by Bekah Angoff
Since the evolution of humans, our lives have revolved around tools being the essential part of survival. From rocks used to spark fires and sharpened sticks for hunting to smartphones for dating, humans rely on specialized tools for everything. Praise be the first human to use one of these tools to eat the first oyster! The guess is that it was just a rock used to smash some shells on the beach, but anything beats not having an oyster at all.
Fast forward to the oyster revolution in the Chesapeake where fleets of boats guarded their bounty until reaching the shores. Teams of men would anxiously wait with their shanks at the ready to shuck every last morsel for sale. Shanks? Yes, shanks. The early oyster knives were made from iron rods with one blunt end and one tapered end. The blunt end was used to break up the clusters of shells (a method called 'cracking') and the tapered end was used to pry open each shell. Once opened, the crews of shuckers would pour the meats into metal buckets to be sold at the local markets.
Technology has come a long way, but basic oyster shucking remains a constant. There has been no machine that can delicately pry open a bivalve the way that human hands and a knife can. Our shucked oysters from Willapa Bay, Washington are still shucked the same way they have been doing it for eons – by hand. The facilities are built to have shucking lines framed by large hoppers of oysters. The oysters are fed through the top down to the shucking bench where they are opened and placed in containers to be packed in individual containers. Each shucker has their own method of opening the oysters, but the most common is to go in through the hinge where the top and bottom shell meet in a point. Once opened, the shuckers transfer the meats and liquor into containers to be packed for sale. There is not a more efficient way to have a pristine product without human shuckers.
Since humans are the most efficient oyster openers all over the world, styles of shucking and knife shapes change regionally. Knives forged in various oyster-heavy pockets of the world tend to have their gear named after them, such as Damariscotta, New Haven, Seattle, Charleston, Boston and the list goes on. One of the oldest styles of modern knives comes from the Chesapeake and is lovingly referred to as a "stabber”, meaning the blade is straight and sharp. The handle, whether made of plastic or wood, is shaped like a bulb to allow for various angles of attack on a strong oyster straight from the bay. Nationally ranked and second-generation oyster shucker Gardner Douglas, son of Sam Sam the Shucking Man, prefers this type of knife as it is the same one his father used.
The first style of shucking these wild harvested Chesapeake oysters was hinging. This is a style where your knife finds the sweet spot in the back of the oysters between the bivalve shells. Once you unlock the oyster from the back and hear that unmistakable pop, you create just enough spacing for your knife to slide down and disconnect that adductor muscle. From here your top shell should be off and reminisce of oyster juice glistening off of it. After turning the oyster around to you so you will have the adductor facing you now for an easy swipe to disconnect and start the process all over again. For this style of shucking I like to use an oyster shucker with a sturdy long blade and for the handle to be rounded similar to an egg almost. For some reason this style knife is perfect for my hand in comparison to a long or short handle knife.
Gardner referred to ‘hinging’ as a method of shucking, also known as "butt shucking". This is the most common way to open oysters by placing the knife at the bottom point and using leverage to pry the shells apart. Most knives are designed around this style and then modified for the size and shape of the oyster as well as if you shuck on a table or in your hand.
Another way of shucking that is popular down in the Mid-Atlantic and down through the Gulf is stabbing where the same style of knife is used but that blade has some give to it along with a sharper point.
The process for stabbing is easy. Place the blade of the knife on the point where new growth meets hard shell. This is the sweet spot for stabbing and once you’re in you want to glide the knife on the bottom of the shell until you meet the adductor muscle. Once you hit the adductor muscle you will know it for sure and sometimes there will even be a bubble or growth that meets your knife. This is the best reason why you should use leverage instead of power which is another lesson from the famous Sam Sam. This is the sole reason I believe I haven’t stabbed myself a lot in comparison to other shuckers I speak with.
Here in New England, the most commonly used knife is the New Haven (found at myoysterknife.com) which has a wider blade and a slightly bent tip. Cold water oysters tend to be a bit older than their Southern counterparts and have rigid and tight hinges. The curved tip gives added leverage to the opening process making clean work of popping the hinge. This style knife is best for a shucking on a table and perfect for a novice shucker. Check out the video below of the New Haven in action.
In the end, it all comes down to comfort. Once you bust into a few oysters, you will get the feel of the style that suits you best. For me, I choose to go in through the hinge while holding it in my hand, as I find I have the most control and leverage and it causes the least amount of stress to the precious meat inside. I have used all styles of knives, but when I found the one that worked for me it was like Harry Potter finding his wand (complete with an epic wind burst and a golden aura). My preferred knife (shown here) has a short yet strong pointed blade with no curvature to the tip. The handle may look bulky, but the offset nature is a perfect grip for my small hands. The tip is just thin enough the rest comfortably in the hinge of most oysters (both east and west), and the handle's shape gives enough leverage to make fast work of it all.
It all comes down to preference. Start simple to get your shucking down, and then experiment to find your favored knife. There is no better way to shuck than by human hands.
A special thanks to Alicia Risch of Coast Seafoods and Gardner Douglas for sharing their stories.