On a recent trip to Washington for the West Coast Oyster Shucking Championships I was introduced to a new technique for shucking oysters. I was part of the four-man delegation from Hog Island Oyster Co. up there to compete as well as to visit some of the growers who supply product to Hog Island’s wholesale department. Although this wasn’t my first foray into the world of competitive oyster shucking, it was my first such engagement on the West Coast as well as my intial exposure to hardcore bill shucking.
The orientation of an oyster is defined by the hinge and the bill. Every oyster is different so it’s hard to generalize, but the hinge is the point (bottom), where the two valves (or shells) are joined. Opposite the hinge is the bill, which is more rounded and consists of newer, and thus thinner, shell.
Like many, I was first introduced to the hinge method of oyster shucking. It seems logical enough, putting the knife in the little groove created by the joining of the two valves in order to create enough separation to slide the knife along the top shell and cut the abductor muscle. For shucking small oysters to be served on the half shell, this is generally the way to go. As I got more interested and practiced in the world of oyster shucking I started hearing about another method that didn’t bother with the hinge at all and was geared instead towards the other end of the oyster.
This method was supposed to be popular in France and Ireland, where, traditionally, the oysters being shucked were the European Flats, Ostrea edulis. Nowadays even those traditional oyster grounds are dominated by the ubiquity of the Japanese or Pacific Oyster, Crassostrea gigas, although the technique is still very much associated with European shucking. I had also heard it employed by shuckers in the Chesapeake and Lowcountry areas of the Mid-Atlantic region, however had never seen it with my own eyes. Until I met “Chopper” at my first oyster shucking competition in Milford, CT in 2014.
After seeing how fast he was, I’ve played with the technique here and there but never really committed to bill shucking. It seems that in the world of oysters, you’re either one or the other. For my purposes of serving small oysters on the half shell, hinging is the way to go. Heading up to Washington earlier this month, however, I knew I’d once again be confronted with some bad ass billers.
Sure enough, almost all of the 30 or so contestants in Shelton worked in the canneries around Washington, and were masters of the billing technique. Shucking oysters for the half shell in a restaurant and shucking oysters for jars in a cannery are two completely different approaches to oysters. The oysters vary greatly in size and composition, the demands (cleanliness, presentation, speed, volume) are different, and thus the techniques differ tremendously.
The most important factor in determining which shucking technique is best suited to a given task is the oyster itself. Cannery oysters are generally much larger (and often come in clusters as opposed to singles) than those served raw on the half shell because they are destined to be cooked. Oysters are composed of a lot of water, so you want something big enough that will still have some body after cooking. Though speed is also important in a restaurant, cannery workers generally get paid according to how many two gallon containers they can fill up during a shift, so speed is of utmost importance. Since the oysters are all washed and strained before packaging, shell fragments are not an issue as they would be in a restaurant.
This is an important consideration since the issue of leaving bits of shell on the oyster would probably be the biggest drawback of billing. However, in the competition, you are only penalized for pieces of shell larger than a pencil eraser. Given the invasive nature of slamming the knife right through the top shell, most of the shell fragments are much smaller. So, even if you couldn’t serve it in a restaurant, at this particular competition you were not actually penalized.
Although there was also a speed shucking competition at this festival, the half shell competition also heavily favored the cannery bill shuckers given the large size of the oyster and the system of penalization. Incidentally, the same guy won the speed, half shell, and best presentation contests.
After I competed, I asked one of my opponents to show me how to properly bill shuck. He happened to be a member of the Leon family, whose members regularly dominate this competition. To my surprise, there was no specially modified knife involved. They used the standard 4” Boston pattern that is popular among hinge shuckers across the country. The first step is to line up the knife close to the edge of the bill, pointed down into the oyster, and slam the oyster onto the table. This helps the knife penetrate without having to force it in yourself. Ideally the knife goes through the top shell and holds on the bottom shell, at which point you run the knife laterally to cut the abductor muscle on the bottom first. I had never seen that before. (Even Chopper cut the top first.) with the oyster detached from the bottom, you pry the top shell and oyster itself up, slide the knife along the top shell, releasing the oyster back into the cupped bottom shell. Voila! The first time I did it correctly I was pretty blown away. Compared to hinge shucking, there are much fewer movements and the knife travels a much shorter distance. That said, it is very oyster-specific, as I would soon realize trying to shuck our oysters this way back in San Francisco.