‘Free crabs!’

Paul Zoeller/Staff A crowd gathers as chef Maurice Frazier dumps blue crabs onto a fold-out table in the middle of the dance floor in early May at Sweet 221 Lounge in Summerville.

Dave Cobbs and Maurice “Reese” Frazier, 31-year-old double cousins, typically buy about eight bushels of blue crabs for crab night at Sweet 221 Lounge. Even still, Cobbs, who owns the strip mall nightclub, and Frazier, who does the cooking, tend to put aside a few boiled crabs in Styrofoam boxes for safekeeping. They know if friends and relatives show up late, there otherwise won’t be anything left for picking.

“Seafood on the table!” the club’s DJ cries as soon as he sees Frazier toddling across the still-empty dance floor with a plastic tub full of crabs percolating steam. Frazier dumps the crabs on a long folding table, draped in black plastic for the party and surrounded by women ready with little red plaid paper serving trays. “That’s right! Seafood Thursday!”

Customers bundle as many crabs as they can into their disposable dishes, balancing bodies atop bodies, with legs and claws hanging over the edge. Then they return to their high-backed barstools to eat.

Back in the kitchen, Frazier, sweating from tending a 100-gallon crab pot and hustling through the massive room, which measures 4,000-square-feet all told, is getting ready to heat another bushel.

“As you can see, they don’t last three minutes,” he says.

Free crab cracks are a Charleston bar tradition, although nobody knows when and how it got started. The why is the least of the mystery, at least from the patrons’ perspective: Crabs are delicious, and even more so when boiled in spice and bathed in butter.

“People like crabs. Especially Charlestonians,” says Cobbs, who was a full-time barber before in 2014 opening Sweet 221, billed as “where the grown and gorgeous come to party.” He still cuts hair.

Giving away more than 500 crabs a week isn’t cheap, but Cobbs says it’s an unavoidable business expense for club owners in the black community. He estimates half a dozen bars and nightclubs offer complimentary crab on a regular basis. When blue crabs aren’t in season, Sweet 221 runs a snow crab leg special. Buy two cocktails, and a platter’s on the house.

“Free crabs, free crabs,” Cobbs says. “Crab nights are really big in Charleston. It’s like a deal-maker: You got crabs, they come.”

Frazier, who cooked at Applebee’s and managed a KFC before taking the job at Sweet 221, can’t remember when bars around here didn’t host crab cracks. “I grew up around this,” he says. “I even used to go crabbing. I seen it mostly in African-American bars. I don’t see it too much in white folks’ bars, but it’s a catchy thing. People love crabs, so to do a combination with alcohol and crab, how can you go wrong?”

As Frazier is quick to remind reporters fixated on seafood, Sweet 221 serves 12 different kinds of chicken wings, jerk chicken, chicken livers, chicken gizzards and sandwiches. “We do comfort food,” he says. “You name it, we do it.” At this point, Frazier’s cooked so much crab that he’s lost his taste for it: “I used to be a crab fanatic. I’m crabbed out.”

Still, he stands by the garlic butter he applies to every crab that leaves his kitchen. “Nobody anywhere in Charleston that can do that butter right there,” he says. His boast is backed up by his condiment record: No customer yet has asked for cocktail sauce or any other crab cover-up.

A tableful of crabs for the taking is a gimmick, Frazier allows. “But you got to do it right,” he continues. “A lot of people do it, but a lot of people don’t make it pretty.”

Cobbs is responsible for the crab boil, which he assembles from crushed red pepper, minced onions, garlic and a heap of yellow mustard. “Crabs come out really good when you put a little mustard in them,” he promises. “Mustard makes it stick together.” Mustard may be magical, but it gets a little last-minute help in the pot from an unstinting sprinkle of Accent and a can of Budweiser, solemnly poured into the bubbling mix.

At Sweet 221, the same spicy medium is used for both snow crab legs and blue crabs. On crab nights, the kitchen is stocked with boxed-up clusters from Sam’s Club, an unmistakable emblem of global commerce and obscured seafood sourcing. But right alongside those packages are wooden bushels teeming with clattering blue crabs trying to escape: It’s easy to imagine a saloonkeeper dragging the same haul back to his establishment a century or two ago.

In this case, though, it’s hard to square fantasy with fact. The written historical record is notably short on information about African-American business practices: If Lowcountry proprietors in the 1800s and early 1900s tried to drum up traffic with crab promotions, the local press didn’t take note of it. The very phrase “crab crack” didn’t appear in The Charleston Evening Post until 1968, almost 80 years after The News and Courier started writing about oyster roasts.

University of South Carolina history professor David Shields couldn’t immediately recall any bygone black-owned beer joints with a reputation for crab distribution. And Chapel Hill chef Bill Smith, who authored the UNC Press cookbook “Crabs and Oysters,” says he never encountered crab giveaways in eastern North Carolina, where he was raised, although he remembers free baskets of fried fish at a segregated white bar in rural Carteret County.

Farther north, though, free crab had a brief heyday around the turn of the 20th century. “Free crab feasts are part of the summer dissipations of Washington,” The Washington Post reported in 1899. “They are provided by some of the saloons in lieu of free lunches. The occasional purchase of a glass of beer entitles the customer to all the crab he wants.”

In Washington, D.C., and nearby Baltimore, black and white bars alike offered free crab feasts, mostly because Chesapeake Bay crabs were then astonishingly abundant. In 1903, the Baltimore Elks Club was able to put together a racist hootenanny with 150,000 stewed, deviled, steamed and fried crabs served by “200 negro ‘mammies’ with bandanas and aprons.” Although the beer garden feasts faded around the time of World War I, they’re still a part of Old Bay company lore: According to repeated legend, the seasoning was invented to make crab moochers thirsty.

At Sweet 221, the men drink beer and the women drink wine, Frazier maintains. “The hardcore guys, they’ll sit there with Hennessey.”

Kyna Mathis is drinking a Crown Royal Regal Apple whiskey-and-pineapple juice. She’s alone at her purple-tablecloth-topped table because she stops at Sweet 221, located just up the street from the Walmart Supercenter in Summerville, on her way back from The Citadel. Crab night coincides with one of her project management classes.

“My friends usually meet me here, but if they’re not on time, it’s my treat for me,” she says.

In the scheme of treats, free crab seems modest. It’s served without any accessories. “I don’t know what kind of tools they’re going to use,” Frazier says, scrunching up his forehead when asked if customers ever want a mallet or double-jawed cracker. “They just break it down.”

But modest doesn’t capture Sweet 221’s crabs, which are meaty and thrashed with garlic. Their flesh radiates peppery heat.

Of all the bar crabs she’s tried, Mathis says she likes Sweet 221’s crabs best.

“They’re good,” she says. “And I tell you one thing: They’ve been consistent about putting them out on time.”

Sweet 221 upends its first bushel every Thursday at 8:30 p.m.