TAMPA, Florida – “This all started here, with the cigar factories,” Rose Campisi said as she stirred chopped onions and red peppers into a bowl of crab claw meat coloured with jarred marinara and Worcestershire sauces.
Campisi was making a batch of devil crabs. The oversize croquettes, also known as deviled crabs, were popularized in the early 1900s in the Ybor City neighbourhood of Tampa when it teemed with Cuban, Spanish and Italian cigar workers.
She makes her devil crabs in a commissary kitchen there for restaurants and, occasionally, to fry at a jury-rigged stand alongside the beauty salon where her daughter works.
Campisi is of Italian descent, but she said devil crabs transcend ethnic identity.
“They aren’t Spanish or Cuban,” she said as she folded a ruddy hash of crab into a slice of white bread, rolled it in an egg wash and bread crumbs and fried it all in roiling oil until it was a deep brown. “They’re not Italian, either. They’re Tampa.”
When the cigar factories thrived, newly arrived immigrants prepared an abundance of dishes. Fabada, a rich Asturian stew, was popular, said Andrew Huse, a librarian and food researcher at the University of South Florida. So was piruli, a Latin American candy. Now both are little known. Scachatta, a Sicilian-style pizza, was a beloved take-away food, but only a handful of Tampa bakeries turn it out now.
Devil crabs, however, have endured.
Many Tampa residents, including Huse, say that devil crabs became a token of the city’s identity during a violent strike that began in the spring of 1920 and concluded 10 months later in an uneasy truce between the tabaqueros and the owners of the factories.
To feed their families and earn money, the tabaqueros made croquettes from Tampa Bay-caught blue crabs and stale loaves of long, narrow, soft-crumb Cuban-style bread and sold them on the streets, said Mark Cacciatore, who owns Cacciatore and Sons, a speciality grocery.
“They were what got a lot of people through the strike,” said Cacciatore, who gave Campisi her first job as devil-crab maker. “Later, it got to be where if you owned a shop and you sold a Cuban sandwich, you had to have a devil crab, too.”
Today, for the old guard and the new, devil crabs remain totems of multi-ethnic Tampa. South of the city, at Neyda’s Buy and Fly Cafe, the display case shows off the area’s ethnicities: Jamaican beef patties; fried chicken gizzards in the African-American tradition; yucca fritters that reflect South American cooking; and pointy-tipped devil crabs distributed by Santos Foods, a manufacturer of frozen foods that began selling devil crabs wholesale in 1962.
Across town at Empanada, the counterman, Junior Modesto, explained that while the crab empanadas are Venezuelan, the best way to understand them is to “Think about a Tampa devil crab, but with a different kind of crust.”
Like conch fritters down in the Florida Keys, and smoked mullet in the state’s Panhandle, devil crabs were created from local foodstuffs. (One well-remembered purveyor, the Seabreeze, a seafood roadhouse that closed in 2001 after about three-quarters of a century in business, was operated at the end by a family of crabbers.)
One devil crab ingredient has remained comparatively constant: Cuban bread. La Segunda Central Bakery has kept Tampa supplied with palmetto leaf-topped Cuban breads since its Ybor City beginnings during World War I. Copeland More, a great-grandson of the founder, still provides loyal customers with misshapen loaves to be used for devil crab dough and breading.
But blue crabs have proved less stable. Citing escalating prices for Florida crabs, most devil crab vendors, including Cacciatore and Campisi, now use pasteurized crab meat from far-flung spots like Thailand and Venezuela.
Michelle Faedo and her husband, Robert Faedo, get the crab meat for their Sandwich Shop from South Carolina but have grand plans to use only Florida blue crabs if they can get a license to harvest them from local waters. As his wife, in the sandwich shop’s kitchen, pinched crab dough into tapers that, even after emerging from the fry basket, bore the unmistakable imprint of her fingertips, Faedo looked ahead.
“We’re switching over to Crystal River crab,” he said, referring to a famous nearby fishing area. “Not right now. But we’ll get back to our crabs. If we can get a grandfathered license to catch our own – maybe on Craigslist – we’ll serve real Tampanian deviled crabs.”