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Talking technique

Crisfield, Md. resident Whitey Schmidt -- widely referred to as the Chesapeake's Blue Crab Guru -- stands in his kitchen, wearing his trademark ball cap, T-shirt and faded walking shorts. Not surprisingly, he's preparing to steam another dozen jimmies (legal-size male hard crabs). This is the epicenter of Schmidt's world, where he's tested hundreds of recipes for his many bay-flavored cookbooks and regaled countless guests with tales from his many-splendored culinary life. Packing the crabs into the steamer, he notices that one of the critters has a leg sticking out under the lid. Schmidt, 60, tucks it back in, jerking his hand back from the steam. "Get back in there, you little bugger," he admonishes. Fifteen minutes later, the crabs have gone from blue-green to bright orange. And it's time to eat.

SunSpot: Is there one right way to pick a crab?

Schmidt: Well, no. Not really. Everybody picks them differently. I have one friend who uses his hands picking the entire crab. Another uses a regular fork out of his kitchen drawer. I like to use my Carvel Hall picking knife. It has a heavy handle with a short blade. Custom made for picking crabs. This is the tool I use to pick crabs while I'm driving down the road."

SunSpot: You pick crabs while driving down the road?

Schmidt: I do. It's a long way from Crisfield to anywhere else, so I pick crabs, sometimes, on those long drives. But it's not something I'd recommend to other people. It has taken me years of training. I've also been known to smack a claw against the steering wheel [of his 1983 Pontiac station wagon].

SunSpot: Crabs and cars. That's an interesting combination.

Schmidt: I find they go together well. I've taken a dozen crabs to the drive-in movies and just used the claws to pick my way through them. It's great when you've got "True Grit" and John Wayne on the big screen, and a dozen steamed crabs there on the seat between you and your honey.

SunSpot: You talk a lot about the tools people use to pick crabs. What is the most overused tool?

Schmidt: The mallet, definitely, especially with beginners. They see that mallet and think they have to smash the crab with it. Really, the mallet is only used for getting the meat out of the claws. But I've seen people smash right into the middle of the crab with mallets. All they're doing is making a big mess of the thing. Not good.

SunSpot: Have you ever pulled aside total strangers and taught them proper crab-picking technique?

Schmidt: I remember one time in Ocean City, I had already had lunch. I was walking out of the crab house and I saw a woman. She had two kids and she had them just beating on the crabs with the mallets. So I took about 20 minutes showing the kids how to dismantle a crab properly. Yeah, I wound up eating another two or three crabs in the process -- and yes, they were their crabs, technically. But I think the kids really got something out of it. So, yes, I've stopped at many a table to acquaint beginners with how to do it right.

SunSpot: What is the best accompaniment for a dozen crabs?

Schmidt: I enjoy a cold Bass Ale with mine. There's just no substitute.

SunSpot: What about leftovers? What do you suggest doing with them?

Schmidt: Well, I don't remember having any leftovers left over. But, if you're going to keep them in the fridge, do not reheat them. Just eat them cold. Reheating crabs is taboo in my book. It should be punishable by law, a public caning, maybe. Why? It just overcooks the meat."

SunSpot: Your crabby career has spanned eight books and dozens of cooking columns in newspapers and magazines. How did it all begin?

Schmidt: From about 1980 to 1985, I was working as an insurance claims adjuster and spent a lot of time driving around bay country for my job. Along the way, I ate at a number of crab houses. I remember one time I had crabs from five different places on the back seat. I also collected menus from every crab house I visited. After a few years, I had several beer cartons full of them. Then I started getting about five calls a week from friends asking where to get the best crabs in this town or that. And the idea just struck. I decided to write and publish my own guide to bay country crab houses in 1985. I called it "The Official Crab Eater's Guide."

SunSpot: And the rest is history?

Schmidt: Yeah, the crabs have been quaking ever since.

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