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A Different Animal

THE BALTIMORE SUN

GALWAY, Ireland - Here in western Ireland, the locals say, you can have all four seasons in the span of 10 minutes. This morning proves they aren't just slinging blarney. Sharp, slanting sunlight kindles the lawn in Father Burke Park to a shimmering green. As you cross the roiling River Corrib, an icy wind brings low, gray clouds. And by the time you reach the champ's hotel across town, a bone-soaking rain is falling - but the sky is brighter than a noonday sun.

This isn't weather, you think; it's sorcery. But then every facet of George Hastings' journey has seemed a little bit like magic.

Hastings, 45, here for the 46th annual International Oyster Opening Championship, slides his bulky frame behind the wheel of his rented Toyota. The Baltimore native and top oyster shucker in the United States smiles nervously and gets the feel of the car. It's backward, you see, this steering wheel on the left side, this driving on the wrong half of the road. He worries he might sideswipe somebody, but he can't fret about that right now. It's Thursday, two days before the shucking showdown, and he must make it six kilometers south to Clarinbridge, the tiny town known as "The Home of the Oyster." It's there that he'll see, for the first time, the mollusks of the Emerald Isle, and get their ancient feel.

Small wonder the village claims such a grand title. There, at the end of a winding one-lane road, hard by a black, burbling stream, stands a small house with a thatched roof. As Hastings nears it, his eyes go wide. It's Moran's Oyster Cottage, likely the oldest - and most widely revered - oyster-shucking site in the world. The place has been in continuous operation since 1760; generations of Morans have served up what they now call "the last affordable delicacy on earth." The U.S. champ can hardly believe he's here.

Hastings is a man who likes to feel anchored, and the wait has been long enough. For more than 20 years, he dreamed of this trip, for his chance to square off against the best in the world. But first, another task: research.

Oysters are different in different regions around the globe, and though he can shuck a Long Island Bluepoint (hard) or a Maine Boulognese (small and flat) with the best of them, Hastings has only heard about the Irish ones. Wholesalers up and down the East Coast of the U.S. failed to score him any. "All I know is what other people have told me," he says. "I know they're smaller, but I don't know how much smaller. I've heard they're hard; I've heard they're soft. I've heard everything you can imagine. I won't feel right till I get a few in my hands."

Galway Oyster Fest officials have told him to ask for Willie Moran, the white-haired proprietor, two-time world champ and epic local character. "He'll let you open a few," they said. "Drop in around lunchtime." And so he cracks the door of the old-world pub and steps lightly as if into a shrine.

The place is as awesome as he expected. He pauses a moment to take it in. Light falls through a mullioned window onto a wooden plaque above the doorway. On it is etched a poem. He reads a little:'Tis long ago that oysters were the pride of Moran's Bar.

But when you eat them here today you'll know that they still are

And it will be for ever so, in years they'll taste the same

And little child not yet born will know why Granddad came.

These people get it, he thinks. Shucking - or oyster-opening, as they call it here - isn't just about food, partying, even competition. The feel of an oyster, rough in your hand, is the feel of history, the feel of generations gone by and, God willing, the feel of more to come. Here, he can tell already, people understand where the oyster belongs: right at the top of things.

But he can't tarry. He crosses the plank floor, passes the hutch full of conches, makes his way through the crowded tables and heads for the bar. A black-haired fellow, tall and rangy, extends a hand.

"Willie's not in today," he says with a cheerful brusqueness. "I'm Vincent Graham. It's practice you want, is it? You're the American, are you? Well, follow me, then."

And he leads George through swinging doors into the kitchen, with the confident air of a Merlin leading his apprentice to the lair.

The orders fly in - thick, fast and noisy. "Twelve Europeans!" cries a waitress to Vincent, who is hunched over a stainless-steel counter, two-inch knife in hand. "Twelve Europeans and 12 Irish!"

In the world of shucking, such distinctions go to the soul of craft. Each oyster has two shells - a flat one and a deeper, rounded one - and once they're parted, Vincent says over a shoulder, Europeans like their meat served in the deep shell. "That way they they can savor and slurp the oyster juice" that emerges from the meat, he says. And with a parry, thrust and cut, he liberates meat from shell once, twice, six times in a row, leaving the meat in the rounded half, and distributes the delicacies evenly on a white plate. He layers each with a sprinkle of kelp - the same kind you saw writhing in the brook out front - so it looks as if it came straight from the sea.

If Hastings is a research scientist, this is a whole new laboratory. He tugs a green "Moran's Oyster Cottage" apron over his large head and rivets his eyes on the counter. "That's funny," he says. "I was always taught that if you cut the muscle cleanly, you'll never get any juice. The juice stays inside the meat." He says it not contentiously but as if in curiosity.

Evidently Vincent has never heard this before. He halts a moment, locks eyes with George - his are piercing and blue - and blinks once. "That's very interesting," he says. "That's very interesting indeed." And he turns back to his work, snatching up another handful to open and serve on the flat shell, as the Irish prefer.

George smiles with his eyes, the look of a man who has just gained a measure of respect. But soon he, too, is back on task. The rhythm of a raw bar at mealtime is clipped and quick, and he falls into it. Vincent has given him a basketful of his own, and George clamps his hands on the smallish, green-black shells, cradling them to get the feel. "Not bad," he says to himself. "These aren't as small as I expected. I'll be darned - they feel kind of familiar. These are right up my alley." He compares them to the species from Maine, only softer, and he sets to work, finding a rhythm, visibly relieved.

