Deviled crab is popular all along southern shores, and it is a specialty in South Carolina. It was there we once came across a takeout joint called Fishnet Seafoods, the proprietors of which were powerfully religious. All around their little shop, which was a former gas station, they posted signs reminding customers of Jesus' goodness and ultimate importance. Their belief was so strong that they called their deviled crab by a different name: Jesus crab. When we inquired about this dish, one of the employees told us, "It's deviled crab, but too good to be named for the devil."
Our introduction to the best deviled crab, though, was not on the Atlantic but near the Gulf Coast, in the town of Coden, Alabama, at a bare-bones little eatery named Mary's Place. Mary Hunter's menu was Creole soul food with a Mobile Bay twist, and here we learned to appreciate such Gulf Coast passions as spicy steamed crabs and West Indies salad, cool crabmeat and chopped onions in a bright vinaigrette. (Mary passed away in 1990, but the restaurant is still there, and still terrific.)
Mary once explained to us that the essential ingredient that made her deviled crab so luxurious was supermarket white bread soaked in whole milk. The deviled part comes from Tabasco sauce, and if you like it hot as Hades, you can double or triple the amount in this nonincendiary version.
6 slices white bread
1 cup whole milk
1 large egg
4 tablespoons (½ stick) butter
½ cup minced green bell pepper
1 celery rib, minced fine
1 garlic clove, minced fine
1 pound crabmeat, picked clean
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
10 drops Tabasco sauce
610 clean, empty crab shells or ovenproof ramekins
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Tear the bread into pieces. Combine the milk and egg in a medium bowl and soak the bread thoroughly in this mixture.
Melt the butter in a medium skillet and sauté the pepper, celery, and garlic until they soften, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove from the heat.
Add the crabmeat to the milk-soaked bread and combine it, using your hands. Add the mustard, Worcestershire sauce, and Tabasco sauce. Add the sautéed vegetables. Mix well.
Rub olive or vegetable oil into the crab shells or ramekins. Pack the crab mixture into them. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes, until sizzling.
6 to 8 servings as an appetizer