Sisters Clementine Boyd and Deborah Pratt in Urbanna, Virginia, 2013.
“When I first started shucking oysters,” Boyd says, “I said [to myself], ‘I wonder why these people will be rocking and rocking, shucking and rocking, and shucking and rocking.’ Then all of a sudden it was a movement, just a thing. Some people stand straight still and shuck, shuck, shuck. But we had a thing that we go rocking, Pick up and shuck, pick up and shuck. It gave me a rhythm in my hand, and so that made me get better and faster, better and faster.”1
On a good day, the sisters are known to shuck an oyster in under three seconds. Pratt’s held the U.S. National Oyster Shucking title three times, taking her to the world competition in Galway, Ireland, where she’s taken third place. Boyd’s captured dozens of Virginia state titles, but she’s never been to Ireland.
“Clementine is always on my back,” says Pratt. “‘Cut it clean, cut it clean. Scrape it from the bottom!’ Because I’m very quick about it. But presentation means a whole lot when it comes to this competition. It’s not just how you open an oyster or how fast you are. You must open it so the person can eat it with their eyes.”2
“It’s not just how you open an oyster or how fast you are. You must open it so the person can eat it with their eyes.”
* * *
It’s a damp morning in October 2013 and I am (a white woman in my early thirties) driving Pratt and Boyd—who are chain-smoking Dorals in my 2001 Saturn—to the fairgrounds of the U.S. National Oyster Shucking Competition in southern Maryland. It’s Saturday, a day of preliminary heats determining the six men and six women who will advance to Sunday’s finals. The Sunday competition—one man versus one woman—compete for the American spot in Ireland. Contestants come from all over the country, but mostly the South and the East Coasts. The competition is entwined in a bigger oyster festival that includes carnival rides, a craft fair, and drink tickets.
As we approach the fairgrounds, a young black man points us toward a very muddy parking lot. I follow his arm and begin to turn my car right. Pratt tells me to ignore him and continue driving forward.
“We got a special spot up front,” she says, pointing toward a fence that is chained shut and lined with barricades. The man begins violently whipping his arm across his body. I drive up to him and roll down my window.
“Excuse me, sir!” I say. “I’ve got two oyster shucking champions in the car! Any chance we can park a little closer?”
He shakes his head no. Pratt leans over me. She’s wearing two thick strands of pearls around her neck. As she moves toward my window, the pearls knock into the drink holder, making a hollow sound.
“We got some fast oyster shucking champions in here,” she says. “You telling me they ain’t got better parking for us?”
He shakes his head no. Pratt stares him down. He does not smile; he does not offer alternatives.
“Boy,” Pratt says, still staring at him, “I’ll shoot you.”
She keeps her stare fixed on him as I drive us into pure mud.
We walk to a barn serving as a practice hub for contestants who shuck oysters then sell the half shell to oyster festival crowds.
Pratt and Boyd cover their hands with large, shiny, black rubber gloves and belly up to a table alongside competitors—all of them white men who own restaurants and raw oyster bars, mostly from towns along the Gulf Coast. These men do not stab, like Pratt and Boyd. They shuck from the oyster’s hinge. Back-door shuckers, as the two sisters call them. One of these men, Scotty O’Lear, from Panama City Beach, Florida, has also been to Ireland. He stands with a cigarette pinched between his lips, a long ponytail down his back. He holds the oyster out in front of his body without using the table for leverage. His tall, blond eighteen-year-old son Devin shucks in the exact same style next to him. There’s Duke Landry from Louisiana, short with arms like Popeye, post-spinach. He owns Landry’s, a seafood chain started by his uncle in the 1930s. He’s also been to Ireland several times, and though he hasn’t won, he’s earned a reputation for his perfect presentation. There’s Rick McCurley, who passes out business cards labeling him “the Aphrodisiacist.” In Florida, McCurley shucks for private clients, mostly bands such as ZZ Top and Nickelback.
Here are the rules for the competition: you shuck twenty-four oysters. When you finish your last oyster, you throw your arms into the air, marking your time.
Here are the rules for the competition: you shuck twenty-four oysters. When you finish your last oyster, you throw your arms into the air, marking your time. Your tray is carried away to a restricted area behind the competition stage where four middle-aged Maryland watermen poke and judge each oyster. “Broken shells?” one man calls out. If so, one second for every broken shell is added to your time. “Blood or dirt?” If found, a three-second penalty. The men jiggle the oysters. If the oysters are still attached to the shell, three seconds. If the meat is wounded, three seconds. For sloppy presentation, two seconds. Missing oysters? Twenty seconds.