"We boil everything down here, our shrimp, crabs, everything, we boil," Taranto said. "Personally, to me, it's a more flavorful, juicier product. You've got flavor [with steaming], but most of it's on it, not in it. When you boil something, you soak it and it absorbs it."
While both sides of the culinary debate are clearly dug in, here are unconfirmed reports of crab-house conversions.
"We have a lot of people, because of the casinos [in nearby Biloxi, Miss.], who come in and want it steamed, and we don't do it," Taranto said. "We put them on boiled and they love it."
Yet Shields, the Maryland cookbook author and chef, claims he won diners over with steam years ago when he lived and cooked on the West Coast.
"We had Dungeness crab, and you boil Dungeness crab, and everybody gets all excited for Dungeness crab time," Shields said. "I started doing steamed Dungeness with kind of like an Old Bay, and they couldn't believe the difference. They went crazy."
Thomas, the cook-off party's boiler, described his method as dreamy way for any crab to give up the ghost.
"We prepare the most beautiful spice bath those crabs will ever be laid to rest in," said Thomas, a 40-year-old business manager for a Mississippi shipbuilder. "The crabs are basically backstroking in there while they're going to — while they're waiting to be consumed."
He claims that comes through in his final product.
"When I'm up here, I'm definitely in enemy territory," Thomas said. "It's a pro steamed crowd — until they taste boiled."
His rival crab cooker begs to differ.
"Why would you boil something and make it soggy?" said Shiba, who is 54 and works in aerospace and defense. "He boils vegetables like potatoes and mushrooms up front and ruins people's taste buds before they get the taste of their crabs."
Shiba doubts any Marylanders are won over by boiling.
"They're just telling him — it's good to be polite, I'm sure," Shiba said.
Most people at the party were wary of taking sides, at least outside the confines of a secret ballot.
"I gotta know these people for another couple years," said Anton, the theme song writer.
Kevin O'Neill of Alexandria did let on that he was partial to steamed crabs. He grumbled when the liquid from the boiled crab he was picking ran off the table and onto him.
"It went right down my leg and into my shoe," he said. "There's moisture, but there's too much moisture."
When pressed, John Denkinger admitted that he preferred the boiled, even though he's a college buddy of the steamer.
But what does he know? Denkinger, 54, had never had fresh crab before Saturday. He's from Nebraska.
"We get crab that comes in a can," he said. "You buy it like tuna in a little can. They mix it with mayonnaise and put it on a cracker."
As everyone at the party could agree: That's just wrong.
Shiba's steamed crabs
Take a big pot (Shiba uses one made for frying turkeys) and fill with about an inch of liquid, equal parts water and beer. Insert a rack that will hold the crabs above the water line. Add a layer of crabs, sprinkle with Old Bay and kosher salt. Repeat until the pot is filled with crabs. Turn on the heat and steam for about half an hour.
Or take the easy way out, as Shiba did this year, and buy them already steamed. He got his from Frank's Seafood in Jessup.
Nick Thomas' boiled crabs
2 bushels of crabs
3 8-ounce bottles of liquid crab boil
9 pounds Zatarain's Crab Boil (labeled "Complete Nothing to Add")
4 Zatarain's Crab Boil in a Bag
Vinegar and beer
18 lemons, cut in half
18 oranges cut in half
40 bay leaves
50 pounds small potatoes, cut in half
25 cloves of garlic
25 pounds smoked sausage
100 ears of fresh corn, shucked and snapped in half
25 cups fresh button mushrooms
10 onions, cut in half
Rinse the crabs off well. Light the fire under the water and add about three-quarters of the seasonings to the water, squeezing the lemons and oranges. Bring the water to a boil. Let simmer for 15 to 30 minutes. The longer the better.
Add potatoes, garlic and sausage and boil for about 10 minutes. Add corn, mushrooms and onions and cook another 10 minutes.
Remove vegetables and re-season the water with remaining seasonings.
Return water to a boil, dump in crabs and stir. Once water returns to a boil, boil for ten minutes and shut the fire off.
Add two 2-liter jugs of ice (don't break them apart) and move them around in the water. Spray the outside of the pot with a light mist from the garden hose a few times every few minutes. The objective is to cool the water down so the crabs stop cooking and start soaking up the seasoning. Stir every few minutes until the crabs sink a little. About 15 minutes after the fire is turned off, start tasting. If the crabs are not to your liking, let them continue to soak, tasting every five minutes. When they're the way you like them, set them to drain and remove them from the pot. Let them air cool for several minutes.
Serve with dip made by combining:
1 cup mayonnaise
1 cup ketchup
2 tablespoons mustard (Creole)
1/2 teaspoon salt
pinch black pepper
pinch cayenne pepper
1/8 teaspoon liquid crab boil