Showing off their crabs

Renee and Chad, the self proclaimed "crab couple" show off some of the blue crabs they have waiting to be steamed. (Baltimore Sun photo by Algerina Perna / June 13, 2010)

The first in a weekly series about the people and the jobs that define a Maryland summer.

Chad Slivenski and Renee Hoover make the commute from Dundalk in about 10 minutes, rolling into the restaurant parking lot in their dark-blue Honda Element with the "Chad's Got Crabs/Do You?" bumper sticker. In his roving crab-steamer days, Slivenski used to haul a whole rig in the Honda — pots, burners, propane tanks, seasoning, bags of ice and bushels of crabs — and set up wherever, working a bar or catering job here, an American Legion post there.

Those days are over, for now. Slivenski and Hoover, who met at a bar in Pasadena eight years ago, got engaged and now bill themselves as the "Crab Couple," are set up as independent operators at the Dock of the Bay on Millers Island, a summer destination spot where they turn out steamed and seasoned blue crabs, giving the restaurant owner a cut of their earnings. Customers stream in by land and sea, hundreds on a busy night, finding a nice view of Craighill Lighthouse in the Chesapeake Bay.

First things first. Slivenski and Hoover check about 300 pounds of crab left in boxes from the night before, when the restaurant was packed. Eaters come in hungry for steamed crabs coated with Hoover's own "Blue Claw Special Blend" seasoning, named for the Dundalk restaurant she owned: a blend of paprika, salt, pepper and other spices she can't reveal or she'd have to kill you.

The remaining crab stock — mostly caught in Lake Pontchartrain, New Orleans, some in Maryland — has to be checked for dead ones to discard. Hoover takes an inventory list into the kitchen so the servers will know what's available on this Sunday.

Slivenski heads into the cinder-block shed a few steps away to set up the steaming operation. About two inches of water goes into each of three stainless-steel pots that stand about 3 feet high. Two more pots are available for standby, just in case. A few gallons of water go into the "shocker," a blue plastic garbage pail fitted with two metal rods and wired to deliver a 120-volt jolt to the crabs submerged in a basket. Keeps them still so they don't fight in the steam pot and lose a leg or claw.

This is where Slivenski and Hoover spend their workweek, Wednesdays through Sundays, stepping between the 46-degree cooler and the steaming shed, out of sight of the customers, where the restaurant workers take their cigarette breaks. On a day like today, with temperatures in the 90s outside and steam at over 200 degrees periodically billowing from pots inside, the shed — even with five windows and a door open — stokes up like some ceremonial sweat lodge.

"I'll lose 30 pounds in the summer, gain 30 pounds in the winter," says Hoover, a 38-year-old Carroll County native who has also worked as a seafood manager for Safeway and at the seafood market in Jessup.

Slivenski, who is 37, grew up around the waterfront in Anne Arundel County and remembers steaming crabs with his grandfather. He recalls he once earned money to buy a boombox by working for a waterman baiting trotlines. A former semiprofessional wrestler billed variously as "Chad Bowman" and "Chad Austin," he keeps coming back to crabs.

"Anybody can steam crabs," he says. "Just steam them until they're orange and got scrambled eggs coming out of their faces."

He means the fat running out of cracks in the shell. If that's the easy part, the harder part is judging a good crab to start with: the firm feel, the stout underside. And the seasoning, of course, which he and Hoover apply liberally before and after steaming.

"We kind of over-season," says Slivenski, "but it sells beer and everybody loves it."

Around noon Sunday, the first order slip rolls up on the Epson printer on a shelf opposite the pot array: Someone's calling for a half-dozen jumbos, for $45. Slivenski heads into the cooler to select crabs, using a ruler to measure from point to point: 7 inches and more for jumbos.

From cooler to shocker, shocker to pot, pot to tray, tray to table takes 25 to 30 minutes.

"Sometimes the waitress comes out and says, 'Hey, where are my crabs?' " says Slivenski. "You can't microwave them. It ain't mozzarella sticks."

Sunday's business unfolds with many lulls until late, when the orders come in rapid succession. By the end of the night, they've turned out more than 200 pounds of steamed crabs. So far, looks like a busy season to come.

arthur.hirsch@baltsun.com