If you live around here, lobster, squid and octopus are probably not on your list of things to eat every week. One's too rich, the other two may be too weird. But there's one seafood delicacy you know you're entitled to, and that's a tableful of spicy, peppery steamed blue crabs -- even this year, when the crabs were late and have seemed more expensive and smaller than they used to be. We count on these local crustaceans to mark the height of summer and linger through fall. And we assume, perhaps, that they've always been special and always popular in restaurants and that their peppery preparation is old-time and all-American, with origins faded into history.

Well, it turns out, none of these things is exactly true.

Steamed crabs as a seasonal delicacy? Not so long ago, they were "poor people's food," scraped up from the floor of the Patapsco or Wye River or the Chesapeake Bay by hardy Eastern Shore dwellers.

Available in nice restaurants? Imperial Crab and Crab Bisque, maybe; steamed crabs, no.

And that timeless peppery seasoning? Well, local watermen have used some seasonings for steaming crabs for generations, but today's peppery standard dates back only to 1939, when a Nazi- refugee spice merchant developed a commercial spice mix that was livelier and more sophisticated than anything fishmongers had been using.

"Crabs were considered poor people's food then," says Richard Cernak, co-owner with his wife, Rose, of Obrycki's Crab House in Baltimore. "Times were difficult, there was an overabundance of crabs and you could catch them easily," he says. "Then you'd take them home and steam them up. It was part of your subsistence."

Old recipe books often provided instruction for stewing, frying and baking (Mrs. B.C. Howard's "Fifty Years in a Maryland Kitchen," 1877). And for broiling and deviling (Mrs. E. Stevens Tilton's "Home Dissertations," 1890). But not steamed crabs as we know them today.

Even in 1918, when Baltimore sage H.L. Mencken waxed rhapsodic about the blue crab in the New York Evening Mail, it wasn't the peppery kind. He salivated over soft crabs, crab soup (both the vegetable and creamy versions) and crab cakes. And when he got to boiled hard crabs ("the most ancient of all crab dishes," he wrote), he speculated that being boiled with celery seeds, bay leaves, parsley and mushroom juice gave them flavor.

And in the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum cookbook collection, which has plenty of crab dishes, there is no recipe for steamed crabs until after World War II.

Enter the spicy mix of peppers, mustard, celery seeds, bay leaves, cloves, allspice, ginger, mace, cardamom, cinnamon and paprika that characterizes today's authentic steamed crabs.

Enter Gustav Brunn and an unanticipated cross-cultural encounter that revolutionized the crab industry.

His hand-cranked spice-grinder in tow, Brunn and his wife and children had made their way to the United States in 1938, and soon settled in Baltimore. Employment in those post-Depression, pre-war-effort years was still scarce. But 55-year-old Brunn had years of spice experience behind him, and people had to eat.

After a brief stint at a sausage factory, he made his way to a job at the Baltimore spice firm McCormick & Co. -- they were interested in his sausage-seasoning experience -- where he lasted only three days. His limited English and perhaps his Jewish origins, he speculated in an oral history compiled at the Jewish Historical Society of Maryland, were problems.

So, renting a small second-floor space on property now occupied by the Orioles' Camden Yards, he opened his own business, the Baltimore Spice Company. The location proved providential: upstairs from a seafood business and across the street from the Wholesale Fish Market.

As a newcomer to America, he asked local grocers what he could offer the American market. A natural businessman, he soon was selling spices to wholesalers, and even managed to get a few government contracts. Wartime, after all, meant military mess halls, and mess halls meant chili, and chili meant spices.

But his creative triumph lay with crabs. Baltimore's wholesale fish markets sold steamed crabs by then, but they didn't have the pizazz that made people rush out to buy them.

Ralph Brunn, who eventually went into business with his father and worked with him as a teenager, remembers those years well. "Within a few months, my father realized that lots of wholesale steamers came over from the fish market to buy spices," he says. "They'd buy individual spices, red and black peppers, mustard, celery seeds. In a few months, being a seasoning man, my father became curious about what they were doing."

