Opening Oysters

Introduction

Classic Method
Clever Method
Commercial Method
Clumsy Method
Oyster Knives
Handles
Blades
Competition


Shucking Competition
John McCabe

Who's the fastest oyster opener? It seems likely that this question was first posed a very long time ago, probably during ancient Roman times when copious amounts of oysters had to be opened for the lavish banquets of wealthy patricians. The term shucking describes the opening of oysters and rendering their meats readily accessible for consumption or further processing. The meats will thus end up either on their cupped half shells for immediate slurping "in the raw" or in stainless steel bowls to later be canned, jarred, smoked, etc.

The persons performing this task professionally are called shuckers. Shucking is by no means a male privilege. There are countless female shuckers, some of them ranking among the world's best. What qualifies a really good shucker? It's certainly not just speed in terms of opening lots of oysters. What the oyster meat looks like after the shucker is done with his handiwork is equally important. Oysters consistently shucked poorly for half shell serving will translate into the restaurant or oyster bar losing customers. Likewise, the meats of oysters that are destined for the ultimate sale in jars and cans should ideally be undamaged after shucking, not chopped up by misguided knife blades. If oyster meats are damaged by careless opening, they end up as so called "cuts". Cuts are then sold at a considerably reduced price for various cooking purposes (like oyster stews). Bottom line: A fast shucker that turns out an excessive amount of damaged goods is not worth keeping, as he or she will cost the establishment money and/or customers. Nature and oystermen did not invest two to four years looking after oysters to then have them ruined in seconds by unskilled or impatient blade handlers. Likewise, a shucker that turns out perfectly shucked oysters, yet at a slow pace, is also not well suited for the commercial end of the business - at least not yet, as he or she may merely need more practice. Hence, highest speed and highest presentation quality possible is what oyster shucking championships are all about.

The Oyster Festival a.k.a. Oysterfest
Many coastal towns around the world celebrate their fishery heritage annually. Of those towns, the ones with a grand oyster history usually celebrate with an oyster festival (frequently called an "oysterfest"). Although there are many different oyster shucking competitions, one of the best known and organized is the Oyster Shucking (or Opening) Championship, usually held in coastal regions of a number of nations with the finalists advancing to their respective national finals. The national champions then advance to the international championship event in Galway, Ireland.

Oyster festivals coincide with the beginning of the proverbial "r-months". Hence, most of these grand events are usually held in September and October. Good food, delicious oysters prepared every way imaginable, cooking contests, art displays, bands and other entertainment, interesting nature and environmental exhibits, wine and beer tastings, and fun events for the kids usually draw huge crowds - rain or shine. The highlight of these oyster festivals are the shucking competitions. Watching about ten guys or gals step up to the (oyster) plate, oyster knife in hand, ready to do battle with about 240 oysters in a matter of minutes, certainly electrifies the spectators immediately. There's usually lots of supportive hooting, hollering, clapping, and whistling going on when these shuckers step up - almost as if everybody in the crowd suddenly remembers opening their first oyster. In turn, all the shuckers are suddenly big stars and frequently not used to all that public acknowledgement. It's great fun to watch.

In the United States and Canada there are frequently two kinds of shucking contests. One is referred to as speed shucking which aims to qualify the fastest shuckers of (undamaged) oyster meats. The other contest is called half-shell or presentation shucking. This is the international and somewhat more demanding form of shucking competition, as much can go wrong when trying to produce lots of perfect looking oysters on the half shell in a matter of a few minutes (damaged shells, shell splinters on the meat, cut meats, oyster liver damage, etc.). Finalists of the half shell competitions that are tied into the official national and international oyster shucking network have a shot at ultimately participating in the international shucking competition in Galway, Ireland.

Who are these Shucking Stars?
Most of the men and women that enter shucking competitions are sponsored by their employers (a commercial entity such as an oyster grower, shellfish distributor, or seafood restaurant). Most of them have shucked thousands upon thousands of oysters. They are all very good at what they do. The sponsor usually springs for a nice tee- or sweatshirt with the company's name printed or embroidered on it. Frequently he'll foot the bill on the entry fee (about 10 bucks) or pay a sponsoring contribution (which, as of 2006, runs about US$ 50 and usually includes the entry fee). The oyster festival coordinators, frequently the respective town and county and a chapter of the famed Rotary Club, will usually provide some honorable mention of the sponsors in the festival newspaper, other media and/or online. Incidentally, the company names on the shirts of the shuckers are read by many people since the crowds watching the competition are always rather large. This writer, for instance, makes a point to read them all, because I gratefully wish to take note of those who helped finance this wonderful event. There is likely also an additional silver lining in such a sponsorship associated with the respective shucker, as it helps builds company identity and, above all, is a glorious break from the monotony of shucking mountains of oysters day in and day out. The shucking contest is very likely the most glorious time of the year for many of these shuckers. What makes a shucking competition particularly beautiful and moving is that there are only winners and no losers while the competition is going on. The first shucker done with his or her oysters is by no means necessarily the winner and the last shucker that signals his shucking completion will usually be cheered just as much as the first shucker - sometimes even more, because he or she did not quit until the tough job was completed.

