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Everyone at the Petaluma 7-11 Lions Club crab feed has their own special way of eating the delicious crustaceans.

Some start by cracking the claw and scattering the rich meat all over their hands and bibs. Others go right for the body, hunting for the sweet meat between pockets and crevices.

Most prefer to devour the Dungeness crab like a sea lion, gobbling the meat just as fast as they can remove it from the shell.

Cherie Gervais of Petaluma, though, likes to delay the gratification. She painstakingly cracks a whole crab on top of a salad before tucking in.

"I see everyone cracking and eating," said Gervais, who brought her own tools -#8212; a pair of pliers and some kind of lancing device. "I prefer to wait and eat it all at once."

With an abundance of North Coast crab feeds to choose from, most of the seafood lovers at the Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds are no strangers to these events and are not afraid to roll up their sleeves and make a mess of the plastic-lined communal tables.

Crab feed fundraisers have become a ubiquitous North Coast tradition each winter when crabbers haul in thousands of tons of Dungeness from San Francisco to Eureka.

In Sonoma County, community groups will host at least 50 crab feeds this season from December to March. Rotary clubs, service groups, high schools and churches all vie for hungry crab connoisseurs.

Prices range from $40 to $100 per person, which usually includes bread, salad, pasta and, of course, all-you-can-eat Dungeness crab. Some fundraisers include wine tasting, entertainment, raffles and auctions.

The Sonoma County Farm Bureau's crab feed has evolved into the largest such event on the North Coast. Now in its 25th year, the crab feed fills Grace Pavilion at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds with business leaders, politicians and philanthropists and raises $50,000 for agricultural education.

Organizer Tim Tesconi said the group will go through 1,200 crabs during the Feb. 1 event.

"It's really become a winter social event for the agriculture business community," he said. "People really like coming together to eat crab and socialize."

The Sonoma County crab feed has its roots in Bodega Bay, the port of call for many a crabbing vessel. Sunday's sold-out Bodega Bay Grange Crab Cioppino Feed, an annual event first held in 1953, is one of the oldest, according to Sonoma County historian and Press Democrat columnist Gaye LeBaron.

Crab lovers would come from all over the Bay Area in buses and wait in line for two hours for the Italian crab stew, consuming lots of wine while they waited, she said.

"It really got out of hand," LeBaron said.

Now, LeBaron said, crab feeds have become major events on the social calendar.

"They just kind of crept up in popularity in the last decade or so," she said. "It's kind of our answer to Oktoberfest."

Ronita Sundin Egger of Fairfax would agree.

She was among 435 people who feasted on 1,400 pounds of Bodega Bay Dungeness at a fundraiser Saturday night for Santa Rosa High School at the Veterans Memorial Building in Santa Rosa.

Egger, who attended the school in the late 1950s, said she loves the food but is drawn by the chance to see old friends.

"This month, I'm going to four of these," she said as she mingled in front of a live auction table, glass of wine in hand. "I like the crab but we're also really social."

The Petaluma Lions Club, one of more than a half-dozen groups staging crab feeds Saturday, served up 1,700 pounds of Dungeness, according to organizer Ron Hammer. The event brings in $10,000 for the Boys and Girls Club and the Boy Scouts, he said.

About 100 crab aficionados tore into plates of chilled Dungeness at the lunch seating Saturday afternoon. Tom Nugent and Viola Lucero of Petaluma treated friend Daron Tong of Oakland for his 60thbirthday. Tong said there's no better way to eat crab than in a communal setting with friendly strangers.

"In a restaurant, it would be pretty messy," he said. "When you're out at an event like this, it's sort of fun. Plus crab is really, really delicious. No one would come to a chicken feed."

(Staff Writer Paul Payne contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Matt Brown at 521-5206 or matt.brown@pressdemocrat.com.)