Patrick Hudson of Chesapeake Oyster Co. shares a different approach to shuck farm-raised oysters.
Jessica Hudson remembers watching in awe as her father shucked wild oysters with a pocket knife on a family trip to Mexico.
Today, the Baltimore resident can eat up to two to three dozen in a sitting. At that quantity: “I couldn’t afford to go to a restaurant and eat oysters.”
So, a few years ago, she began watching YouTube tutorials and practicing at home. Today, the video producer (her business card says ‘Mother Shucker’) gives tutorials on oyster shucking at parties, and works behind the bar at Dylan’s Oyster Cellar in Hampden, prying open shells from Alaska, Massachusetts and the Chesapeake Bay.
Recent years have seen an explosion in oyster consumption, with a surge in Baltimore restaurants boasting raw bars and increased availability of raw oysters at places like ballparks and street fairs. With that rise has come an increasing interest in how to — and how not to — shuck an oyster, and a growing subculture of oyster shucking purists.
Leaving shards of shell in the liquor that need to be spit out? That’s a no no. Using a screwdriver to pry open a bivalve? Hard pass. Piercing the stomach so that the oyster looks like scrambled eggs? Nope, nope, nope.
While many people can be intimidated by the idea of ripping apart their own bivalves, Patrick Hudson, partner at True Chesapeake Oyster Co. and no relation, claims it’s relatively simple, with patience, and the correct knife. He’s quick to offer shucking lessons to customers.
“Shucking is 90 percent knife and 10 percent skill,” says Patrick Hudson, whose company operates an oyster farm in Southern Maryland as well as a full-service restaurant and oyster stalls in Mt. Vernon and Northern Virginia.
The knife he and many other local shuckers favor is called a Chesapeake stabber, which features a thin edge and thicker middle. A favorite version is by local craftsman Dale German at his studio in Baltimore.
Demand and interest in oysters has “grown crazily," said German, who also shucks at restaurants and local events. The rise, said the 74-year-old, has been "good to see. All the old timers are getting old.”
The retired woodworker estimates he makes just over 200 oyster knives per year. They’re modeled after one used by his friend and champion oyster shucker George Hastings.
German’s knife is well suited to shucking oysters from the side, a technique good for farm raised oysters like the ones sold at True Chesapeake. Farm raised oysters tend to have thinner and more brittle shells than their wild counterparts, and shucking them from the ends can break them and create shards. Another method involves inserting the knife at the hinge.
Patrick Hudson uses a wood block to stabilize the oyster during shucking; Jessica Hudson holds hers with a rag. She encourages people to use gloves to protect their hands if they’re afraid of nicking themselves.
Even with a custom-made knife in hand, there are plenty of other things that can go wrong. Patrick Hudson compares an oyster to a water balloon — one false stab from an oyster knife can spell ruin. A good, clean shuck will slice the bivalve’s adductor muscle, which keeps the shell closed, while leaving the rest of the thing intact.
On his smart phone, he scrolls through photos of badly shucked oysters posted to the Instagram account @shuckinhell. The anonymously-run Instagram account calls out restaurants and others for poor oyster shucking. In many cases, professionals seem blissfully ignorant of their own errors. To a layperson, the photos might just look like... raw oysters. To the trained eye? Disaster.
“Uncut adductor. Exposed gills. Gutted stomach,” reads the comment below a photo of a bivalve that’s been picked apart.
“Some people,” Patrick Hudson sighs wistfully, “they don’t respect the presentation.”
Mistakes, German said, are something that can still happen for pros, especially when they’re in a rush, with a long line of hungry customer. Oysters, he says, are “like snowflakes... no two alike. It takes a lot of practice to know what you need to do.”
At home shucking has the benefit of allowing people to take their time. “They take three years to grow at least,” says Jessica Hudson. “Those little guys are still alive. You want to make sure they look good while they’re going down.”
At the end of the day, she acknowledges, many people simply decide oyster shucking is too much work for them. Even once they know how to shuck their own, they’d rather pay for someone else to do it.