“You’re at the shore,” explains Steve Howard, chef/owner of Freda’s Café. “People want to see some seafood on the menu.”
Opened in 1991, Freda’s is the work of Steve and his wife Carol. Originally from New York, the couple came to enjoy Cape May through friends and eventually decided to move here and open a restaurant.
“We were known for our chowder,” says Howard. “And my wife and I went out to dinner and tried crab cakes for the first time. We were from New York and at the time were unfamiliar with them. These were made with all back fin and breading and weren’t good at all. In my experience, when you have something that doesn’t agree with you, you have to cleanse the palate by doing it the right way.”
While they are most widely associated with Maryland and the mid-Atlantic region, the Chesapeake Blue Crab (Callinectes sapidus), can actually be found the entire length of the Atlantic Coast as well as throughout the Gulf of Mexico. The crab cake, on the other hand, is most often thought of as a regional delicacy that seems to have appeared sometime around the middle to late 19th century.
Like many foods that are popular today, crab cakes have a complicated history. There was a long-running myth that indigenous natives from the Chesapeake were the first to introduce the crab cake to the European settlers, but that most likely came from a James Michener novel, and isn’t supported by any historical facts. There is also some evidence that crab cakes are related to fritters, which were a product of African influence in early American settlements. Regardless of their origin, they have become a staple for seaside communities up and down the Atlantic Coast.
“We really work to make our crabcakes special,” says Howard. “We realized that if people can see the lumps of meat, and you limit the breading, season it well, serve it with a nice sauce and some simple sides, you have a winner.”
But why are Freda’s crab cakes so much better? Howard claims it’s all about finding a balance of flavors. Freda’s serves its crab cakes with a bright mango sauce, creamy mashed potatoes, and fresh seasonal vegetables—a wonderful combination of flavors and textures that are complementary and perfect any time of the year.
“It’s all in the seasoning,” says Howard. “A lot of things complement crab meat, without overpowering it. But you have to find the balance.” ■