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.
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?
Well, within reason. If you have lots of shell [in your meat], the judges might weigh that and subtract it from your total. I haven't seen them give penalty points.
Is there any single best technique to this?
There are as many techniques as there are pickers. I saw one guy take a mallet, hold it up [this high], just smash the crab into a million pieces and start pulling the meat out. Others just go for the backfin, where the biggest lump of meat is, and leave the rest.
Every year there are a few people who pick the way they would at home — going for the legs, the claws, everything. I guess they're creatures of habit. They don't do very well.
My first year, I tried using a crab knife. I learned that for every second you're dealing with a knife, you could be picking meat. So I use my bare hands.
From there, I use three major steps. First, I hold it like this and just pull the top shell [carapace] off. Then – again, using my bare hands – I break the crab's body into two halves. Then I take each half, [crush] it as hard as I can, and pull off the meat that [is forced out]. That seems to give me a lot of quantity.
The guys who go only for the backfin have a good idea, but I think it takes too much time to focus on one part. I rely on strength.
Are there downsides to a power approach?
Sure. See this finger here? [He displays a scar from a half-inch gash.] I did that the first year I won. And yes, it bled. The meat ended up kind of pink. Now I tape my thumbs — and the first two fingers on each hand — before a competition.
Any other little pointers?
The rules don't say you have to completely fill a cup before beginning on the next cup. I go on to my next cup as quickly as possible. When opponents see you piling up the cups, it can psyche them out.
How quickly can you pick a crab?
Doing it at home — about a minute. In competition, about half that, though a lot depends on circumstances.
There are different phases of a crab's life. They depend on phases of the moon. Crabs slough their shells just after the full moon, so if you catch them right after that, their shells are softer. If the crabs are soft, it's easier.
The first year I won , the shells were really soft. That year was my personal best [for weight] — I got 11/4 pounds in [the] five minutes.
Last year, the shells were a lot harder. I picked 0.89 pounds. It was still good enough to win.
Aside from winning, what do you enjoy about the competition?
I like that it's family-oriented. The early heats are held under a tent, and it can get pretty competitive, but your friends and family are there, hollering and cheering you on. For the finals, my family and friends have always been there. Some buddies of mine sit up front, yelling at me the whole time: "You're gettin' beat! You're gettin' beat!" It's great motivation.
And you meet some real characters. My first year, a guy from New York was [competing]. He talked a big game, was very brash. He had the Noo Yawk accent and all that. He [tied for the title]. I thought, 'I'm not letting a guy from New York keep that trophy.'
[At the next contest], we both made the finals. His meat weighed more than mine, but the judges saw he'd stuck about half a crab shell and a claw in there! They took that all out and remeasured, and I won. When he left, he was upset.
How did you get into all this to begin with?
From the earliest time I can remember, I saw people [picking crabs]. It always meant a really enjoyable social gathering — family time, time with friends.
My grandmother was originally from Solomons Island. She worked part time for one of the local crab guys. I can't remember her actually teaching me stuff, but I was around and saw what she did.
Later, my parents moved to Cape St. Claire. I grew up two blocks from the docks. My dad bought himself a commercial crabbing license, and he started taking me out in his jon boat to go crabbing when I was about 8.
My older brother has a July birthday, and that always meant a crab feast. I've always loved it.
So it all sank in.
Oh, yeah. People think I'm crazy. When I started dating [my wife, Kathy], the first few times we went out, it was to some of the local crab houses.
We were getting to know each other, and it was going pretty well, and I remember one night she asked me, "So, what kinds of qualities do you think you're looking for in a possible wife?" I said, "First of all, you have to eat crabs, and you have to pick crabs. That's a must." She had no problem with that.
And you're still involved in crabbing?
Yes. A couple of times a week, I get out on the water at about 4 in the morning to go crabbing. I have this crazy rig. I use a kayak. I use collapsible traps and keep a bushel basket on the back.
One morning, I saw a boat approaching. It was one of the watermen. I figured he was going to say, "You're too close to my boat," or "You're interfering with my area." But he pulled up alongside me and said, "Hey, man, that's the craziest setup I've ever seen. Can I take a picture?"
Where do you crab?
I'm not going to tell you that. Let's say it's a local creek and leave it at that.
Do you have any thoughts about the seafood festival in general?
Actually, it has always been part of my life. Members of my family have [been volunteers there] for the past 35 years. I've been volunteering for 30.
I love the volunteer and charity aspects. The vendors at the festival are [mostly] nonprofit organizations. They work for nothing, then the management company [ABC Events Inc. of Annapolis] makes a donation to those organizations after the festival.
Like Mount Zion [United Methodist] Church [of Lothian]. They're the ones with the gumbo every year. We all know and love that [booth].
What will this year's contest be like?
I don't know, but it will be competitive. Last year, there was this guy from Maine who put a scare into me. He was talking a lot of smack. He'd had very little experience with crabs, but he'd grown up on the docks, shucking oysters and stuff. "Seafood's seafood," he said.
At the end, I thought he'd beaten me, but I had just a little more than he did. Hope he's there again.
What does the future hold for Mike Jordan, competitive crab-picker?
I don't know how much longer I'll be doing [the contest]. Part of me thinks, "I've won three in a row. Where else is there to go?"
But my kids are taking an interest. My first-born [Dylan, 4], picks claws. You know, I've seen kids in the contest as young as 10. I have to pass the torch sometime.
If you go
What: The 44th Maryland Seafood Festival
Where: Sandy Point State Park
When: Saturday, Sept. 10, 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sunday, Sept. 11, 10 a.m.-7 p.m.
Admission: General adult, $14 ($12 online); children under 12 are free
For more information, visit mdseafoodfestival.com or call (443) 926-1464
Organizers of the Cantler's crab-picking contest will begin signing up contestants at the Crab Towne Tent on Sunday starting at 11 a.m. There will be three heats of eight people each – one at noon, one at 1 p.m. and one at 2 p.m. The finals will be on the main stage at 4:30 p.m.