Thanks to a family's devotion, crab cake tradition continues
Skipper Shaffer has held a number of unusual jobs in his life, including doing two tours on the doomed fishing boat the Andrea Gail, made famous by the 2000 movie “The Perfect Storm.”
His very first job was as an “egg boy” for Fred Scott’s farm in Mount Pleasant. Shaffer delivered fresh eggs by bicycle over to homes on Sullivan’s Island and the Isle of Palms. But the job didn’t last long, as Shaffer had to pay for the eggs that cracked en route.
Now 60 and selling real estate, Shaffer has taken on a new challenge: ensuring an old family deviled crab recipe lives on in the 21st century.
Shaffer is the grandson of one of the founders of Charleston’s legendary Henry’s restaurant. There was a time — decades, actually — that the city’s overall “restaurant scene” barely had a pulse, but Henry’s stood out as the epitome of old Charleston fine dining for residents and visitors alike.
Henry’s was established in 1932 at North Market and Anson streets by Henry Otto Hasselmeyer and Walter L. Shaffer.
Seafood always was the backbone of the menu, and among the offerings was deviled crab, priced on a 1938 menu at a mere 15 cents.
Skipper Shaffer remembers his grandmother making the deviled crab and packing it inside a real blue crab shell.
After more than 50 years in business, Henry’s was sold in 1985 to someone outside the family. The deviled crab recipe would have died off then if not for Skipper’s dad, Henry Shaffer. When the elder Shaffer retired as an insurance executive 20 years ago, he began making the crab again, at first for friends and neighbors.
Henry Shaffer then visited The Wreck restaurant on Shem Creek and told them something was missing from the menu: a good deviled crab. They signed Henry and the crab on, and he began supplying the restaurant as well as the Piggly Wiggly at Seaside Farms at the Isle of Palms connector.
Those relationships went unchanged for years. But about nine months ago, Skipper Shaffer got a call from his father, who said he couldn’t do it any longer and asked his son if he wanted to take over crabmaking.
“Absolutely,” Skipper replied. “I would hate to see that tradition die. But, with your permission, I would like to take it to the next level.”
That “next level” was finding a U.S. Department of Agriculture-certified kitchen and jumping through a number of other hoops to be able to expand production. But at the first of March, Shaffer and his wife, Becky, rented kitchen space at Duval Events and got to work.
They are making, by hand and from the original recipe, 8-ounce packages of Henry’s Crab Cakes that are vacuum-sealed, frozen and priced at $9.99. They also are packing a dozen 1-ounce “crab bites” that sell for $14.99.
Distribution has grown, too: 28 Piggly Wiggly stores up and down the coast have begun stocking the two products.
Becky jokingly calls her husband “a crab cake Nazi” because of his strict rules. He insists on following the recipe to a “T” and tells her the order of adding ingredients is essential to the consistency.
And, “You can’t make two batches at a time,” she kids him.
One thing they both want to make clear: Although the dish always has been called “deviled crab,” it is really more of a Maryland-style crab cake. And the cakes — two parts lump crab to one part claw meat — do not include celery, peppers or onion.
“The ‘devil’ refers to the spiciness,” Skipper says.
While he has worn many hats during his lifetime, Shaffer is embracing the new venture with no shortage of energy.
“This has become my passion. I’m determined to make it happen.”