Two watermen are each cooking a bushel of crabs. One puts the seasoning on before he steams them; the other waits until after the crabs are cooked. Who did it the right way?

The answer: whichever guy is bigger.

Consider:

No one has ever quite settled the season-before-or-season-after debate. Some say the spices seep into the hard crab during steaming; others argue the only way the seasoning gets on the crab is from your fingers as you pick out the meat.

People take their crab cooking very, very seriously, so it's best not to take sides if you don't have to. If you do take sides, make sure your side can throw the other side overboard when things get ugly.

Cooking crabs seems simple enough. Throw a batch into a pot with some water, steam for about 25 minutes, serve. Of course, getting to the moon has just a few steps, too: get in rocket, start engine, fly fast, get off rocket. The devil is in the details.

This is a story about the details. This is a story that will teach you how to take a bushel of vicious blue crabs and turn them into a spicy afternoon feast that will last for hours and seem too short, that will frustrate out-of-towners stymied by the art of picking crabs and leave them marking your calendar with their next visit. Buying a bushel of steamed crabs makes you a great host; steaming a bushel of live crabs leaves you a hero.

The first detail: the crabs. You want them alive, fat and big--in that order. Don't think a big crab is always the best crab; the heaviest crabs often come in small shells.

Most seafood markets carry live crabs and will generally sell them a dozen at a time. Do your best to make sure the crabs are from the Chesapeake Bay. You'll just feel dirty if you try cooking up a batch of impostors from the Carolinas or Louisiana. Take it from Renny Gay, owner of Gay's Seafood, a waterside hut in Easton, Md., and the "Home of the Happy Crab."

"The key to our success," Gay says, "is we always use our local crabs."

Once you bring home your crabs, you have a difficult decision to make: how best to execute them. (Sorry, but there's no politically correct way to state it.) There is a consensus that if crabs are dumped into a pot alive and kicking, they rip off their claws during cooking. Yet you never want to cook a long-dead crab, so killing them the moment before they go into the pot is generally considered a good idea. (The crabs have yet to reach this consensus.)

Some prefer to "stick" their crabs dead; that is, poke an ice pick through their heads. They don't like to talk about it, but a few seafood outfits actually electrocute their crabs before cooking them. Still others ice them down into what they say is a comatose state, using either a tub of ice water or just plain ice. An hour or two should do it. It does seem a more gentle way to go.

"A lot of people stick them, but I hate to do that," said Brice Phillips, proprietor, along with wife Shirley, of the Phillips seafood empire, which includes crab houses in Ocean City, Md., Baltimore and Washington; a line of processed crab foods sold nationally; and a crab-picking operation in the Philippines. This family may be responsible for sending more crabs to their doom than any other, but Brice Phillips still gets a little uneasy with the sticking part.

"When you pack them in ice, they're pretty darling," he assures from the third-story Ocean City office he shares with his wife. "They don't feel the steam much."

Before we get into the steaming process--and the dreaded seasoning question--we should talk about equipment. The easiest way to cook crabs is with a double-boiler steamer that fits on a stove. The water goes in the pot below, and the crabs go in the one on top, which has holes in the bottom to let in the steam. These two-pot systems typically hold a half-bushel of crabs, and one prominent crab supplier I spoke to thinks the smaller batches taste better.

Another popular rig is a propane cooker with a huge, restaurant-style pot that can hold an entire bushel of crabs. To be used only outdoors, never in the kitchen, this pot has a small metal rack that sits on the bottom to keep the crabs out of the water, but even a few bricks or blocks of wood would do the trick. Some people prefer to put their crabs in a basket and lower them into the pot, which makes removing the crabs easier.

A propane cooker runs hotter than a stove, so the crabs cook quicker, a great advantage because the longer a crab cooks, the mushier the meat becomes.

But what liquid should be used in the steaming? That's another tricky question, one made all the more delicate because suddenly beer is brought into the equation.

"My personal method is to use a cup or two of water, half cup of vinegar and a full beer," said Don Ports Jr., one of the third generation of owners of the J.O. Spice crab-seasoning plant in Baltimore.

That's a popular recipe, combining vinegar and beer in the water. Some see it as a little too fancy.

