Arms raised, knives in hand, a group of anxious competitors waits in suspended animation as an emcee and an eager audience count down to the start of a heat.
“Three… two… one… SHUCK!” The crowd cheers boisterously as the competitors dive in and begin to work their magic, knives inserting, twisting and popping open a pile of reluctant bivalves, which occasionally go flying off the stage.
Welcome to the world of competitive oyster shucking. As the succulent mollusks gain in popularity, more and more farms are working to satisfy the insatiable appetites of oyster lovers, and more and more communities are promoting their regional delicacies at festivals and fairs. Oyster shucking competitions are often the centerpiece of these events – in addition to the oysters themselves.
Competitive shuckers are usually employed in the food industry, often as chefs, bartenders, sommeliers, restaurateurs, fishermen and oyster farmers. This diverse and colorful group has three things in common: a fiercely competitive spirit, a love of oysters, and an opinion on how best to open one. The latter involves the method of attack (where to insert the blade to open the shell), choice of equipment (knives, gloves, eyewear, water bottles, rags, lucky charms) and strategy (time versus perfection).
Winning at a smaller festival can be a stepping stone to more elite levels of competition. In Canada, taking the top spot at the PEI International Shellfish Festival (in operation since 1996), the Clayoquot Oyster Festival (since 1997), the Montreal Oysterfest (since 2009) and other regional events, earns you bragging rights – and a little more breathing room before the stress of the next level sinks in.
The next phase could include competing at the Canadian Oyster Shucking Championship at the Tyne Valley Oyster Festival (since 1964) and, ultimately, a chance to win the World Oyster Opening Championship at the Galway International Oyster and Seafood Festival (since 1954) in Ireland. Some competitions, like those hosted by commercial venues, offer substantial prize money – $2,000 and up – to the winner. Other events (the prizewinner at Galway takes home a Waterford crystal trophy and a few hundred euros) are all about the glory.
Oyster shucking – at least among the crème de la crème of the shucking world – is all about finding the right balance between speed and perfection, and the rules leave little room for error. But speed isn’t the only asset needed to win. Penalties for imperfections can ruin a good time. Three to 20 seconds may be added for no-no’s such as oysters with grit or damage to the shell, cut sliced or wounded muscles, oysters not severed from their shells or not presented upright, unopened or missing oysters or blood.
Competitions are serious, yes, but they’re also about having fun. Expect lots of beer drinking, back-slapping, teasing and general merriment among contestants, and among the audience. That said, when competitors take the stage it’s all about the task at hand: winning. Each shucker is assigned their own timekeeper (sometimes referred to as an ‘oysterette’), and in large competitions the heats are done in groups of three to five. After receiving a bag with a certain number of oysters (from 18-30, depending on the venue), a shucker has several minutes to arrange them on a tray and examine them for flaws. A defective oyster can, with the judges’ approval, be traded for a new one.
When a competitor has shucked their final oyster, they raise their arms in the air (or tap the table with their knives, or ring a bell, depending on the venue) and step back from the table. The timekeepers click their stopwatches, and the numbered trays cannot be touched again, except by judges who – in order to tally penalties without bias – are sequestered from the event.
After that, it’s all over but the waiting. When the contestants are called to the stage to hear the results, the nervous anxiety is palpable. As it often does in sporting events, winning often comes down to a one- or two-second advantage. When the cheering subsides, more beer is shared, winners are toasted, and shucking knives are packed away for another competition on another day.
For a more in-depth look inside the world of shucking competitions, featuring some of the most eccentric and well-known oyster shuckers and restaurateurs in the business –including Canadians Daniel Notkin, Tim Rozon, Eamon and Rodney Clark, Patrick McMurray, “Oyster Bob” Skinner, John Bil, and others – check out the trailer for the soon-to-be released documentary, SHUCKERS, which attempts to shed some light on the mysterious and fabulous world of oysters.