The black pot is brought to a boil.

The sacrifices are prepared and thrown in it. The ritual begins.

The celebrants bang their hammers and soon a chorus of rat-a-tats fills the room. The sacramental fervor reaches its peak. It's crab-eating time along the Bay. From the tables down at Ernie's, to The Dancing Crab we know so well, it's our local dish.

Ever sat in a crabbery and tried to have a serious conversation? "No, I can't see you anymore. It's too -- " Bonk! Bonk-bonk! "I mean -- " Spraaack! Clunk. "Aw, forget it."

Then there's living lunch. One noon, a man was observed walking up to one of the boats at the municipal fish wharf in Southwest; in a European accent, he asked for and bought a single crab. Which he proceeded to split open and eat on the spot. Alive. Better to fix them at home in a steamer. Here are some tips on entertaining Chesapeake style: THE MORNING OF THE FEAST Prepare in advance: an empty shelf in the refrigerator.

Down on Main Avenue, order with aplomb and sound knowledgeable, .e. , "Gimme a bushel of jimmies. Don't want any sooks in it." You have just ordered male crabs, which are often larger than females, and cost more. Now, most people seem to like male crabs. The few who prefer females do so for the orange-colored, cheese-textured eggs in the middle. (They grow on you.)

One avid crab-eater was amazed: in all the hundreds of female crabs she'd consumed, she's never found one lacking eggs. Small wonder: the crab wouldn't be an adult female without them, without being fertilized. Its shell would look different: The immature female has a diamond shape on the underside, instead of a grownup bib-shape. Moreover, immature females are called she-crabs and served in soup.

If a few stray sooks happen in with the jimmies, no harm done. They're great conservation pieces at dinner, as targets of gross sexual discrimination or for environmentalists who worry that the crab population will die out if a sook passes their lips.

Your menu should be one of contrasts: Pale green coleslaw garnished with tomato wedges, some potato sald, obscenely thick white bread. A case of beer. tChocolate is a good flavor for dessert, but if the crabs are overcooked and mushy, avoid mousse. Pecan pie is a safe choice. AN HOUR BEFORE GUESTS ARRIVE Set the table as if entertaining two-year-olds for fingerpainting: newspapers on the table, and a roll of paper towels for wiping their hands. 15 MINUTES BEFORE GUESTS ARRIVE Practice reciting in front of the mirror; "If they ain't kickin' they ain't cookin'." A FEW MINUTES BEFORE DINNER Start a broth, half white vinegar and half water, boiling in the bottom of the steamer. In the top steamer pot, carefully arrange a layer of crabs. (Family executioner should be appointed in advance.) Cover with a mixture of half Old Bay spice and half salt, to taste. Repeat until steamer is filled, or crabs grab you. (Use tongs.)

Steam the crabs till they turn red -- about 15 minutes. EATING TIPS 1. They have to be pried open. On the male, pull up a skinny strip on the underside; on the female, rip off the bib. 2. Grasp the top red shell in one hand and put the fingers of the other hand in where the shell attaches to the rest of the crab. Yank apart. Discard shell or use as ashtray. 3. Wipe the splatters off your face and your dinner partner's left arm. 4. Proceed to break the crab's little body in two. 5. Proceed to break each half in two again. 6. Wipe the splatters off your left arm and your neighbor's face. 7. Remove anything that looks icky. 8. Don't eat anything that doesn't feel or taste like crabmeat.This means the gills, also known as old lady's fingers, or dead man's fingers. Discreet spitting is permissible: a gentle "ptu" to eject small bits of shell. 9. Eat till you burst. IN THE MEANTIME, observe fellow crab pickers. The neophyte sucks the small swimmer legs; the veteran tosses them. The tyro is characterized by meticulousness, as opposed to the studied sloppiness of experience. He or she may in frustration slam the shell with a mallet. The veteran manages nicely with a nutcracker, in the belief that that whole walnuts are better than crushed walnuts.

Other styles have been observed: The Digger. The Crusher. The Watch-Repairman. The Angry Young Man. The Avon Lady (looks for the bell on the shell). Similarly, The Lock-Picker. The Garbage-Collector. bThe Surgeon. The Sybarite. The Esthete. The Marine Biologist. Gene Krupa. DISPOSAL: Many a large green plastic trash can has been permanently sullied by the smell of decaying crab, put there by those who tried to eat all but failed. It takes a good month for the odor to go away.

Whatever you do, time your exit from your house not to coincide with the trash collection. You don't want to see the sanitation engineers' faces. You don't want to know.

One person suggested that a sure way to dispose of crabshells would be to wrap them like laundry and leave the bundle in the back seat of a car: It'll be gone in a few hours," he said.

A friend's father buried his shells. Maybe he dug them up a few years later; maybe he planted tomatoes over them. Nobody thought to ask.