The warmer months in Baltimore mean eating crabs at a table in a backyard until the sun goes down. Picking crabs is one of the first things my grandmother taught me when I was in elementary school. This along with navigating secondhand smoke from her Newport cigarettes and freezing water in soda bottles to drink as it melted on sultry days.

Like riding a bike, eating whole crabs is something I’ll never forget how to do. But there are also rules I learned as I got older too.

A crab seasoned with Old Bay sports a cigarette in its claw.
A crab seasoned with Old Bay sports a cigarette in its claw. (Kaitlin Newman)

Sit at anyone’s table in front of that steamy brown bag of crabs and there are certain things you better know — or get ostracized from the room.

I know my family’s traditions, but I wanted to hear what other people had to say about their own crustacean-eating criteria. So I posted a callout on Facebook, Instagram, X and NextDoor. My findings? There are some universal rules, but also a few I hadn’t heard before.

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With peak season beginning in April, now is a good time to brush up on some crab conduct.

There’s no guarantee kids are getting any

I’m very familiar with this one because my grandma always said, “If you can’t pick them, you can’t eat them.” It’s a statement that stayed burned, or should I say “clawed,” into my brain. She also added that she’d only show me one time how to open them. No pressure, right? On NextDoor, Teresa Jones said this was also her only rule, but specifically if kids can’t even pick up the crab, that’s a definite no-no to partaking.

A coworker shared that they were designated the claws as a kid in their household, which in hindsight makes a lot of sense because it prepares them for the real thing.

Mallets are a cop-out

“Real crab eaters don’t need a knocker,” said Sky-Ra Jackson, who’s originally from Baltimore but currently living in California. And I agree.

Crab-eating can get messy, and I find that using a mallet makes it even messier because some people basically bludgeon the crab and cause spatter. I can’t say my family would excommunicate me for whipping out a mallet, but there’d be questions because I’ve been opening them with my hands for so long.

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Don’t downplay the dipping sauce

As much as Maryland crab meat has such a fulfilling taste on its own, there are many households and restaurants that like to jazz it up with butter or sauces on the side. Satira Ryans, originally from the Eastern Shore, needs to make her personal concoction for a dipping sauce, or eating crabs “doesn’t feel right,” she said.

Personally, there’s only a handful of people I trust to make a homemade dipping sauce for crabs in my family. I usually opt for a sauce with a mayonnaise base or mixture of butter, garlic and other spices.

Size matters

Several people shared that smalls, as in size of the crab, are certainly an insult because it takes so much work to get very little meat. I agree it seems a little pointless to order those. One person even referred to the smalls as “spiders.” Jumbos or bigger are usually reserved for solo or very, very small get-togethers with people worth splurging with.

Another coworker brought to my attention that they also have a preference between males and females, but that’s an entirely different TedTalk.

Crabs after being steamed at Conrad's Crabs & Seafood Market in Parkville, Thursday, June 1, 2023.
Crabs after being steamed at Conrad's Crabs & Seafood Market in Parkville, Thursday, June 1, 2023. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

Who pays? Ideally everyone.

Contribution shows up in multiple ways when it comes to crab-eating. Let’s talk about financial contributions first.

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Crabs, especially when you consider the size one is getting, are not cheap, so there’s certainly an understanding about who’s putting in and who’ll be eating.

“Count the crabs that you eat because you eat what you paid for or we all eating the same amount,” Jackson said.

I’m accustomed to everyone pitching in for crabs. If for some reason someone didn’t get the memo, they need to contribute in another way, which usually means hopping on the grill or bringing some booze.

Pitching in for the cleanup is also important too. There’s no leaving it up to the sheets of newspaper to do all the work. Valencia Knight has a system in her house with a table that seats four and a trashcan in the middle, which allows scraps to be tossed as you eat, with less to clean up afterward. Before “finding that gem” everyone cleaned up together because it “made it faster and easier,” she shared on NextDoor.

Some people also have a rule that crabs are only eaten outdoors.

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To mustard or not to mustard

The debate over eating or not eating the “mustard” inside the crab is a continuous one. And, by mustard, I mean the socially acceptable term people use to describe the yellow stuff inside the crab that’s actually a part of the digestive system. Some people get offended when it’s “wasted,” others are indifferent, and some think it’s a little gross and scoop it out.

Regardless of the rules and etiquette, eating Maryland crabs is a culture in itself. I think one of the best things I love is that even though Maryland crabs are a spring and summer indulgence, crabs shipped from other places are accessible year-round, which means I don’t have to chase those sunsets in the warmer months and can bring some of my favorite people together more often.

Jasmine Vaughn-Hall is a neighborhood and community reporter at the Baltimore Banner, covering the people, challenges, and solutions within West Baltimore. Have a tip about something happening in your community? Taco recommendations? Call or text Jasmine at 443-608-8983.

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