Nancy Faidley Devine’s grandfather, John W. Faidley, Sr., began selling fish at Lexington Market in 1886. Devine remembers sitting on a barrel in her grandfather’s office, holding the lid in place to keep the terrapins from crawling out. Nancy and Bill Devine were married in 1958, and the couple joined the business in 1964. Today, the 3,526-square foot space, cluttered with handpainted signs and advertisements, vintage oyster cans and reproductions of magazine articles and awards, features fresh seafood for sale, a raw bar and stand-up tables where customers slurp down bivalves or nibble on fried fish. Most days, Devine works in a cramped space behind the counter with her employee and protegée, Donnell Kindell, mixing and molding her world famous crab cakes.
What was Lexington Market like back then?
In the early days, they didn’t have cooked food. It was primarily a place people went to get their groceries. A lot of them did it on a daily basis. There were butchers and people who sold chickens; some were live chickens in cages – you picked out a chicken, you’d take it home and cut the head off and hang it on the clothesline. You didn’t have the Giant. It was what they now call farm to table. In the suburbs people were on the actual farms, but the people in the city, they went to the market.
Did you like fish growing up?
I didn’t really think about it. It was always part of our family. In the 1960s we started cooking for customers. Our biggest sale back then was fish sandwiches. My dad would always cook himself a piece of fish on a little hot plate and people whould come by and say, “John, that looks so good, how about making me one?”
And then of course, there are the famous Faidley’s crab cakes. How did that come about?
Not to pat myself on the back, but I think I started the gourmet crab cake. Before that jumbo lump was used in other dishes, like crab imperial. The crab cake was originally made because people would eat crabs and have meat left over. So what do you do? You make a soup or you make crab cakes and eat them for supper. I decided to make a crab cake with lump meat. When I made them 1987, I only made six crab cakes, I thought I wouldn’t sell them – they’re too expensive. The next day I made 12 and it went on and on. Then, in 1992, GQ magazine gave me the golden dish award for one of the 10 best dishes of the year.
How did they find you?
I don’t know; someone must have known someone. Then Baltimore magazine, I won every year, they practially had to retire the category. I’ve been in USA Today, Johnny Apple came here when he wrote his book (Apple’s America). Mr. Zagat came all the time. Magazines, food editors. I’ve done six food network shows.
Why no Faidley’s in Las Vegas?
I went to Atlantic City, they wanted me there; they wanted me in New York. I went and visited these places. But we stayed right here. The thing of it is, I feel like when people come here, I don’t want them to get something second rate. I want them to have the same experience someone had 10 years ago. I feel very dedicated to that. It’s my baby and I’m very protective of it. And our history is here. When people come to Baltimore, they say Baltimore crab cake, it’s got to be great.
What’s in there?
I don’t give my receipe.
Eggs? I bet there’s a little touch of mustard.
There is, but I don’t use eggs because I send them in the mail.
Saltines? Old Bay?
The reason I use Saltines is if you put a saltine in the water, it will puff up and float away where bread crumbs will just sit there. I don’t like a lot of Old Bay. I want to enhance the crabmeat, not overpower it. Because it has such a beautiful flavor on its own.
Also, the texture, I love the crispiness outside.
I do too. And it’s creamy inside. I flash fry at 400 some degrees. Flash frying doesn’t heat it through, so I have to put them in an oven to get them heated in the middle.
What are they, six ounces?
The reason they’re that size is it’s the size of my hand. I don’t use a scoop, I don’t use a spoon. I use my hand, and it’s between six and seven ounces. I just scoop it up. Donnell (Kindell) has the exact same size hands.
Has Donnell worked for you for a long time?
He’s been with me since he was 16 years old. He’s 36 now. He knows my expressions. We communicate by looking at one another. His father is that guy there cleaning the fish. And over there, that’s Lou, he’s been with us 25-30 years. He and his son in the red shirt, Dionne, do shucking. This little girl here, her mom, there, was pregnant with her when she started. Now she’s going to college.
How did you meet your husband?
It was a blind date, we went out with another couple. I had introduced my friend – she was a classmate at Towson – to the man who introduced me to Bill. They’ll be celebrating their 60th anniversary, and we’ll be celebratin our 59th. Anyway, I didn’t know what my life was going to be like when I married Mr. Devine. He was from Kansas and he was in the Navy. My Dad didn’t like where things were going with President Johnson. So he said to Bill, ‘Why don’t you get out of the Navy?’ Bill was a destroyer squadron leader. It was obvious he would be going should a war happen. Instead, he had a business degree and got into the seafood business.
So what’s with Maryland and crabs?
Our blue crab is special. And also, we steam our crabs. A lot of places boil them. If you boil them, the meat will fall apart. Thankfully, our people who pick crab for us will pasteurize a lot for out of season.
Part of your career has been a kind of cultural tourism: putting on crab feasts abroad.
I took crab feasts over to England, Holland, Germany. I took everything with me – live crabs, pots, everything. It was all authentic. I traveled first class, and when I got there, they treated me like Dolly’s back in town.
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