"I just put vinegar and water on the bottom. Some people use beer, but I think that's a waste of time," said Bob Evans, a waterman from Churchton, in Anne Arundel County. "I'd rather just drink the beer."

Evans makes a strong argument, to be sure, though I've always poured beer into the water when I'm steaming crabs. Especially if my friends are around. It just looks so cool, like tapping on a barometer to see if a storm is coming. Very old-saltlike.

Now here comes the most controversial part of this article. We're going to discuss seasoning.

People swear by their favorite. Old Bay is the most popular retail seller, though a good number of hard-core crab cookers I interviewed favored J.O. Spice. Wye River Inc. has carved out a following as well, and its black-and-white spice (heavy on the pepper and mustard) has its fans. A place called Mutt's in Secretary, Md., used to steam its crabs with just salt and pepper; old-timers swear they were the best crabs around.

Don't agonize too long over the kind of spices to use. Save some time to agonize over when to add them.

"I think it's a misconception that if you steam them with spices it somehow gets into the crab. It doesn't," explained Tom Knorr, the 27-year-old owner of the Red Roost crab house in Whitehaven, Md. "The only way the spices get on [the crabs] is you put the spices on the outside, it gets on your fingers, and then that gets on the meat. If you steam with the spices on the crab, it just gets all wet."

Don't tell that to Betty Duty, administrator of the Maryland Watermen's Association. Her method, "the Charles County way," is to layer the crabs with J.O. Spice, coarse kosher salt and a bit of red pepper, then steam. Not only does this give the crabs a good flavor, she said, but it eliminates the gruesome sticking procedure. "When you layer them with the spice, they settle right down," Duty explained.

Bob Evans, the Churchton waterman and voice of reason, points out: "The only thing I think that really goes into the crabs during steaming is the salt. The rest is just smell."

So if it's just making a tasty aroma, don't even bother with the seasoning, right?

"Have you ever cooked hard-shell crabs without any seasoning on them?" asks Evans. "It's not too good a smell."

That makes the decision a little easier, doesn't it? If not, there's a Smith Island tradition that would seem to guarantee a well-seasoned crab. In that isolated community, which sits about seven miles off Crisfield on Maryland's Eastern Shore, locals steam their crabs with the shells off, so that the spices are poured directly on the crab's body before cooking.

"It's not hard," explained Clarence Smith, a Smith Island native who opened a seafood market with his cousin in Solomons, Md. "Just hold the crab over the side of the basket. Have a pair of gloves on. Pull the crab where the point of the shell is, and just pull right on it. It will come off real easy."

(No need to stick those crabs, by the way. Smith says they're dead once their shells come off. Really dead.)

Whatever your method, you'll want to make sure the water has hit a rolling boil before you put the crabs in the pot, or at least before you start timing them.

You'll notice I just said "put the crabs in the pot," as if it were as easy as adding potatoes to boiling water. It's not. You'll need tongs and/or heavy gloves. Oh yes, and shoes--heavy shoes: The infuriated crab has been known to bite right through a Topsider. If you're really macho and want to take on the crab barehanded, grab it from behind. Keep in mind that you want to be as far behind those big front claws as possible.

If you're using a double boiler, put the bottom pot on the burner on high, and once that water is boiling hard add the crabs to the top pot. And I guess it can't be said too many times or too emphatically: Always put the lid on the crab pot before you put it over the boiling water. From there, the target steaming time is 25 minutes, though most crab houses with their commercial steamers can do it in 15 to 20.

Doris Hicks, seafood technology specialist from the University of Delaware Sea Grant Program, said people risk undercooking crabs if they pay attention to color instead of time. "People will forget when they started cooking the crabs, then look in and see they've turned red" from their shell's original blue-green color, she said. "But it only takes about five minutes for that to happen."

The Sea Grant Program and the Maryland Department of Agriculture both recommend steaming crabs 20 to 30 minutes.

To test if a crab is done, break off a claw and crack it open with a knife handle. If the meat separates easily, "you know you've done a good job," as Rennie Gay put it.

Here's my one tip: Be certain you are serving crabs that cooked completely. Tear off a claw and test it. Even if the meat pulls off smoothly, taste it to make sure. Just in case that claw was a fluke, try another one. You'll have to keep testing. You don't want to disappoint your guests. And, you know, it's amazing how common flukes can be; you'll need a wide sampling. Don't serve crabs until you are absolutely satisfied with their quality.

