday after Labor Day (September 11, this year).

Venue-- A big ol' tent at the Maryland Seafood Festival, held at Sandy Point State Park.

Rules of the Game-- This one's for the pros. Maryland restaurateurs can enter soups in vegetable and/or cream of crab categories. Two sets of awards are given in each category: People's Choice and Judges' Choice. Last year's contest, after a year's hiatus in 2008, garnered 19 restaurants, with nearly 30 soups available for the savoring.

How to Get Your Taste On-- Admission to the cook-off costs $8, in addition to the $10 general admission fee. Just make your way to the cook-off tent to buy your ticket. There you'll get your spoon and your ballot to vote for your favorite soups. Once inside the tent, you might feel like you're 21 again -- fighting your way through the crowd to the bar, as it's a bit tight. But if you're patient, good things will come. The contestants' serving tables line the perimeter of the tent and as you make your way around, you'll surely taste some fantastic soups . . . just don't burn your tongue, it really ruins the fun!

Watchability Factor:Low -- What's to watch? It's soup cooking. Although some chefs do serve with a degree of showmanship, entertaining the crowds with gregarious personalities and offering up plenty of sherry to top the sample dishes.

Tasting Tips-- (1) With nearly 30 soups to taste, it's tough to keep track of your favorites. It's fun to come up with your own judging system and keep track. By keeping your own score, you can compare your favorite to the list of winners and be able to add a few restaurants to your "must eat here" list. (2) Don't feel like you need to lick all of your sample cups clean. Taste, savor and keep going. If you fill up on the first few soups, you'll be sick and tired of crab soup before you know it. (3) Drink water and eat crackers: A little palate cleanser goes a long way in preventing the "they all taste the same" problem.

Other Stuff to Do­­-- Over the course of the weekend, the Maryland Seafood Festival has a bevy of things to do (and eat). There's ongoing live music and entertainment (big name acts, to boot) on two stages, a crabcake-eating contest, a crab-picking contest, cooking demonstrations, endless seafood vendors (there's even a sushi tent), beer-tasting tents, a wine-tasting area, arts and crafts vendors, a rock-climbing wall, and a sports bar playing all of your favorite football games.

2009 Cook-Off Judges-- Loretta Haring, managing editor, the Capital newspaper; Shawn Harlan of the Culinary Institute at Anne Arundel Community College; Stephanie Kelso, executive chef at Paul's on the South River in Riva, Md.; Jon and Jim Mayer, local "food celebrities," aka The Feasty Boys; Ray Thompkin, general manager of The Big Fish in Crofton, Md.

Caloric Intake Quotient:High -- That's a lot of soup, sherry and crackers. But you should probably try to save a little room for the nearly endless amount of food for sale outside the contest. After all, it's a seafood festival, don't just fill up on soup.

Aroma Quotient:Moderate -- You can't really smell what's cookin' under this tent.

Highlights From 2009-- (1) Emcee John Shields, owner and chef of Gertrude's restaurant at the Baltimore Museum of Art, Coastal Cooking author and Public Television host. A charismatic host, Shields provided excellent commentary, interviews with the chefs and tips for the tasters. (2) Riderwood Catering: The chefs at this Silver Spring retirement community have got their soups down, winning the Judges' Choice in the vegetable crab soup category and second place for its cream of crab soup. It just goes to show that growing old doesn't have to be so bad . . . just pick the right retirement home! (3) Chef Charles McKnew of the Ports of Call restaurant in the Doubletree hotel in Annapolis. Not only did he take home the first-place spot in the People's Choice cream of crab, but the born-and-bred Annapolitan had the crowds laughing at his witty jokes and comments all afternoon.

For More Information-- Visit for details on this year's contest and seafood festival.

Chesapeake Bay seafood
National Oyster Cook-Off

Where and When-- Lexington Park, Md., the Saturday of the third weekend of October (October 16, this year).

Venue-- Takes place during the St. Mary's County Oyster Festival at the county fairgrounds in Lexington Park, Md.; specifically, the auditorium building at the fairgrou_nds; more specifically, a cold, cement-block building with cement floors, yellow incandescent lighting and rows of folding chairs set up for the competition.

Rules of the Game-- Chefs cook head-to-head in front of a live audience at the St. Mary's County Oyster Festival. Any cook, home or professional, is welcome to enter one or more original oyster recipes to the Seafood Marketing and Aquaculture Development Program by the beginning of August. A judging committee then culls through the recipes, picking three finalists in each category: Hors d'oeuvres, Soups and Stews, and Main Courses. First, second and third place prizes are awarded in each category, with contestants taking home $300, $200 and $150, respectively. There is also a $1,000 grand prize and awards for Best Presentation and People's Choice.

How to Get Your Taste On-- Tasting is free; you just need to be on time. The contest starts at 10 a.m., and contestants are given one hour to prepare their dishes. So if you're in the building at 11, you can get in line to receive your rations. If you miss the hors d'oeuvres course, be back for the soups and stews to be dished out at 12:15, and the main courses at 1:30 p.m. (the cooks are given 15 minutes to clean up before the next group starts). But be on time, because there won't be any second helpings, as the cooks are only required to cook one dish for the judges and one for the photographers, which is usually divvied up, along with any extra the cook made, for the crowd.

Warning:You might feel a little bit like Oliver approaching Mr. Bumble when you get your sample. The hungry crowd lines up straight down the center aisle, tasting spoons in hand. Then people move right to the back of the line again, eating the first sample by the time they're at the front again, ready for the next dish to be served.