Hastings has brought seven knives in his kit (he had no trouble, he says, getting them through customs) and chooses one, like Vincent's, with a rounded wood handle and a very short blade. These shells - crisp and stony, scored with lines like the trunk of a tree - are brittle and breakable, he says. They might crumble with a careless stroke. With a longer knife, says George, you're liable to go straight through the meat and cut the shell. That makes for a bad show at a restaurant, points off in a contest. "This," he says with an air of finality, holding the knife up, "is the one I'm going to use. It's just right, just the right one."

The two men exchange more arcana, never breaking their metronome-like pace. The shells of Galway Bay, George learns, are brittle due to heavy limestone content in the water. Disease has shrunk the oyster population, rendering them an even rarer delicacy than before. Here at Moran's, they sell for 15 Irish pounds - about $20 a dozen. At Cross Street Market back home in Baltimore, says George, they're more like $15. "Next time somebody complains," he says with a rumbling laugh, "I'll tell him, 'Hey, I was over in Ireland last month, and they're a lot more over there. You're getting a good deal!' " He lays another on a plate; a waitress whisks it away.

They're deep in the oyster-shuckers' game. Vincent jokes about Americans - "We have to put you in the best hotels" - and shares some company secrets, though at times it's in the guarded tone of a man who has been in competition himself. George soaks it in as Vince describes some of the visiting shuckers. The Australian was here last night. A Canadian fellow from a raw bar called Rodney's used to come almost every year, bringing with him his beautiful daughter and filling the air with profanity and the smoke of a Cuban cigar. The perennial French winner, a man named Bernhard, is one of the quickest Graham has seen. In an event in which 3 minutes is an excellent time for 30 oysters, the Frenchman clocked an astonishing 1:59 last year. "But he butchered the meat," says Vince with a chortle. "He had a bad year, really. It happens. But we'll be seeing him again, we will."

When it comes out that Graham himself is a two-time world champion, George is astonished, if only because he realizes he's keeping pace with one of the best. "Really!" he cries. "Congratulations! That's fantastic." Moran's Oyster Cottage, in fact, has had three employees bag the international championship a total of eight times, a staggering number given that only 45 contests have been held. "Talk about your home-field advantage!" says the visiting player.

What amazes Hastings most, though, is the shape of the Irish shell. On a Chesapeake Bay oyster, he says, there's a great difference between the hinged side and the lip, or tip. The gap between shells is smooth at the tip; at the hinge it's rough, knurled and curled. "On these oysters," he says, "it's the same on the hinge as it is on the front. I've never seen that before." That's why, he imagines, the versatile Vincent is equally good at hinge and lip entry. "Not many shuckers do that," he says with a grave shake of the head.

Within 20 minutes, allowing time for chat, Hastings has shucked two dozen oysters. He had hoped to shuck for a couple of hours to master this strange new oyster. But he's a little humbled now. "I think it's a compliment he let me shuck as many as he did," he later says of Vincent. "He trusted me with his customers. You know what? I'm starting to feel at home here. By gosh, I'm really starting to feel at home."

Sitting at the Moran's bar, an orange drink in front of him, the modest man from Maryland looks relaxed. "My confidence level is up a little now," he says. "I know a little more what I'm dealing with. I like that."

He hasn't had a drop of alcohol - not even the requisite pint of Irish Guinness - since he arrived here on Wednesday. "I'm already high on the contest," he says. "My blood is pumping. I don't need any more stimulation."

His first task in the competition will be to stay within himself. "My strategy is this," he says. "Slow down. If I get over-excited at the start, I know I'm going to run that knife right through the oyster. You want to go as quick as you can go, but you want to stay within that zone. You want to keep the speed and the rhythm in balance."

Vincent, now drawing draught beer for the customers, has left him with a book: "Forty Years of the Galway Oyster Opening Championship." Printed in 1993, it documents the history of the fest, dating back to the late 1950s, and Hastings is absorbed. "Look at this," he says, pointing to a picture of a throng crowding the sidewalks for the parade in 1972. "That's right when I learned about this festival."

He pauses to soak it in. "You know," he says quietly, drawing on a cigarette, "when I first started doing this, I never imagined I'd enter a contest, let alone win one. Then I won 'Baltimore by the Bay.' That amazed me. Next thing you know, I'd won the U.S. championship. Now it's on the world level. The world level! It's hard for me to fathom that."

He gathers up his kit, leaves some change for the waitress - including a Maryland quarter - and heads across the ancient pub toward the door. Before he leaves the building, though, he stops at that plaque in the entryway. He narrows his eyes, reading more carefully, as if to commit the words to memory:

So have another dozen, and then have another drink.

And thank the Lord for oysters, since it's later than you think.

His blue eyes seem to glisten as he takes it all in. He steps out into a warm embrace of sunlight, a man more at home with his craft, and with himself, than he was even an hour ago. George Hastings' greatest gift may be that he loves the craft at which he's best - that in its details he finds the joy of a moment that belongs to all moments, that holds the contours of a vibrant past, a bracing present, a hopeful future.

Rain or shine, brisk or bright, for George Hastings it's a wonderful day in western Ireland. Tomorrow, God willing, will be even better.

Tomorrow: The contest

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