I’ll admit right off the top. I don’t like oysters. They’re slimy and salty and gross. But, I have an incredible amount of respect for the unsung heroes who work with the shelled critters. Two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of spending a weekend with a few of these career shuckers at the 2018 Schlafly Stout and Oyster Festival in St. Louis, Missouri.
Once a year, at Schlafly, oyster shuckers have the spotlight for 48 hours. The Saint Louis-based brewery, founded in 1991, has been hosting this festival for 19 years, and many of the shuckers have joined for most — if not all — of these events. This year, Schlafly debuted a series of canned oyster stouts dedicated to a handful of the veteran shuckers — their portrait appears front and center on the cans. Attendees were collecting, trading, and having the shuckers sign the cans as if they were baseball cards.
The shuckers are flown in from across the country, from Maine to California, to crack and serve oysters. At the end of the festival, the celebrity shuckers battle it off in the ultimate oyster showdown: a regional shuck-off. Teams of three are made from East Coast, West Coast, and No Coast shuckers, and they participate in a relay in which they shuck five oysters, slurp five oysters, and chug an oyster stout (this year, the No Coast shuckers came out on top).
I spent the weekend with George Hastings, a shucker from the Chesapeake Bay who has been working in the industry since he was about 14 years old. (Many experienced shuckers have been working with oysters since they were in their teens.) He told me that he had twice been a national oyster shucking champion and had come in second at an international competition.
“I lost to a guy from Sweden, so you could say I’m the best in America,” he joked.
He also teased the Schlafly crew about not being included on this year’s Oyster Stout cans. I asked Caiti Carrow, who handles Schlafly’s PR, if George had a good chance of getting his face on a can. “George will definitely be a strong contender for next year,” Caiti shared. I’m pulling for you George.
For Schlafly, and more specifically for Stephen Hale, one of the founding brewers, the festival is a chance to reconnect with old friends. “Before the festival kicks off we have all of the shuckers over for dinner,” explained Hale, who dove for sea urchins in Maine during his teenage years. “I’ve known many of them for decades so it’s like a big family dinner.
I asked George for some tips on how to shuck oysters like a pro. To start off you’ll need the right equipment. Shuckers wear thick, durable gloves to protect against the rough outer shells of the oysters. The shucking knife doesn’t need to be particularly sharp but needs to be sturdy. George had a woodworker in Maryland craft his knife but you can find decent oyster knives online.
How to Shuck
Step 1: Place your oyster flat on a towel or cutting board
Pros like George will usually shuck oysters in their hands but I’d recommend the stability of lying the shell flat.
Step 2: Insert shucking knife in hinge
With the knife in your dominant hand, hold down the oyster with your other hand and work the tip of the knife into the hinge of the oyster shells.
Step 3: Apply pressure and twist the knife in the shell
Twist and pry the shells apart with your knife. It might take a few seconds to quickly and easily separate the shells so you can take your time with this step.
Step 4: Separate the top shell from the bottom
Once you’ve worked the two shells apart, discard the top shell.
Step 5: Cut the oyster from the bottom shell
The oyster is still attached to the bottom shell so after wiping down your knife, cut under the oyster meat to separate it from the bottom shell.
And now you’ve got a nasty looking oyster to slurp down. As George instructed me, make sure you chew the oyster to get all of the “flavor.” Now you’re on your way to becoming a pro shucker.