Written by Susan Elnicki Wade
July 2015

For most Marylanders, picking crabs is an essential summer ritual. This deep-rooted Chesapeake tradition starts when they are young. It’s common to see toddlers with a bib and wooden mallet squeal with delight when their parents cover the backyard picnic table with steamed crabs. Maryland wedding couples often design special nuptial crab mallets embossed with the bride and groom’s names. And in 1989, the Maryland crab was designated the official state crustacean.

Fortunately for the rest of us, everyone is welcome to share the Maryland crab feast experience. To help newcomers navigate their first dozen steamed crabs, locals offer the following pearls of wisdom to get your crabitude going amid the mounds of shells.

What you are eating?

Chesapeake Bay crabs belong to the species Callinectes sapidus, which is Latin for “beautiful swimmer that is savory.” They can grow to about 9 inches, but waterman must toss them back if they’re less than 5 inches across their shells. If you see True Blue on the menu, then the Maryland Department of Natural Resources has certified that you’re getting the real deal and the restaurant is only serving local crabs, instead of imports from other regions or countries.

Where do they come from?

This species originated in the Caribbean, swims in waters from Argentina to Nova Scotia and is fond of moderate climates in the Mid-Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. Good news from Virginia’s Marine Resources Commission: Its latest survey of the Chesapeake crab population reports that their head count is up from a dangerously low 68.5 million in 2014 to 101 million Bay crabs this year.

How can you tell them apart?

It’s actually pretty easy. The males are called Jimmies, and when you flip them on their backs, you see an apron shaped like the Washington monument. Females, named Sooks, have a wider apron that looks like the U.S. Capitol Dome. Lady Sooks claws have a red tip as if she just painted her nails. Jimmies are more likely to appear at your table, because the Bay needs Sooks to reproduce.

How are they cooked?

Blue crabs are placed pinching and kicking into steamer pots for about 25 minutes and emerge with a glowing red-orange color. Heavy doses of Old Bay, J.O. or special house seasonings are poured on top. Purists keep it simple, cooking just the crabs and the spices. Others cover their crustaceans with corn on the cob, potatoes or even sausage. No matter how they’re prepared, you can’t wait to dig into a dozen of Maryland crabs. Cold beer and Orange Crushes are highly recommended.