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Crab Picking As an Art

Although some think crab picking is a barbaric tradition, crab feasts can be fun when you know what you're doing.

Perhaps there is no better way to spend a late summer afternoon than sitting at a newspaper-covered picnic table with a pile of steamed, Old Bay-coated, Maryland hard-shell crabs. The smell of the spicy seasoning lingers on your hands for days and its bite burning any tiny cuts on your fingers — but it's all well worth the pain.

The anatomy of a Maryland blue crab seems to be made for picking. Some people might think it is too time-consuming to pick a crab and might be tempted to bite right into it, shell and all. To avoid an unpleasant mouthful of sharp shell edges and other non-digestibles, follow these steps on how best to navigate a crab's cavities and appendages. Before beginning, make sure you've got a mallet (small hammer) and a sharp knife on hand. And prepare to get a little messy.

  1. First, pull out the claws from the body of the crab. While these are potentially hazardous pinchers as crabs crawl along the floor of the Chesapeake Bay, steamed crabs pose no threat, and you'll find lots of delicious meat here. Open by placing the sharp edge of your knife in the middle of the claw and gently hammering until there's a crack and you can easily break it with your hands. Use your knife to scoop out the meat.
  2. Next, pull out the skinny swimming legs, three on each side. You can break these open, but there's usually not much meat inside to eat.
  3. Then, pull out the two back swimming legs  — no meat in here, just get them out of the way.
  4. Now, you're on to the main event, the body. On the belly of a "jimmy," or male crab (the only kind of crab available to eat) is a long, narrow tab — an "apron" — perfectly shaped for pulling. By removing it, you're then able to split the back shell off the main body, exposing the innards.
  5. Once open, you will see the two rows of lungs  — ivory, feather-like organs  — which you should yank out along with the soft organs between them. There is a thick, yellowish substance, which is often referred to as the "mustard" of the crab. It's actually called hepatopancreas, and is part of the crab's digestive system. Considered a delicacy by some, there can be contaminants in the mustard so it may be safer to scoop it out with the rest of the organs and discard.
  6. Split the crab in half, exposing the white meat in cavities along the inside. The backfin area has huge chunks of meat and is arguably the best part of the crab.
  7. To reach all of the cavities, quarter the crab, and use your fingers to scoop out as much meat as possible.
  8. Repeat! Crab meat may be consumed on its own, or dipped into vinegar or warm butter.

Crab picking is undoubtedly a lengthy process and may seem to be nothing more than a grimy, barbaric tradition to those unaccustomed to crab feasts. To locals, however, this custom brings people together to share in one of the Bay's finest delicacies.

The Joy of the Catch

There is no shortage of establishments in the Greater Annapolis area, whether official businesses or road-side trailers, selling crabs. However, if you're ambitious enough to try catching a few on your own, this is what you'll need:

  • string
  • a net
  • raw chicken necks

Tie a chicken neck to the end of each piece of string, cut long enough to reach the bottom (or close to it) of the water. Tie the other end to a stationary, sturdy object on land such as a pier and toss the chicken neck into the water. Then wait for the string to become taught. Slowly pull it up until you can see what should be a crab just under the surface of the water, happily enjoying his booty. At this point, you'll need to slip the net into the water just behind the crab without him noticing. If you're able to do this, scoop up the crab and you've caught the beginning of your feast.

Any public dock or bulkhead in the area is fair game for crab catchers  — just make sure crabs are at least 5 inches long or you need to throw them back. And watch your toes!

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