Supposedly Hester was out of her mind, however, she was also brilliant. Hester made and sold so many crab cakes that she was able to buy her freedom.
Hester was my great, great, great grandmother. The plantation that she was enslaved on is now a defunct mental asylum. Crownsville Hospital Center used to be the Maryland Hospital for the Negro Insane, and before it was a willow and tobacco plantation. Whether a plantation or Hospital, people regularly ran away from that place where the willow trees didn’t droop as all willows should. They’d run, be caught, and dragged back newly diagnosed with a condition that made it seem like they were crazy for trying to leave.
Hester Lane was born a slave on that land, and about 60 years after emancipation, she died as a patient in the mental hospital that stood on that same land.
She passed down both her madness and her freedom-buying crab cake recipe to her daughter. From there each recipe became a family heirloom. Each elder would make their daughter swear that they’d never write the recipe down. They’d dare the daughter to save it to memory as if our blood didn’t have a habit of losing our minds.
That crab cake recipe has been 100 years old forever. It was 100 years old when my grandmother was ten years old. It was still 100 years old when I was seven years old. Now, it is still 100 years old, as my daughter is currently eight years old. It’s both ancient and timeless. The recipe for those lightly browned patties of crab and spices refused to age after turning 100. I don’t blame it, although I have questions. We don’t know when the crab cake recipe came to be, just as we don’t know when Hester Lane was born. Like the crab cake recipe, her birthdate was never written down. These phenomena of flavor and memory were things to be experienced, not recorded. While many have forgotten about Hester, her crab cake recipe has been famous since before I, or my grandmother was even thought of.
Ask anyone on the Black side of Annapolis, and they’d tell you that my family makes the best crab cakes on that side of the Severn River. In recent history, my grandmother Loleda made the best crab cakes. Before her, Hetta. Before Hetta, it was Hester. Now? It’s supposed to be me. But in my grief, I forgot the recipe. The lore of our famous crabcakes is now just a story that I tell to my daughter.
My daughter has heard the tale of the crab cakes several times, one day she asked about what was in the crab cakes. I couldn’t hide behind the veil of secrecy with her, she is a daughter of our blood, and she is owed the recipe. I could only tell her what wasn’t in the crab cakes: Old Bay. I also told her what my grandmother told me: if anyone asks for our recipe, we tell them to add a spoonful of Old Bay to crumbled saltine crackers, eggs, mustard, a few dashes of a liquid, Black sauce that no one in my family can pronounce, some mayonnaise, and a mix of lump and back fin blue crab meat. Mix it all until every morsel of crabmeat is coated with seasoning and crumb, then pat the mix into a bunch of flat discs smaller than the palm of your hand. Drop the discs into hot oil, and fry until both sides are the color of gingerbread.
Serve on soda crackers, with a side of potato salad.
Remember, dear reader, that’s not the real recipe. Even if I remembered the real recipe, I couldn’t tell you, or else my grandmother would rise from plot A46 at Bestgate Cemetery and whoop my ass. But that trick recipe? It tastes damn good, and it’s my pleasure to hand it to you.
It’s the lore of the 100-year-old crab cake recipe that makes even the trick recipe taste good. Yet the REAL 100-year-old crab cake recipe has yet to be tasted again by anyone on the Black side of Annapolis.
People have been looking for those crab cakes. The story is, whenever someone needed to make a decision or get out of a tight situation, they’d eat one of my family’s famous crab cakes and some long-shot miracle would occur and help them get out of their situation. Those crab cakes are magic. A special road-clearing conjuration that happened to taste good.
Folks would wait until the summer months and pick the meat out of a bushel of blue crabs. They’d take it over to my grandmother (or Hetta before her, or Hester before Hetta), and would beg them to please make some of their famous crab cakes. The women would oblige. Then the whole town would get word that “the” crab cakes were being made. Soon mothers and sons, wailers and praisers, would congregate on the front steps of the crabcake house and wait. It got so that folks would rejoice whenever someone in the small town of Annapolis was going through particularly hard times. It meant that the crab cakes would make an appearance, and the neighborhood got a blessed, yet miniature, feast. Through the crabcakes and soda crackers, and potato salad, they each took a bit of the problem, and the solution, and would be satisfied.
The Black side of Annapolis hasn’t been satisfied for over 15 years. That’s the last time that my grandmother made crab cakes before she died. Problems have persisted without miracles to intervene, and hard times have yet to be chewed apart by the community since. Our side of town has become a little mad, a lot heartbroken, and majorly stuck in our predicament.
Perhaps they don’t know it, but maybe each person in our town has been waiting for me to wade out of my grief, and make these crab cakes again.
Hess Love is a poet, and rootworker, public archivist of the Chesapeake Diaspora, historian of regional Black Atlantic Indigenous spirituality, and an Earth reverence educator. Their work focuses on the matrix of love, grief, family, culture, earth, food, sex, and magic. Hess is a mother, occasional lecturer, environmental activist, and the co-founder of the Chesapeake Conjure Society.