Small cash prizes await the top shuckers of both the meat and half shell shucking routines. For instance at the West Coast Shucking Competition held in Shelton, Washington in 2006, the top seven shuckers in each routine received cash awards. The best meat shucker qualified for US$ 400, second place $250, third $150, and 4th, 5th, and 6th place $75 each. Half shell presentation shucking prizes were (and usually are) bigger. The best half shell shucker qualified for US$ 600, second place $350, third $200, and 4th, 5th, and 6th place $100 each. The winner of this routine gets the grand prize which includes an all expense paid trip to the National Oyster Shucking Competition in Maryland.

Let the Competition Begin!
The crowd silences as the shuckers take their numbered stations and select or are assigned 25 oysters each, of which 24 must be shucked. The shucking of the 25th oyster is optional. (Note: The final international competition in Galway, Ireland, requires the opening of 30 oysters).

 

They then begin to carefully examine their batches of oysters very carefully, one by one. No oyster shell fortress is like another. Many shuckers essentially "pre-shuck" each oyster in their mind by holding and studying each one closely, observing weight, shape, hinge location, shell margin, and optimal knife entry point. Some line them up in a particular order or arrangement they feel will allow them to "grab and shuck and grab and shuck" just a tad more efficiently, as split seconds will matter in the end. Sometimes they will replace an unsuitable oyster in their batch by receiving another from a staff member or selecting from a common basket of oysters in the competition area. Shuckers are permitted use their preferred oyster knife design and carry another as back-up in case one knife blade may snap.

What looks like a hold-up is actually the sign that the shuckers are ready to begin. They raise their hands and knives to head level.

 

 

 

When the signal is given, the shuckers furiously go to work, each shucker being tracked by an official timekeeper. Note: This was a separate speed shucking contest for oyster meats only. The rules are essentially the same. The half shell contest followed later.

The competition is over within minutes. Every shucker that has completed opening his or her oysters will raise the hands and step back from their tray of oysters. His or her assigned timekeeper is watching closely and will stop the clock in this exact instant. Meanwhile, other shuckers may still be very hard at work. The competition ends when the last shucker is done with his or her batch of oysters. Note: All the images may be clicked for enlargement. This shucking competition was held in Shelton, Washington, on a gloriously sunny October day. The majestic Olympic mountain range looms in the backdrop.

The Judges
Once the shucking contestants have finished, the quality of their work is inspected by judges. The judging panel is usually composed of three to four unbiased individuals who have considerable experience in one or more facets of the shellfish industry. There is no "home court advantage" for shuckers from the area where the oyster festival is held. Only the shucked oysters presented to the judges speak for themselves and the rulings of the judges are final.

The first guys and gals that finish their batch of oysters, raise their hands and step back from the plate, are usually showered with very complimentary cheers from the crowd. However, deep down these shuckers know that all that glory is but a fleeting moment, as it may fizzle into a dismal defeat once the judges take a good look at his or her accomplishment. The half shell judgment is particularly brutal. Overall, judges expect the plate of half shell oysters to look as close to perfection as possible, reminiscent of what one would expect to be served in a premier seafood establishment. Was the portion of the adductor muscle under the oyster meat also severed? No? Where the shucker forgot to do so, a few extra seconds per oyster are added to the shucker's time. Are there shell splinters on the oyster meat? Hopefully not, because if so, here's a few seconds more. Never got to shucking one or more of the oysters? That's real bad and adds 20 seconds per oyster (as in "don't bother waiting around for any prizes"). Did the shucker cut him- or herself while opening the oysters and get blood on the oysters? Very bad! He or she will receive lots of seconds for that big no no. How are the oyster arranged on the tray? Is it a mess or is it attractive? Looks like a mess? There go more seconds…and so on. Bottom line: When the judges are done scrutinizing the oyster plates, the third or fourth shucker that originally raised his or her hands and stepped back may very well end up the winner of the competition.

