Retro Recipes: Hearty-Har Crab, 1966

All photos by Stephanie Butler

It's time for Retro Recipes! Brought to you from the capable kitchen of Eat Me Daily's Stephanie Butler, each week revisits a preparation from the past that straddles the line between ingenious and absurd. This week: Hearty-Har Crab.

Every once in a while, the thrift store gods look down from their mothball-scented lounge chairs and reveal a vintage cookbook find so wonderful, so terrifying, that it renews my faith in God and Spam. I had one of those experiences recently. Ladies and gentlemen, may I present Favorite Mormon Recipes: Meats (buy at Amazon). Featuring over two thousand recipes packed into 380 pages, this is indeed a find for the ages, enough to make Joseph Smith himself Eggplant Roll-a-tini over in his grave.

Part of the joy of this book are the chapter titles, which are painfully detailed. There are separate sections for "Baked Chicken With Rice" and "Baked Chicken With Noodles." "Combination Meat Ball Dishes" take up five full pages. There’s a chapter of "Quantity Meat Dishes," just in case you ever need to make Turkey Tetrazzini for forty people. And I’ve never seen a cookbook with more evocative recipe titles. "Jackpot Hamburger Meal" involves canned soup, egg noodles, and a healthy skepticism about what the runner-up has to eat. My own personal favorite is "Elk Boarding House Mystery," which is not a casserole as much as it is an unpublished Lovecraft story. Being unexcusedly short on elk meat myself, I decided to try my hand at Hearty-Har Crab, on the basis that this recipe would allow me to both dress like a 50s housewife and indulge my need to talk like a pirate.

I admit, I was hoping for great things with my Hearty-Har Crab. The recipe called for eight strips of bacon, and a full cup of cocktail sauce; in my experience, the sodium in those ingredients does a terrific job of disguising other, less pleasant flavors. Like, let’s say, canned crab. The seafood selection at my local market is dictated entirely by the Gorton’s fisherman’s daily catch, so fresh crab was out of the picture, and I had never used the canned stuff before. I expected to open the cans and find a mess reeking of tuna, fit only for cats, but was surprised by fluffy, sweet-smelling crab surrounded by a parchment paper ring.

I cut and fried the bacon, and added chopped onions, celery, and green peppers to the pan. Another point in the recipe’s favor: vegetables fried in bacon fat are nothing if not tasty. The book calls for the vegetables to be cooked together for about 10 minutes, which left the onions completely melted down, the peppers somewhat soft, and the large celery chunks still a bit crunchy. Next came soy sauce, vinegar (the recipe didn’t specify so I used apple cider vinegar), brown sugar, and the cocktail sauce. The taste at this point was interesting, sort of like takeout Chinese sweet and sour pork. I’d already mixed the canned crab with two cups of cooked white rice, so I poured my vegetable sauce on top of that, mixed the whole thing together, and packed it into a buttered baking dish. Thirty minutes later I took it out of the oven, told the parrot on my shoulder to skedaddle, and broke out the forks.

Favorite Mormon Recipes: Meats goes to the trouble of attributing each recipe to the woman who submitted it. Thus we know that Mrs. Thelma L. Boerner of Nehalem, Oregon is to blame for Hearty-Har Crab, a dish that she wrote is best served with "crackers and Tillamook cheese." Having no Tillamook around the house, I ate the Hearty-Har Crab on its own. It tasted somehow halfway Mexican, halfway Chinese, like a cross between an old recipe for Spanish Rice and a ketchup-accented seafood fried rice. I could definitely taste the crab in it, which was surprising, since I wasn’t sure how strongly flavored that bright white fluff would be. The celery was still a bit crunchy, which was a good textural counterpoint to the soft rice and crabmeat.

Since Mrs. Boerner says to serve this with crackers and cheese, I feel like she was going for more of a dip than a casserole, and the big hunks of celery and pepper would make dipping difficult — if I were to make this again, I'd have chopped the vegetables more finely. But given its remarkable similarity to crab fried rice, it's unlikely that I will. I’m tempted instead to advise prospective Hearty-Har Crabbers to skip with the recipe, find a reliable Chinese place, and have them do the work for you.

Recipe: Hearty-Har Crab

From Favorite Mormon Recipes: Meats, 1966

8 strips bacon, cut in ½ inch pieces
1 cup onions, chopped
1 cup sweet peppers, chopped
1 cup celery, chopped
1 T soy sauce
2 T vinegar
1 T plus 2 t brown sugar
1 C cocktail sauce
2 C cooked rice
2 C crabmeat

Fry bacon until light brown. Add vegetables, gently stir and fry for 10 minutes. Add soy sauce, vinegar, brown sugar, cocktail sauce, and stir mixture well. Add rice and crabmeat. Mix well, place in baking dish. Bake at 325 degrees for 25 minutes. Serve with crackers and Tillamook cheese. Serves 6.

– Stephanie Butler

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