The steamers may have known crabs, but Gustav Brunn knew spices. "He played around with proportions, added his own group of seasonings that rounded out these flavors and put together a product with 13 different ingredients instead of three or four, and more complex perfuming," says his son, now 72.

At first the wholesale steamers wouldn't buy the new seasoning. They had their own secret recipes, and Brunn's product was quite different. The spice merchant finally persuaded one steamer to try a 10-pound box of his concoction. "He soon came back," says Ralph Brunn, "and said, this stuff is terrific!' "

As more and more fishmongers tried out Brunn's spices, his product and those that followed seemed to light a fire under the crab industry. Steamed crabs had been around at wholesale fish markets for 20 years or more as a local secret that gradually caught on at retail fish markets, says Dean Krimmel, curator at Baltimore City Life Museums, where a current exhibit pays homage to crabs.

Brunn's marketing instincts were sure. As he targeted additional wholesalers as potential customers, he was happy to oblige individual tastes. "Some of the steamers wanted {the mix} altered a little bit," says Ralph Brunn, "a little bit more black pepper, or more celery seed, to give it individuality."

For retail fishmongers, Brunn packaged the basic mix in containers they could sell to their customers. "Housewives used to go to the market and say how do you season this?,' " says his son. "And the guy behind the counter would say try this product.' She'd buy it, take it home and come back for more seafood."

Brunn first called his product India Girl Shrimp and Crab Seasoning; after all, India was where many of the spices came from. But when the Old Bay steamship line (Baltimore to Norfolk and back) went out of business, a good friend in the advertising business, who knew a great product name when he saw it, suggested it to Brunn.

Steamed crabs had begun to show up as snacks in bars and amusement parks, and soon spicy versions were replacing the less lively ones.

Joseph Bernard, president of Wye River, Inc., an up-market seasoning company with products that range from steamed crab spices to salsa, remembers going to the back door of East Baltimore bars for crabs when he was growing up. "Thirteen for the price of 12 on paper beer trays," he recalls. The conventional wisdom was that the spicy variety of crabs would make the customers drink more beer.

Old Bay went on to become the standard for steaming crabs, and eventually McCormick bought the recipe of the man they had fired so many years before. The Baltimore Spice Co. was sold off and Ralph Brunn is recently semi-retired from his own Allied Export.

As well thought out as Brunn's spice mix was (and those that followed: J.O. Spices, founded in 1945 by a former colleague of Brunn's; Wye River, Inc., in 1985), it doesn't really explain what created the steamed crab mania and the phenomenal growth of crab houses all over the area.

What really did it? Ralph Brunn speculates that crab houses were a natural business for entrepreneurial veterans seeking new business opportunities after World War II. Curator Krimmel points to the growth of refrigeration (particularly on trucks) that made the industry possible in the first place. "With crabs, it was absolutely essential to keep them alive," he says.

But in gustatorial matters, there's really only one bottom line: Maybe they just taste good. And There's Always Room for More

For much of my childhood, I lived in Baltimore, and therefore knew the delights of steamed crabs early on.

But I knew them as dessert -- or at least an after-dinner treat.

The memory of going out for crabs after dinner seemed so implausible, though, that I began to doubt it.

But Wye River, Inc.'s Joe Bernard confirmed the practice. "We would eat a big dinner, and then later have crabs," he says. "You would try to catch as many as you could because they were expensive, a delicacy, and weren't always plentiful. So it wasn't always enough just to eat crabs for dinner."

Then last week, watching a cheerful Baltimore family eat dinner at a local restaurant, I saw the habit had held. They polished off a full meal of standard Americana -- spaghetti, hamburgers, french fries -- and then they tore into a tableful of steamed crabs. A real Baltimore dessert. -- Judith Weinraub