Shuck the Oysters


If you grew up in the middle of the country, like I did — far from the ocean, and all the wonderfully tasty things that live in it — there are certain activities in which you should never attempt to engage. They are beyond you. Operating a sailboat, for example. I have never done this. It would be crazy. Practically suicidal. Deep-sea diving. Deep-sea fishing. Deep-sea anything. No way. These are functions which are intrinsically restricted to natives of the coast. Landlubbers cannot acquire these skills. You can try to learn, but you will fail. In the process, you may endanger yourself and others. I know whereof I speak. Recently, I was foolish enough to engage in one of the actions which are well known to be off-limits to inlanders. It was my mistake. No Chicagoan should ever try what I tried. Silly. Reckless. Outrageous.

“Shuck some oysters,” my wife said.

No problem, I thought. We live in New England now. We can buy oysters, still in their shells, at the local grocery store. If we wish for a dish delish and oysterish, we don’t need to pry these delightful delicacies out of a can, or unscrew the lid off a common jar, or beg a friend for help, and slide them all gooey and gray out of a Ziploc bag. We can go straight to nature. We can take the animals live, bring them home — while they still think they’re invincible — then slaughter them ourselves, personally, one on one.

Not that I had ever done this myself, you understand.

But it was about time, I figured — in fact, the universe had just given me a sign that I was destined to enter the oyster-shucking season of my life. A couple days earlier, a house guest presented me with a lovely gift: an oyster knife, hand-crafted by her late father. When the oyster-shucker is ready, the oyster knife appears.

Shucking cannot be very hard, I said to myself. For starters, it has a silly-sounding name. We don’t use a romantic Frenchified term like écailler or a euphemism like releasing. There is no “liberation” of the bivalve, no “springing the hostage.” This is not “deliverance.” We don’t call it “emancipation.” It’s shucking. Plain and simple. Almost crude.

My wife made every attempt to advise me. Her own personal history, however, is as shucking-challenged as mine, so I felt no real compulsion to heed her counsel. She was suggesting babyish things like holding the oyster in a dishtowel to protect my hand, and placing the point of the knife in the hinge of the oyster the way beginners do, and twisting the knife a bit to gain leverage rather than applying intense pressure to force my way in. All nonsense, of course.

I am not a total ignoramus. I have been to Ipswich art gallery receptions attended by notable Ipswich resident Bill Sargent, an outspoken environmentalist and prolific writer well known for showing up at gala events with oysters he’s harvested himself. I’ve watched Bill Sargent doing the oyster thing at parties. I’ve seen him thronged by the oyster-lovers, many of whom are good-looking babes. Don’t think I haven’t paid attention to his shucking technique. I like Bill. And I like his style.

So as I stood over my kitchen sink, my face reddening, my hands grappling with that first oyster of the dozen, I actually said — under my breath, smoke spurting from my ears, knowing what my wife was thinking — “No, I am not going to call Bill Sargent for advice!”

And at that very instant, in the cosmic scheme of things — the moment my defiance of my Midwest-born wife intersected with my rejection of my dedicated Ipswich oysterman friend — the keepsake oyster knife lost its tentative foothold on the creature’s crusty lip under the insistent pressure of my clumsy fist.

The shell splintered open, and one enormous shard came slashing through my thumb.

The friend who gave me the knife should not be blamed. Let the record show, it was the shell, not the knife — it was the shuckee, not the instrument of shuckification — that severed so much of my epidermis from my musculature.

And let the record show that my adult son, who happened to be standing nearby, saved my life by running for Band-aids.

It was also my son who wisely went to his iPhone and asked, “How do you shuck an oyster?” Within seconds, Legal Seafood’s head chef was offering up a YouTube video on the subject. I must report, sadly, that le chef was demonstrating every detail of my wife’s previously ignored advice.

So today, I am older, and wiser, and bandaged.

The oysters were scrumptious.

I offer the following as a gift to future generations:

The Outsidah’s Landlubber Oyster-Shucking Guide

Preparation: Wear gloves.

Equipment: Oyster knife. Bandages. Tourniquet. Oxygen optional.

Bonus Note: Watch the YouTube video first.


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