- Cut It CleanOyster Shuckers in Eastern Virginia
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Deborah Pratt and her younger sister Clementine Boyd are stabbers. For almost forty years, stabbing has supported them and their families, brought them fame, and taken them around the world. Stabbing is a method of shucking oysters that winds through generations of African American families in the Chesapeake Bay region. It's done like this: you pin a muddy oyster to the table. It looks like some kind of sea rock, impossible and impenetrable. When you find the lip of the oyster, you gently wiggle in your knife. Then, you stab down at the heart, which really means slicing away the bottom muscle. You flip it over, and you cut the second muscle, freeing the oyster from the shell. Using a rhythm consisting of three beats, stabbing sounds like this: Stab. Cut. Flip. Or—Stab. The. Heart. Or—Boyd's [End Page 137] preferred count—I. Love. You. Pratt and Boyd are known as two of the fastest stabbers in the country, some might even say—and this camp includes Pratt herself—the world.
For shuckers being paid by the gallon in oyster houses, stabbing is very fast and leaves you with perfectly plump, non-wounded meat. For half-shell markets, you get a sturdy oyster soaking in a juicy, rocky cradle. If you don't crunch as you chew, you know that a stabber's shucked your oyster.
Boyd taught Pratt how to stab. She learned it from her mother and aunts while working next to them in oyster shucking houses along the Rappahannock River in Eastern Virginia. Pratt still shucks oysters at one of those few remaining houses, Walton Seafood. She shucks at a wet slab of cement next to her son, Davila Redmond. On her other side stands Boyd.
"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 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...