The Champion
From the official shucking competitions a regional shucking champion ultimately emerges. He or she is now a VIP in the oyster world and this champion's name is usually immortalized in the form of a wooden or brass plaque which is added to a fancy roster listing the champions of past years. He or she has every reason to be happy about this great accomplishment. The champion also has every reason to worry about his or her chances of winning the nationals. At the national shucking competition he or she will be pitched against other great champions. Should he or she emerge as the victor, the gates to the international show-down in Galway are opened.

Although I'm not an expert on oyster competitions, I nonetheless tried to imagine what obstacles a regional champion might encounter in his or her quest for the national and international title. The first thing that struck me as somewhat of a handicap for a U.S. West Coast champion was the difference in oyster species. The West Coast champion is usually highly proficient with the Pacific oyster (Crassostrea gigas). This oyster species is the undisputed ruler of that side of the American continent. When the West Coast champ arrives in Maryland, he or she will be handling the Eastern oyster (Crassostrea virginica). Although these two species are closely related, their look and feel is markedly different. There is no doubt in my mind that the West Coast champ will also do a great job on this species. I do, however, suspect that the transition may slow him or her a bit - and that "bit" is the few split seconds (or points) that can make or break the victory. The National Oyster Shucking Competition could be qualified as the National Eastern Oyster Shucking Competition, as it does not include the Pacific oyster which holds about 40% of national oyster market share.

Let's say, the West Coast champ does emerge as the American national shucking champion. He or she then gets to participate in the international shucking contest in Galway, Ireland. Since the Pacific oyster dominates the European oyster industry with well over 90% of market share, it would seem logical to expect this species as the oyster of choice for an opening competition in that part of the world. However, it is not. Instead, the noble European oyster (Ostrea edulis) has been made the oyster of choice. If the Pacific and Eastern oyster seemed like "apples and pears" to that West Coast shucker, that European oyster will be like "apples and 1956 Chevy hubcaps". I'm guessing that only a fraction of 1% of all the American and Canadian shuckers have ever shucked a substantial quantity of European oysters. Unlike in the United States, the half shell trade vastly dominates European oyster consumption. Well over 90% of the oysters consumed in Europe are slurped raw. A speedy American oyster meat shucker would have trouble finding a job there. Hence, the Galway International Oyster Opening Championship could more aptly be called the International European Oyster Opening Championship. Obviously, the international field of proficient oyster openers was narrowed drastically by the species of choice - even for European standards.

With jet-lag and bags under the eyes from the drastic time zone change, the West Coast champ will be in the company of many seasoned European pros from fine oyster dining establishments that do much business with European oysters on the half shell.

Amazingly enough, one American, Cornelius Mackall in 1976, and one Canadian, Patrick McMurray in 2002, once did win the Galway contest. Cornelius Mackall can be considered the best American oyster shucker of all time. Besides the World Championship he won the American Championship three times. During the shucking nationals, the famous St. Mary's County National Oyster Cook-Off also takes place. For many years, the National Oyster Festival Cook-Off Committee has been publishing a little booklet which features some of the greatest oyster cooking recipes in the world - and more great ones pop up in every new issue. The 1985 issue, however, was extra special. All of page 2 was dedicated to an In Memoriam of Cornelius Mackall who regrettably had passed away at a rather young age. It notes that the National Oyster Festival Cook-Off Committee had been advised by the officials in Galway, Ireland, that "…Cornelius was the best good-will ambassador that ever came to Ireland; he was a gentleman and had a wonderful sense of humor. He will be missed."

Galway International Oyster Opening Championship
The national oyster shucking champions from many nations are invited to Galway, Ireland, for the international show-down.

In 2004, this grand festival celebrated its 50th birthday. Back in the fall of 1953, Brian Collins, the manager of the Great Southern Hotel, looked around his establishment and found its occupancy sorely lacking. It also happened to be the beginning of the traditional oyster season, the "r-months". Ireland's cool and pristine coastal waters have always produced fabulous oysters. Many of today's European oyster connoisseurs consider Ireland grown oysters (both the Pacific and European type) the finest in the World. So Collins put two and two together and proceeded to pitch the idea of an oyster festival to local business leaders and the beer brewing giant Guinness. The first festival in 1954 was a great success and the event grew more popular with every subsequent year. In recent decades it has not been unusual to spot world famous celebrities in the oyster opening cheering section. After the mayor of Galway ceremoniously slurps down an oyster, a weekend of non-stop entertainment begins. Besides the shucking competition there is much good food to choose from (not just oysters), great entertainment by national and international top artists, and dancing - and lots of Guinness beer of course. Every year, some lucky gal is selected as the Galway Oyster Pearl, an honor which usually includes the gift of an expensive watch of some kind.

