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December 8, 2006

National class competitive oyster shucker Patrick McMurray's custom-molded pistol-grip epoxy-handled steel-bladed oyster shucking knife

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The photo above of McMurray's implement — featured as a mystery guest in yesterday's 2:01 p.m. post — accompanied an entertaining and informative story by Matt Lee and Ted Lee on the state of competitive oyster shucking; the article appeared in last Sunday's (December 3, 2006) New York Times magazine, and follows.

    Shell Game

    To an oyster lover,bivalves harvested along the coast of Wellfleet, Mass., taste different from those from the waters around St. Marys County, Md. Such nuances in flavor are why people are willing to pay 30 bucks for a mixed dozen of both varieties at a swell East Coast oyster bar.

    But to a competitive oyster shucker like Barbara Austin, the key difference between Wellfleets and St. Marys is how readily they open. On Oct. 15 of this year, Austin, wearing pink leather gloves and wielding a wood-handled knife she had sharpened by hand, won the shucking competition at the Wellfleet Oyster Fest. The 47-year-old mother of two netted $1,000 and the chance to compete next October at the National Oyster Shucking Championship in St. Marys County, where the winner advances to the World Oyster Opening Championships in Galway, Ireland.

    Austin has harvested oysters and clams in Wellfleet since 1978; she honed her shell-opening talent in the ’80s and early ’90s, when the market for oyster meat was stronger than the one for oysters in their shells, and a typical Wellfleetian harvester was obligated to shuck every oyster in his or her five-bushel limit, approximately 2,000 a day.

    Now that Austin has a chance at Galway, she needs to master the St. Marys shell. “Oysters from different areas open differently,” she said. “With Wellfleets, I can tell by the shape of the animal what shell’s going to be weak, what’s going to be tough, where the adductor muscle is located.” Still, she needs to confirm that her technique — leveraging the shell from the side (most shuckers go in at the hinge, where the shell tapers to a point) — will work in Maryland, so she plans to make at least one 1,200-mile round trip to St. Marys County before next fall.

    Around the world, competitive oyster shucking has come of age. In October alone, there are no fewer than 16 contests worldwide, from Hyannis, Mass., to Falmouth, England, to Dunkirk, France, Akkeshi, Japan, and Bangkok. Ten years ago, the Wellfleet festival was a local affair — “Twelve of us gathered around a picnic table vying for bragging rights,” Austin said. Today Wellfleet is one of dozens of competitions in North America whose winners qualify to shuck in the Nationals, as the Maryland event is called. The St. Marys County contest made its debut in 1967 as a community fund-raiser; now National Oyster Shucking Championship is a registered trademark, and the event is sponsored by the likes of Comcast and Boeing.

    Speed is only one element of a competition. Presentation is the other. According to rules set in place by the Galway contest (and to which most qualifying competitions worldwide adhere), penalty seconds are added to a shucker’s completion time for a variety of fouls: if there are parts of the shell on the oyster meat; if it’s not entirely severed from its shell; if there is blood on the oyster.

    In speed and presentation, one of North America’s top talents is Patrick McMurray, the owner of the Starfish Oyster Bed and Grill in Toronto. Twenty years ago, when he was thinking of applying to the local teacher’s college, McMurray took a part-time job working at a raw bar. By 2002, he had won the World Championship and set a world record, shucking 33 oysters in a minute. Now McMurray flies off to Singapore or Las Vegas most autumn weekends, competing against shuckers from Sweden, South Africa and Korea. In order to compete internationally, he must study other contestants’ techniques and master the variations among the bivalves.

    “The Swedes are thinking competitively,” he said. “They import Irish oysters for their national competition.”

    McMurray may have an edge: a steel blade married to a pistol grip custom molded out of epoxy to fit his right hand. It was just the ticket for the Mohegan Sun contest in Las Vegas three weeks ago, where McMurray took the top prize.

    So what’s he going to do with the $3,500?

    “Oh, I don’t treat myself,” he said. “It helps pay for the renovations and feed the kids.”

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December 8, 2006 at 02:01 PM | Permalink


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