Nobody knows what steamed crabs taste like. Which is a crying shame, because your basic blue crab tastes better than anything else that is legal, and the only way to get the full flavor is to steam it.

But the universal method of preparing steamed crabs is to bury them in "crab boil," a vile concoction of salt, red pepper and pickling spice, and then cook them until their firm white flesh turns to mush.

When the crabs come out of the pot they are so covered with salt and spice that eating them is a throat-searing, lip-numbing ordeal. And while it anesthetizes the palate, the stuff starts the sweat and sinuses running and burns like fire in the small wounds that inevitably accumulate on a crab-picker's fingers.

People don't pour Tabasco over veal nor layer broiled trout with rock salt, so why this fiendish assault on the crab, whose flavor is far more delicate than either?

Because it sells beer. Crab houses learned early on that there is small profit in steamed crabs even at outrageous prices. There is great profit in beer, and the more spice they load onto crabs the more beer they sell. And it burns out the customers faster in all-you-can-eat crab feasts, when they coat the little beasts with so much spice you can't tell which side is up.

Innocents exposed to commercial crab cooking then go home and repeat the abomination. The little children wander into the kitchen and watch, and so are perverted in their turn.

The RIGHT WAY to steam crabs is as follows:

Use the traditional clam steamer. Put your crabs in the upper section, neatly arranged, right-side-up (if the crabs are as lively as they should be, they will not arrange neatly).

Put three pints of water in the bottom section and set it on the stove. When it is boiling furiously, stir in one tablespoonful of crab boil, and one cup of vinegar.

When the boil comes back up, set the top section on. Pour two cans of warm beer over the crabs, which will wave their claws at you, and put the lid back on. Go away for five minutes so you won't have to listen to the crabs scraping around in the pot.

Take the pot off when the crabs have turned fully red. This will vary between 20 and 30 minutes, depending on how big they are and whether they had been kept on ice before cooking. They should be kept on ice, but letting them warm up as the fatal hour approaches will hasten the cooking, which is all to the good.

What you have now is the crab in all his delicate glory, and you don't have to guzzle beer with him. A crisp white wine or even dry ginger ale will serve.

The other part of the ongoing steamed crab tragedy is that most people throw away half the yummies to be found in a crab. That stuff that collects in the inside of the points in the top shell - and usually sogs on down into the lower part as well - is the liver. It may be gray, green, yellow, or somewhere in between, but it is always good, with a robust flavor that complements the white meat.

The guts are good too. Everything in the crab except the shell and the gills is good. With a little practice you can learn to just grab up all that stuff, inner mouth parts included, and pop it into your face, squeezing it between the tongue and the roof of the mouth and extracting the riches and then spitting out the shell fragments. Try it.