Crabs 101: A guide to cooking, eating and enjoying Maryland's most famous shellfish

First in a three-part series on crabs.

For Marylanders, crabs are more than a menu item. They're a way of life.

Generations of Marylanders have relied on blue crabs, culled from the Chesapeake Bay, as sustenance and — in the case of watermen — for their livelihoods.

Today, crabs are as much a social treat as they are a source of protein. The crab feast involves crabs, beer and lots of paper towels, and is a messy Maryland rite of passage.

"Crabs are a Maryland tradition. It's kind of genetically engraved in our culture," says Tony Conrad, owner of Conrad's Crabs in Parkville. "This is tradition — Orioles, crabs, beer."

Blue crabs may be the most famous product of the Chesapeake Bay. Blue-tinged when living, bright red after steaming, the crustaceans are prized — both locally and nationally — for their sweet, plentiful meat.

Crab-buying guide

"The meat is awesome," says Severna Park resident Clancy Cornwall, who has been eating and catching crabs on the Severn River and in the bay since he was six years old.

Cornwall and Conrad agree that crab meat is delicious but that the process of eating crabs is about more than just satisfying hunger.

"It's very dirty, very primal," says Cornwall. "You can't be a priss. You have to be willing to be vulnerable and get down to business."

As the manager of Cantler's Riverside Inn, a popular Annapolis crab house, Bruce Whalen has observed countless crab feasts, including both local residents and tourists.

"The best thing about crabs is the camaraderie," he says. "It's not a quick meal. Everyone gets to know each other and everyone gets dirty. It's great for parties."

Preparing for a genuine Maryland crab feast

Jen Harris, a native of upstate New York, and her, husband Mark, a New Englander, moved to Baltimore from Boston in 2010.

"We only know Friday night fish fry and lobstah!" she says with a laugh, explaining that when she was invited to her first backyard crab feast, she wasn't sure what to expect. "I think I assumed there would be mounds of lovely white crab meat in pretty painted bowls with mini forks."

Instead, Harris was surprised by a messy free-for-all.

"We rolled out paper on a long picnic table, dumped the bag of crabs out and started pounding on them," she says. Without years of experience, picking crabs was a challenge for Harris, but "when an experienced feaster broke a leg for me, white crabmeat came out. Mark and I shared it, and it was delicious."

Step-by-step guide on how to pick crabs [Pictures]

Conrad and Cornwall, who both grew up not just eating crabs but also catching them, wax poetic about their time on the water with family.

"It's a bonding thing," says Conrad. "As a little kid, if your dad or uncle takes you out, you think, 'I caught that!' Then you take it home and eat it. You're providing for yourself and tasting how great the crabs are."

How to steam crabs

As a boy, Conrad spent summers catching crabs with his cousins on the Eastern Shore. After a few years away from the water, while playing sports in college and at a stable but unfulfilling post-college job in the technology industry, crabbing drew him back. "My mind-set was to move on," he says. "I saw the struggle my family went through, working on the water. But if it's your calling, you go back."

Cornwall's family also has a history tied to the water, though he's several generations removed from watermen. Still, he learned to crab as a young boy from his father, and he plans to pass the tradition on to his children.

"The way I learned, which is the most fun and easy way as a family, is by tying chicken necks to a piece of string, then tying it to a pier or a bulkhead," he says. "It's definitely something you can do with kids — with one person pulling on the line and the other holding the net. It's something kids can do with their motor skills, and it doesn't involve expensive equipment."

Plus, he says, the process is gratifying. "Your line goes tight, and you get excited. You don't know what's on the other end of the line. There's relaxation, but also anticipation and reward."

This year, the Chesapeake Bay crab population is estimated at about 300 million, its lowest level in five years and two-thirds lower than in 2012. The Department of Natural Resources says that overharvesting did not cause the problem, but in an effort to boost the population, the state introduced limits to the number of female crabs that may be caught.

The bay has seen low crab yields before, most recently in 2008, when numbers dipped to record-low levels. Though crabs may be harder to find, or more expensive, this year, Maryland's long tradition of crabbing, picking and feasting will continue.

Because at its core, Maryland is for crabs.

Next Wednesday: Old-fashioned crab preparations, such as deviled crab and fried hard crab — where to find them, how to make them and why people love them.

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