Watchability Factor:Moderate -- Yes, this is your chance to watch professional and amateur chefs cook winning oyster dishes from start to finish, head to head. But don't go getting your aprons in a knot thinking you're about to watch Bobby Flay battle Mario Batali in an all out oyster war, because, in case you haven't figured it out yet, this ain't quite Kitchen Stadium. There are no sous-chefs flitting about with giant chef's knives or camera crews giving you close-ups of boiling pots of oystery goodness. In fact, you really can't see much at all, since the kitchenettes (complete with tiny appliances circa 1975 home-ec class) are on a platform that's higher than the audience. There is a Cook-Off Emcee -- an emcee, in fact, who has been calling this very event for 24 years -- though he doesn't provide Iron-Chef-standard commentary. And since each round of cooking lasts an hour, it gets a little boring.

Other Stuff to Do-- The silver lining in the low watchability factor of this contest is that the cooking contest is only a teensy part of the weekend festivities. You can also watch the National Oyster Shucking Contest, lots of live bands, shop at the many crafts vendors, and partake in plenty of good beer and oysters every which way from raw to frittered. And because you can set your watches and head back at the appropriate tasting time, you can do it all.

2009 Cook-Off Judges-- Anne Mackenzie Hopkins, retired food editor; Bill Taylor, well known local caterer and food pro; Betty Day, food editor of the Gloucester-Mathews Gazette-Journal; Sandra Martin, editor of the Bay Weekly; Reed Hellman, food columnist.

Caloric Intake Quotient:Low -- Only getting one or two bites of each dish every hour won't give you a full belly. For that you'll need to visit some of the vendors out on the midway.

Aroma Quotient:Very High -- One small building + 3 dishes cooking at once = oysterific aromas.

Tips For Creating Your Own Winning Recipe--  If you're an oyster lover and a cook, start noodling out your recipes for next year's contest now. If you follow this simple trick from veteran judge Anne Mackenzie Hopkins, you might have a shot at a win: Make sure it tastes like oysters! All too many chefs forget that, first and foremost, when the judges taste the dish, they're looking for the oysters to be the stand-out flavor.

Highlights from 2009--  (1) The heartfelt presentation of special awards to judges Anne Mackenzie Hopkins and Bill Taylor, who have judged all of the 30 consecutive National Oyster Cook-Offs. (2) Oysters Bourguignon in Puff Pastry: Loic Jaffres, owner and chef of Café des Artistes in Leonardtown, Md., cooked up the People's Choice award-winning entry in the hors d'oeuvres category, wowing the crowd with a rich, savory broth, sweet oysters and lightly crunchy puff pastry. (3) The Cook-Off Cookbook, which is produced every year by the Maryland Seafood & Aquaculture Department. All of the top recipes, plus some honorable mention recipes, are included.

For More Information-- Visit www.marylandseafood for details on
the 2010 contest and to order last year's cookbook, or for the skinny on the U.S. Oyster Festival.

Upper Bay Soup Challenge

Where and When-- Havre de Grace, Md., late July. (Yes, really, soup in late July, the 25th this year.)

Venue-- Takes place during Havre de Grace Maritime Museum's Mari-Fest celebration, in the main tent overlooking the mouth of the Susquehanna River.

Rules of the Game-- About ten restaurants compete in three categories: Maryland Crab, Cream of Crab and Seafood soups. Judges pick one winner in each category and there is also a People's Choice award. The winners of the judges' awards get framed wooden soup-spoon trophies and plaques are given to the people's choice winner.

How to Get Your Taste On-- Tickets for the Soup Challenge are $7 ahead of time and $10 at the door. Tickets are limited, so get them early. After the introduction and "bibbing" of the judges, the soup is on. The judges are served first, and tasters can bring two different soup samples to their seats at a time. There's a handy dandy notes page in the back of the program to keep track of your favorites.

Watchability Factor:Low -- Again, it's soup. . . . We've come up with
a new saying here: It's about as interesting as watching soup simmer. Just sayin'.

Other Stuff to Do-- Mari-Fest is the Havre de Grace Maritime Museum's waterfront maritime heritage festival. It's a weekend full of nautical goodness that includes a cardboard-boat race, a regatta, live maritime music, boat displays, arts and crafts, and plenty of your favorite festival-ish foods. The annual Crab & Bull Feast fundraiser also takes place on the Saturday night of the festival (tickets for that are extra).

2009 Challenge Judges-- Kerry Dunnington, cookbook author and Baltimore-based caterer; Thomas Meyer, culinary instructor at Harford Community College in Bel Air, Md.; Alaina Pippitt, culinary instructor at Harford Community College and owner of Alaina's Gourmet Creations catering.

Caloric Intake Quotient:Very High -- There's plenty of soup to go around here, and with three categories, you might get a gumbo or stew in addition to several cupfuls of cream of crab. As taster Kathy DiMartino of Bel Air, Md., put it last year, "This is the best deal going. All the soup you can swallow for ten bucks? That's dinner."

Aroma Quotient:Moderate -- Again, it's outside, so you won't smell much until you get up to the chefs' tables.

Highlights From 2009-- (1) One of the unique aspects of Mari-Fest is the strong Native American presence at the festival. Tribe members display exquisite craftwork as well as offer demonstrations ranging from making spearheads to open-fire cooking. Native American musicians add even more variety to the event. (2) The shadowbox awards given to the winners -- wooden soup spoons made from the bowsprit of the skipjack Mary W. Somers.

For More Information-- Visit or call 410-939-4800.