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Crustacean Cakes

February 07, 2001|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Why are crab cakes cakes? Because cakes are relatively flat-sometimes even as flat as a pancake-and so are crab cakes. But crab cakes are rarely sweet and scarcely ever frosted, and if the term weren't so long established, we'd probably call them crab patties or even crab burgers.

They tend to be flat because it's hard to get crab meat to form into meatballs the way red meat does. Unlike land creatures, which have to hold themselves upright, sea creatures basically float, so they only need about a fifth as much connective tissue. When their meat is ground, it doesn't hold together as tightly.

The ancient Romans, for their part, made no distinction between meatballs and cakes. They called them all isicium, which basically meant something chopped up. They made isicia out of any sort of meat, the most prestigious (as you'd expect) being peacock meat. They also made them from ground prawns, lobsters, calamari and cuttlefish.

They even made mussel isicia, though, since mollusk flesh holds together even less well than crustacean flesh, they hedged their bets and bound the ground mussels with grain and then, for good measure, stuffed the mixture into sausage skins and grilled them. They still called them isicia, rather than sausages, perhaps because they flavored these mussel sausages the same way as other isicia, with pepper and fish sauce (sometimes they would add cumin and asafetida to meatballs).

Oddly, though, we have no evidence that the Romans made crab cakes. They might have, but we don't have a single Roman recipe that uses crab.

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