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Gentlemen, start your crabs!

Ready, set, crawl

You can race them or eat them at the Hard Crab Derby in Crisfield, Md.

Ready, set, crawl

You can race them or eat them at the Hard Crab Derby in Crisfield, Md.

Personally, I’d rather eat crabs than watch them “race” in the annual National Hard Crab Derby at Crisfield, Md., the hard-crab capital of the world. But that’s the big attraction every Labor Day weekend in this Eastern Shore town on the Little Annemessex River.

Crisfield sponsors a soft-shell crab fair in May, a July clam bake, and an oyster and bull roast in October. But it’s derby day that will bring the crowds Sept. 4.

Locals, however, turn out in mob numbers the next day for the exciting boat-docking contest at the city dock. Practice runs start at noon, and crowds begin packing into the waterfront early for limited seating. It is far more lively and entertaining than the crab derby, with locals cheering on their favorite watermen as they demonstrate dexterity in handling their workboats.

Crisfield also is a center for charter fishing, and excursion boats regularly ferry passengers to Smith and Tangier islands, Chesapeake Bay’s famous offshore outposts where residents harvest seafood.

But during Labor Day weekend, the center of activities is an area surrounding the 500-slip Somers Cove Marina offering crab feasts, a beauty contest, fishing and crab-cooking contests, and boat and street parades.

Crab-cooking events begin at 9 a.m. Sept. 3 at the Woodson Middle School, and the marina grounds open at 6 p.m. ($4 admission), culminating with a karaoke contest at 8 p.m. that’s not to be missed.

The next day a parade marches down Main Street at 11 a.m., followed by the Governor’s Cup Crab Race at 2 p.m. and a crab picking contest at 3:30, skiff races at 4 o’clock, and arm wrestling contests at 4:30 p.m.

Crisfield also is a commercial center for the softshell crab industry, and these delicacies are shipped fresh and frozen all over the country and overseas. The blue Atlantic crab in its molting, softshell state can be eaten whole (pan-fried in butter), or picked (not hammered with a mallet) as a steamed and seasoned hardshell.

There is only one major crab and oyster packing house left in Crisfield, the Metompkin Bay Oyster Company, which is open to the public. In July the freshest of fresh jumbo lump crab meat (just picked as the crabs begin cooling from the steamer) was selling for a low $15 a pound. In Annapolis, local jumbo lump was fetching $35 and $40 a pound. There is nothing comparable to this succulent local crab meat, even though pasteurized, flavorless Asian imports flood the market to meet consumer demand.

It will be impossible to resist immediately eating this bounty from the Bay right out of the container (with Saltine crackers), so buy a couple extra pounds for home and pack it in a cooler, along with some fresh softshells.

To my way of thinking, Crisfield is worth a trip with or without a festival — just to eat crabs. For more information call the Chamber of Commerce at (800) 782-3913 or (410) 968-2500.