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Maryland jumbo lump crab cake appears three times on the menu at seafood-centric American restaurant P.J. Clarke’s, at 16th and K streets NW.

“Do you know where the crab in the crab cake comes from?” I ask our server as I order the $34 entrée, which consists of two fist-sized patties with tartar sauce and a side of sweet slaw.

“It’s all local,” he says. “The exact fisherman’s boat I can get for you.”

Another night, when I order the $17.85 Maryland jumbo lump crab cake sandwich and ask another server the same question, I get a similar answer: “Maryland,” he tells me.

In fact, the bulk of the crab at P.J. Clarke’s comes from Indonesia, says chef Scott Chatterton. Once a week, the restaurant gets “a few pounds” of Maryland crab and blends it in.

The little-known truth is that our region’s signature dish is rarely regional. More than 43 million pounds of crab meat are imported into Maryland each year, but the Maryland crab meat industry only produces about 700,000 pounds. That means less than 2 percent is from Maryland. The rest is shipped in from Venezuela, China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Mexico, and the Gulf Coast.

“For everybody that’s saying they have Maryland crab cake, it’s just not possible,” says Steve Vilnit, fisheries marketing director for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

Some chefs, including Chatterton, argue that “Maryland crab cake” refers to the style, not the ingredient. And it’s not illegal to call these Maryland crab fakes “Maryland crab cakes.” But the phrasing is misleading, especially at a time when consumers want to buy local and know where their food comes from.

Vilnit wants to bring a little bit of transparency to the marketing of crab cakes. The state fisheries service recently launched True Blue, a voluntary program to promote restaurants and retailers that actually use Maryland crab.

The initiative was inspired by a blind taste test of Venezuelan, Indonesian, Chinese, and Maryland crab at the Maryland State Fair last summer. More than 900 members of the public voted, and the overwhelming favorite was the Maryland crab.

“That started a discussion with a lot of people that the crab cakes in Maryland might not be Maryland crab meat,” Vilnit says. “People just couldn’t believe that.”

To qualify as True Blue, restaurants must use a minimum of 75 percent Maryland crab meat in their annual purchases. The reason it’s not 100 percent is because fresh Maryland crab meat is only available during about 75 percent of the year. Maryland’s fisheries service will do random invoice spot checks throughout the year to ensure the restaurants have purchased Maryland crab meat recently. The restaurants can then use a True Blue logo on their menus and marketing materials.

So far, 67 restaurants and retailers are certified as True Blue. But Vilnit has just begun recruitment.

Why do Washington-area chefs widely consider Maryland blue crabs to taste the best? The colder waters of the mid-Atlantic coast cause the crabs to store more fat, which lends to a sweeter flavor. “Crab is like truffles… It’s hard to put your finger on what that taste is,” says Equinox chef Todd Gray, who uses exclusively Maryland crab in his crab cakes. (If it’s not in season, it’s not on the menu.) “The meat is a little tighter and obviously sweeter. It has a little brininess to it. And there is something salty, a very gentle saltiness.”

Greg Casten, owner of local seafood distributor Profish, sells crab meat to over a thousand restaurants in the area. He says no more than 75 of his customers use only fresh Maryland crab meat, although the number is slowly growing.

After all, superior taste and texture come at a premium. Maryland crab can cost up to 33 percent more than crab from other places, depending on availability and the season.

P.J. Clarke’s Chatterton estimates that the $34 crab cake entree on his menu might cost $5 to $10 more with 100 percent Maryland crab. “People wouldn’t buy the crab cakes because they’d be too expensive,” he says.

As for branding non-local crab cakes as “Maryland crab cakes,” it’s unclear that most diners realize the phrasing refers to Maryland-style. “Restaurant people that go out often will know,” Chatterton says.

But the general consumer?

“Maybe not necessarily.”

If my experiences at P.J. Clarke’s are any indication, there’s a good chance that even the servers might make wrong assumptions.

The confusion is understandable, since chefs across the region disagree about just what constitutes the Old Line State’s recipe. They all seem to agree that Maryland-style crab cakes should have minimal bread filler, but ingredients and cooking techniques diverge from there.

On a recent outing to Busboys & Poets’ U Street NW location, I ordered the $24 Maryland crab cakes and again asked the server where the crab comes from.

“Frankly, from China. It says it’s from Maryland, but it’s from China,” she said.

She’s still off. The crab at all Busboys & Poets locations actually comes from Venezuela, says director of operations Hicham Baamrani. (The restaurants do not use any Chinese crab meat.)

Baamrani also tells me that Maryland crab cake refers to “Maryland-style.” But do his customers realize that?

“I’m not sure, to be honest with you,” Baamrani says, then adds: “I don’t think it’s misleading.”

Maryland crab isn’t the only food whose region is frequently mislabeled for marketing purposes. The U.S. Champagne Bureau estimates that nearly half of the sparkling white wines labeled as Champagne in America aren’t actually from the Champagne region of France. Coffee labeled as Kona coffee isn’t always from the Big Island of Hawaii. And many pizzerias call their pies Neapolitan, even if they don’t have certification from the Associazone Verace Pizza Napoletana, which has strict rules about the type of flour, dough kneading technique, and type of oven that must be used to produce a true Neapolitan pizza.

Mislabeling is also pervasive in the larger seafood world—not just at the restaurant or retailer level, but by distributors and fisherman too. International ocean conservation nonprofit Oceana released a seafood fraud report last year, in which it ran DNA tests on fish in Boston supermarkets and found that 18 percent of the samples were mislabeled. The organization followed up with tests of seafood at grocery stores, restaurants, and sushi bars in the Los Angeles area and found that 55 percent of the 119 samples were mislabeled.

Born-and-bred Marylander Richard Young, who’s been crabbing commercially since 1991, says Maryland’s True Blue program is a step in the right direction. After all, it’s his reputation and product on the line.

“The Maryland crabbers work very hard to provide a premium product, and their product gets confused with the out-of-state product, and they don’t really get the credit for it,” Young says. “When the Maryland crab season is closed in January and February, I see places with signs up that say Maryland crab. Now, you can’t possibly have Maryland crab when the Maryland season is closed. But they get away with doing that.”

Even Young says he’s been duped by restaurant labeling, but wouldn’t specify where.

“I tried the crab cake and it wasn’t very good. It didn’t have lumps; it had stringy meat. You could tell that it wasn’t Maryland crab,” he says. “It may not have even been crab.”

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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