Issue: August 2001
Crabby Competition

Despite the dearth of local backfin, National Hard Crab Derby Cooking Contest organizers say the show will go on with . . . gulp, imported crabmeat (from Smith Island).


     Organizers of this year’s National Hard Crab Derby Cooking Contest have good reason to be crabby. None of the meat used in the competition will come from Crisfield, Md.-the self-proclaimed “Crab Capital of the World” and host of the September derby. Instead, contest officials will be forced to import crabmeat from Smith Island, some 12 miles west across Tangier Sound.

     Sure, that’s not as repugnant as importing the stuff from Thailand, but Charlotte Daugherty, longtime chairperson of the cooking contest, can’t help but be a little flabbergasted. “It really started to get bad last year,” says Daugherty. “Crabmeat has been in short supply, even in Crisfield, if you can believe that. We don’t have but three packing houses here right now . . . and they didn’t have it and couldn’t promise it. So I went across [to Smith Island] and put in an order.”

     From the Smith Island Women’s Crab Picking Co-op, Daugherty ultimately secured the 25 pounds of backfin crabmeat needed to provide one pound per contestant. However, Daugherty notes that even Janice Marshall, the co-op’s founder, has lately been putting in more hours on the mainland due to the drop off in hard crab catches. “She’s working at the Eastern Correctional Institute as a guard,” says Daugherty. “She’s laid down the pickin’ knife and picked up the pistol.” Ominous signs for ominous times in the Chesapeake’s crab fishery.

     Charlese Ann Smith of Bishopville, Md., will be working her magic on one of those 25 pounds. Smith took the grand prize at last year’s event with her super-rich Char’s Cream of Crab Soup, and she’s coming back to defend her title. “You can bet I’ll be trying to win it all again,” she says. Contestants compete in several categories, including main dish, salad/cold plate, appetizer and crabcake. The winning dishes in each category then go head to head for the grand prize.

     Smith, who grew up in Stockton, Md., on the Eastern Shore, says her victory was made sweeter by the fact that she beat out a strong field of competitors, including many Crisfielders. “They’ve been cooking with crab all their lives,” she says, “so I think it’s quite an honor to even be competing with them.”

     The National Hard Crab Derby was established in 1947 as the result of a Crisfield Times editorial by one Egbert L. Quinn. If there are car derbies and horse derbies, Quinn asked rhetorically, why can’t there be a hard crab derby? And so began the annual crab race, although it has become much more than that. It is now a full-blown three-day festival, held Friday through Sunday every Labor Day Weekend. The cooking contest was added in 1963 as a logical extension of the derby’s culinary underpinnings and is held in the home economics department of Crisfield High School. Every winning recipe since 1963 has been collected in the official National Hard Crab Derby Cooking Contest cookbook (spiral bound, so new winning recipes can be added each year). For more information call 410-968-2500.