That's one thing all the crab experts agree on: You can never be too careful.

How to Get At All That Crab Meat

1.Cover the table with newspaper or brown paper. Supply wooden mallets (or nutcrackers) and table knives, and wear casual clothes. Pile the steamed, chilled crabs in the center of the table.

2.Break off the pincer claws and legs.

3.Crack the claws and remove the meat. The legs don't contain enough meat to bother with, but can be kept to make shellfish stock or to flavor melted butter for a sauce.

4.Place the crab on its back and with thumbs or a knife point, pry off the flap on the underside (called the "apron"). Discard the intestinal vein of the crab that should pull away with the apron.

Place your thumb under the lip of the top shell in the center and pry it off, using a short knife if necessary to loosen, and discard it.

5.Clean away the gills, intestines and spongy matter (called "dead man's fingers") but save the tasty yellow substance or "tomalley" (liver). The hard, semi-transparent membrane covering the edible crab meat is now exposed.

Hold the crab at each side and break it apart at the center and slice the remaining shell in half and remove the delicious lumps of white crab meat. Use a nut pick or point of a knife to remove small bits of crab.

Crabs on the Web

For a bare-bones photo demonstration on how to pick crabs, log on to the Web site for Obrycki's, a famous Baltimore crab house, at www.obryckis.com/eatcrab. html.

For a number of crab links--from The Crustacean Society to a talking anatomical crab--log on to Bay Links at www.clark.net/pub/crabbing/ bay.htm. It even includes a rundown on how to catch crabs and the governing state laws and regulations.

For just about everything else about crabs, check out Steve Zinski's comprehensive Blue Crab Archives site at http://bluecrab.richmond. edu/. Archives are usually deadly boring, but this site is fun. It's filled with hints on telling male crabs from female crabs, a crab chat room, news on crabs that's updated weekly, places to buy and eat crabs, and personal anecdotes from Zinski's lifelong obsession with crabs.

First, You Get a Pot

Here are two simple recipes from two different schools of thought about cooking crabs.

Steamed Blue Crabs

(4 to 6 servings)

This recipe is from the University of Delaware Sea Grant Marine Advisory Service.

3 cups vinegar

3 cups water or beer (or a combination)

24 live hard-shell blue crabs

1 cup seafood seasoning mix, such as Old Bay

In the bottom pot of a double boiler-style steamer or in a large pot with a steaming rack and a tight-fitting lid, pour the vinegar and water or beer and bring to a boil. Get ready with tongs or put on heavy gloves. When the water is boiling, add the crabs to the top pan of the double boiler or to the large pot, a few at a time, Move quickly! Sprinkle each layer with the seasoning mix. Quickly cover the pan. Steam for 25 to 30 minutes.

Per serving (based on 6): 73 calories, 15 gm protein, trace carbohydrates, 1 gm fat, 66 mg cholesterol, trace saturated fat, 500 mg sodium, 0 gm dietary fiber

Boiled Blue Crabs

(4 to 6 servings)

Suzette Hetzer, an amateur chef from Atlanta, patched together this recipe recently when she set out to boil crabs for the first time. She declared the results a steaming success.

Two 12-ounce bottles flat beer

7 bay leaves

1 lemon, thinly sliced

6 cloves garlic

1 stalk celery

Liberal amounts of allspice, whole cloves, coriander, crushed red pepper flakes and cayenne pepper to taste

24 live hard-shell blue crabs

In a large pot, combine the beer, bay leaves, lemon, garlic and celery. Add the allspice, cloves, coriander, pepper flakes and cayenne to taste. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium and allow the mixture to cook at a slow boil for about 30 minutes.

Increase the heat to high. Get ready with tongs or heavy gloves. Add the crabs. Quickly return the lid to the pan or have an assistant ready to slam that lid down should any commotion occur. Cook for 20 to 23 minutes after the water returns to a boil.

Per serving (based on 6): 80 calories, 15 gm protein, 1 gm carbohydrates, 1 gm fat, 66 mg cholesterol, trace saturated fat, 247 mg sodium, trace dietary fiber

Douglas Hanks III worked until recently in media relations for Washington College in Chestertown, Md., and now is a reporter for the News Journal in Newcastle, Del.