Bessie’s Crab Cakes

Bessie Hanahan has served as chairman of the Hospitality Committee of the Spoleto Festival USA held in Charleston every spring and has planned dozens of parties for Spoleto. Lucille Grant, one of the Lowcountry’s great cooks, frequently cooks in the kitchen of Bessie’s historic home on South Battery. I too have helped prepare many meals there. But what many people do not know is that Bessie herself is a fine cook and that her crab cakes know no equal. Bessie is the first to admit that her recipe is likely to change each time she makes it—she might grab a bottle of Worcestershire sauce to season the cakes one time, some fresh herbs from her garden another. Because she dislikes breading in crab cakes, she chills them to hold them together before frying. “They usually fall apart,” she says with a laugh, “but you won’t taste any better.”

I like to serve these on a pool of blue crab sauce. This makes for a very rich, elegant midsummer meal. “And be sure to serve vine-ripened tomatoes as a course by themselves,” Bessie adds. I’ve had that course many times at her house in the sultry days that follow the festival: day-old French bread slices rubbed with garlic and good olive oil and cooked dry in an oven, then topped with more oil, tomato slices, more oil, salt, pepper, and fresh basil.

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For the Crab Cakes

  • 1 pound fresh crabmeat, well picked over
  • 1 lemon
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 tablespoons ( cup) finely chopped sweet onion, such as Vidalia or Wadmalaw
  • ½ cup chopped ripe red (bell) pepper or ¼ cup green
  • 1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
  • 1 large egg, beaten
  • salt, freshly ground black pepper, and other seasonings (seasoned salt, Tabasco, Worcestershire, cayenne, fresh herbs) to taste

To Assemble and Cook


Sprinkle the juice of half the lemon over the crabmeat in a bowl to freshen it. (If the lemon is not juicy, use the juice from the whole lemon.) Melt the butter in a skillet over low heat and add the onion and bell pepper, cooking until the onion begins to become transparent. Add the vinegar, raise the heat, and reduce until the vinegar has evaporated. Pour the mixture over the crabmeat, add the egg, and toss all together, being careful not to break up the big lumps of crabmeat. Season to taste. (I add salt, pepper, cayenne, and about a tablespoon of chopped fresh herbs. Bessie adds seasoned salt, Tabasco, and Worcestershire.) Refrigerate for several hours, or place in the freezer for about 15 minutes.

Put the clarified butter in a skillet over medium heat. Remove the crab cake mixture from the refrigerator or freezer and form it into patties—3 large or 6 small. Roll in bread crumbs and fry for 3 or 4 minutes over medium heat on each side until they are golden brown.