The rules of the shucking competition (the Irish call it the "opening competition") are a tad different from the rules North American shuckers are accustomed to. For one, 30 oysters instead of 24 need to be shucked. The thirty oysters are presented to the shuckers in coded and sealed boxes. The code is part of a lottery system which randomly assigns the boxes to the shuckers. The shuckers each unseal their assigned boxes and make sure they contain 30 oysters. The presentation tray of each shucker (where the opened oysters will end up) is also assigned a code. Also, the oyster species to be shucked is the rather exclusive European oyster rather than the common Pacific and Eastern oyster. An American shucker may find his or her favorite oyster knife entirely unsuited for rapid shucking of these "Euros".

Shucked oyster may be presented either in the cupped portion of the shell or the more flat shell half (formally called serving "on the flat", as described in the classic opening section). Once a shucker is done opening the oysters, he or she must ring a little bell (not raise the hands and step back as customary in American competition). Much like American competitions, the trays may not be touched after the shuckers indicate completion (doing so would result in disqualification). Transport of a completed tray to the judges by a shucker may be permitted at his or her own risk. This is not a minor point, as oysters can tip over during transport. The meat might then fall out of the shell and thus compromise the presentation value.

Much like their American counterparts, the European judges expect perfection of the oyster on the half shell presentation in every way. An elaborate penalty point and bonus point system, combined with the shucking time, is used to ascertain the winner. The shucker with the lowest combined time and penalties emerges as the new world champion.

Incidentally, the Galway International Oyster Festival is preceded by another large oyster festival in Galway County. The Clarenbridge International Oyster Festival celebrates the beginning of the oyster season and is usually held in the first part of September. It also features fantastic local (European) oysters and other wonderful food, great entertainment, and lots of Guinness.

Galway (a.k.a. An Ghaillimh). No Ordinary Port City
The City of Galway is an old fishing port in the county Galway on the West Coast of Ireland. It is located 136 miles away from Dublin. There is regular train service to Galway from Heuston Station in Dublin. Regular bus services run daily to and from nearby Shannon International Airport.

Although the annual oyster festival is truly a spectacular event, this area has been a well known tourism "secret" all over Europe for a long time and for quite a number of reasons besides oysters. There's a seeminly endless list of exciting things to see and do. Here's just a little sprinkling:

Galway and the surrounding area hold extreme historical significance in the history of northern Europe. The Irish writer James Hardiman (a.k.a. Seamus O hArgadain; ~1782 - 1855) once wrote: "With feelings of the deepest emotion, the attention of the reader will now be turned towards the state of affairs within this devoted and unhappy though once prosperous and flourishing town, whose inhabitants were the first in Ireland that took up arms in defense of their religion and king, and the last, either in Great Britain or Ireland, that laid them down."

On the spectacular grounds of seven hundred year old Ashford Castle, Ireland's first school of falconry gives visitors the chance to handle and fly these birds of prey. Within the splendid copper domed Galway Cathedral, visitors can view remarkable examples of Irish workmanship in cut stone and wood carving, as well as splendid murals. One might retrace some of the footsteps of the famous Irish poet and writer William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) by visiting Coole Park and looking up what is left of the home of Lady Gregory which Yeats frequently visited. Yeats is also buried in this area (right where he had wished to be buried in his writings just a few months before his death). The rugged coastline and countryside is of breathtaking beauty. Many of us know some of the spectacular scenery near Galway from the late 1980s movie classic Princess Bride. The ominous "Cliffs of Insanity" were actually the Cliffs of Moher. They are located very close to Galway at the southern end of Galway Bay which opens westward to the Atlantic Ocean.

Inset image: The mighty Cliffs of Moher in late August, 2006. Click image to enlarge.

The Galway Race Course, situated about four miles outside the city, hosts world class horse racing and annually also sponsors several grand festivals of its own.

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Health advisory: There is a risk associated with consuming raw oysters or any raw animal protein. If you have chronic illness of the liver, stomach, or blood or have immune disorders, you are at greatest risk of illness from raw oysters and should eat oysters fully cooked. If you are unsure of your risk, you should consult your physician.

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