When the weather makes its annual springtime tack from mild to sweltering, the object of shellfish socializing shifts, too: When it's too warm in the Lowcountry for oyster roasts, crab cracks prevail.
A crab crack is outwardly similar to an oyster roast: Participants stand around an improvised outdoor table, covered with newspapers, and use only a primitive tool - in this case, a wooden mallet - to free the meat secured within a rock-hard shell.
The primary difference between the communal eating parties is the clean-up. While an oyster roast is only moderately messy, a crab crack done right is a stupendous muddle of boiled blue crab body parts, juices and guts.
According to local chef B.J. Dennis, who recently brought his Gullah menu to Le Creuset's L'Atelier for the venue's first pop-up dinner, "The crab crack is a bigger deal in the African-American community. Every weekend in the summer and fall, someone is having a crab crack. By the time you're 7 or 8 years old, you better know how to pick a crab if you want to eat one down here."
If you didn't master crab-cracking as a child, here's an abridged version of the drill: Flip the crab over so you're looking at its underside. If the plate's round, it's a female, or sook. If it's rocket-shaped, you're dealing with a male, or jimmy. (Jimmies are bigger and usually considered more desirable, but there's always someone at the crab table who will make a case for sooks.)
Make sure you're not wearing your Sunday best. Then break off the claws, pop off the flap, remove the top shell and gills, and snap the crab in two. Discarded crab legs work as picks, but daintiness is a losing strategy: Breaking down a crab is very much a hands-on activity. Finally, use the mallet, if provided, to crack the claws. Have another swig of beer and repeat.