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English satirist Jonathan Swift once wrote, "He was a bold man that first eat an oyster," and boy was he right! But half the battle is getting those darn things open. Ben Platt visited the National Oyster Shucking Competition in Leonardtown, Maryland, this fall to learn about the time-honored practice of opening oysters.

 

Brad Carroll is practicing his shucking skills with other contestants, two hours before the final shuck-off. He's cracking open hundreds of oysters to feed the thousands of hungry people crowding into this southern Maryland festival.

"Of course, some of them are a bit harder than the others that's for sure," Carroll says.

It's not easy work, but Brad and his fellow shuckers can crack open most oysters with speed, and a certain grace. It's amazing how many different ways there are to open up these tough-shelled creatures.

"A lot of people from up here in the north, they actually shuck it from the lip of the oyster, but I do it from the butt end of it. Hinge shucking is what some of these guys have called it," explains Carroll.

"Then a lot of times you might here me doing that right there, that's me banging my knife. What that does is clean all the debris off my oyster knife."

Keeping his knife clean might be the thing that wins Brad this competition. To win, you don’t just have to be the first to shuck all your oysters, you have to be the fastest shucker of quality oysters. Shuckers need to watch out for dirt, pieces of shell, sliced oyster flesh, or anything that might make someone balk at paying god-knows-what-price in a fancy restaurant to eat them. Flaws mean penalty points. as Robert Daffin, a competitor from Florida explains.

"No mud, no blood--and that being your own blood; I have seen that before too," Daffin says.

That's Robert Daffin,a competitor from Florida. He's one of the old-hands who encouraged Brad to compete here today.

"It's the first time, that Brad's been up here and he placed in the top six, and he's beat me, and I've been competing for thirty years, and we're just rooting for him to make it into the top three this time." Daffin says.

Making it this far is an achievement in itself. The stakes are high. Whoever wins here today goes on to compete in the International Oyster Festival in Galway, Ireland, for the world title.

William Robert Young Jr., known as "Chopper," is the current title holder. While the other contestants are busy practicing, Chopper is enjoying a quiet moment out by the amateur shucking stage. He's feeling pretty confident being back on his home turf.

"I'm very relaxed it's great. Usually there's a lot of stress, and I get all uptight worrying just winning winning winning, but today I'm already at the top, so what I do today is just another good day," Young says.

Chopper is right to feel confident. He won this competition last year. The crowd is also excited that Chopper's back, and they're eager for him to get on stage.

The men dive in and begin shucking their hearts out. They're methodical, determined, hands twisting, knives glittering, sweat pouring from their faces. They're shucking faster than I could ever hope to - without slicing my hand open, slamming the empty shells on the ground with one hand, while the other is already reaching for the next oyster. Brad is going strong just to the left of Chopper, who unlike the other contestants, is dancing and laughing with the music; tossing empty shells out to the audience.

The crowd goes wild as Chopper wins the second year in a row with a whopping one minute forty two seconds and no penalties. Obviously Brad wished he'd done better. He blames his defeat, in part, on intimidation with the world champion shucking and singing beside him.

"He was right next to me, so I could see him out of the corner of my eye – and he finished at least fifteen to twenty seconds faster than me. And I’m not gonna lie, when he finished up I got a little shaken then, and I was like ‘That son of a gun’,” Carroll says.

But its all in good fun. By the end of the day all the contestants were smiling and slapping each other on the back, taking photos together, laughing over their scores. Despite the fierce competition, what really unites these people from across the country is their love of the craft, and of each other. Though defeated yesterday, Robert is happy to be here with his fellow shuckers.

"It's really just like a big family reunion for all of us. We get together, have a good time, share a few jokes and make fun of each other…like most families" Young says.

For NPR's Intern Edition, I'm Ben Platt.

 

© NPR Intern Edition, Fall 2008