Mike Jordan

Mike Jordan is pictured at Cantler's Riverside Inn. Three times, he won the crab-picking contest traditionally sponsored by Cantler's. (Algerina Perna, Baltimore Sun / September 3, 2011)

As the shadows lengthen in Sandy Point State Park next Sunday afternoon, and another Maryland Seafood Festival winds down, six people will take the stage before a cheering crowd and press against a table piled high with steamed crabs.

The judge will give a signal. The contestants will start snatching up crustaceans, tearing them apart and tossing shells aside. And the Cantler's Riverside Inn Crab-Picking Contest will be under way.

It's a noisy, colorful spectacle, complete with trash-talking rivals, flying elbows and bellowing fans. But look carefully at the end of the table, and you'll probably see one picker in a Zenlike trance.

Mike Jordan of Annapolis takes his crab picking seriously — one reason he has taken home the championship trophy three years running and why those in the know say he's a good bet to defend his title again.

"When he gets his mind set on something, he's very, very diligent about it," says Mark Zeller of Parkville, a friend who has made the finals himself four straight years.

The Crab-Picking Contest has emerged as a crowd favorite at the festival, an annual celebration of Maryland's seafood that started in 1966 and has been held almost every year since. (It was canceled because of the economic downturn in 2008.)

Featuring live music, a popular crab soup competition and unlimited opportunities to sample the bay's culinary treasures, it routinely draws tens of thousands of people to the Anne Arundel County park. The 44th version will be held Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 10 and 11.

It would be hard to find a more ardent supporter than Jordan, a married father of two who grew up near the water in Cape St. Claire, crabbing with his own father every chance he got. By the time he was 12, he was volunteering at the fest, picking up trash. By 21, he had graduated to beer truck worker.

"Best job in the place," says Jordan, who belongs to Ravens Roost 66, a Cape St. Claire club whose members volunteer as a way of raising funds for the Johns Hopkins Children's Hospital.

Festival officials introduced the contest in 2006 to commemorate the event's 40th year. Jordan gave it a try. He lost in the first round but has swept to victory every year since.

He sat down at Cantler's one day this week, over crabs, to share a few inside secrets.

What's the first lesson of crab-picking 101?

First of all, there are two kinds of crab picking. The first is the kind you do at home. I call that picking when I'm paying. That's when you want to get into every body cavity and extract all the meat from every crab you can.

The other kind is competitive crab picking. That's a whole different approach.

How so?

The way the contest is set up, they let six to eight people stand around the table [in a given heat]. They cover the table with crabs. They do a big countdown, then you start.

You have three minutes [to pick] if it's a preliminary heat, five minutes if it's the finals. The goal is to get as much meat as possible out of however many crabs in the allotted time.

You don't have to get all the meat out of each crab. You just have to get a lot out, total. You pick it, stuff it in your [paper] cup, and they weigh it at the end. Going into every body cavity is a waste of time.

There's no premium placed on accuracy?