Taste celebrates the unique heritage of the Shore

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CAMBRIDGE — This year’s Taste of Cambridge Crab Cook-Off is becoming more of a celebration of the Eastern Shore’s unique heritage, accentuated by the bragging rights associated with this unique cooking competition in its 11th year. On July 11, from 5-10 p.m., thousands of visitors and Dorchester County residents will flock to Poplar and Race streets to enjoy live music, family fun, great beer and the crab creations of more than a dozen restaurants.

“In some cases, we have chefs making family recipes that have been handed down for generations,” said Cambridge Main Sreet Executive Director Brandon Hesson, whose nonprofit group is responsible for pulling together the event. “It’s an understatement to say that some of the chefs take the event very personally. This is the food they grew up on, and in their minds, this is the right way to make that particular dish.”

Chefs are still finalizing their entries, but the staples of crab cuisine will all be represented – Crab cake, cream of crab soup, Maryland vegetable crab soup and crab dip. Recent years have also featured a crab specialty category, and new categories may be created depending on what the restaurants would like to enter.

Ticket holders will be given a ballot to vote on their choice in each category. They’ll taste each entry from all of the restaurants and a People’s Choice winner will be determined based on their popular vote. There will also be five celebrity judges who will vote on each category to produce Judges’ Choice winners in each. The judges will also select a Best in Show, which will qualify the winner to compete in the World Food Championships in Kissimmee, Fla. this fall.

Restaurant contestants include Stoked, which was recently honored by What’s Up Eastern Shore magazine’s ‘Best Of’ edition for chicken wings, and High Spot, recognized by the blog ‘Thrillist’ as having the Best Burger in Maryland. Bistro Poplar will also compete, after earning accolades from What’s Up Eastern Shore as the best French restaurant. Hyatt Chesapeake Bay will bring its renowned cuisine in two categories, as will Jimmie & Sook’s, which has won almost every category of this event throughout the years. RAR Brewing will offer a unique take on crab featuring its locally-brewed beer, and Katie Mae’s Country Shoppe plans to unveil her homestyle Maryland vegetable crab soup. Each winner will take home the one-of-a-kind platter, hand-painted by Clay Bakers in Easton.

“Our competition is very unique,” said Mr. Hesson. “There are plenty of crab cake competitions, and there are a number of crab soup contests, but I can’t find an example of anything like our event, where we challenge restaurants to throw everything they’ve got at us. If you can make it with a crab, Taste of Cambridge is the place to see where you measure up.”

This year, two new judges will be introduced. Chef Rene Marquis is a retired combat veteran of 21 years, and served as the team captain of the United States Army Culinary Arts Team, where he attended the Culinary Olympics three times for a team which garnered 31 gold medals. He has appeared on the hit Food Network show “Cutthroat Kitchen” starring Alton Brown.

Chef Bruce Mattel will also serve as a celebrity judge for the first time this year. Chef Mattell is the associate dean of food production at the esteemed Culinary Institute of America, where he is responsible for the curriculum, instruction, program development, and food quality in the kitchen classrooms at the college. He is also co-chair of the SkillsUSA national culinary competition. He mentored the culinary competitor representing the United States at WorldSkills Competitions in Calgary in 2009 and London in 2011.

“There are a lot of bragging rights on the line at this event, and if you are going to be judged, you want to know that the judges are qualified,” said Mr. Hesson. “We spend a lot of time organizing every aspect of this event, but I can say that finding judges is one of the first things we do. It’s almost a year-long process and the quality of judges we have this year is unbelievable.”

“One of the highlights of this event for me is the crab picking contest,” said Mr. Hesson. “There hasn’t been much of an evolution to it. Picking a crab is pretty much done the same way as it was done by our grandparents. You need a knife, you need crabs, and if you plan on making a living doing it, you have to be as fast as lighting. We’ve wrapped this event around a lot of fun contests, live music and family fun, but when it comes down to it, we are celebrating the industry and heritage of Cambridge.”

The street festival starts at 5 p.m. and ends at 10 p.m. Admission to the street festival is free, but only ticket holders are entitled to tastings of the crab dishes entered in the competition and to cast ballots to help choose the winning dishes. Tickets cost $25 in advance, $30 at the gate.
Advance purchases are recommended, as the event sold out each of the last two years. Tasting occurs from 5-8 p.m. only: attendees are advised to arrive early so they can sample all of the dishes in the allotted time.

More information about the July 12 Taste of Cambridge, including how to purchase tickets in person and on the phone, is available at www.cambridgemainstreet.com, www.facebook.com/CambridgeMainStreet, and 443-477-0843.

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