Chow Town

Missing National Oyster Day prompts desire to learn to shuck

Freshly shucked oysters
Freshly shucked oysters Special to The Star

OK, I admit it. I enjoy these national “such and such” days. I find it amusing and entertaining to learn history, lore and flavors as various foods and beverages are given their days in the spotlight.

But they come and go quickly, so you’d better pay attention. Just last week, for example, National Oyster Day came and went right under my nose. Darn it! Or should I say, “Shucks”?

Well, partly because I love oysters so much, and partly because I had already paid a visit to two of the top oyster shuckers in Kansas City weeks ago, I was determined to impart some oyster information to you, even if it came after the mollusks’ big day.

First, a few tasty tidbits I gleaned from www.nationaloysterday.com. You can’t talk about oysters without touching on the theory that they possess aphrodisiac qualities. One report states that Casanova himself started his day with a breakfast of 50 oysters.

Did he eat them because they heightened his sex drive and sexual prowess, or did he just enjoy the bivalve molluscs’ beautiful briny qualities? We’ll never know, but what we do know is that oysters have been slurped and savored by humans for pretty much as long as they’ve been on the planet.

I’ve had dozens of varieties of oysters and have dozens more to sample. There are more than 100 individual species of oysters. In the United States, oysters commonly come from one of three sources: the East Coast, the West Coast and the Gulf of Mexico. Painting with broad stokes, the general difference between the three regions holds that East Coast oysters are smaller and milder in flavor, though saltier; that West Coast varieties are creamy and sweet; and Gulf oysters’ characteristics fall somewhere in between. I’m not picking sides. I love ’em all.

As I mentioned earlier, I also arranged for some hands-on oyster insight. I dropped by Jax Fish House on the Country Club Plaza for a visit with its two main oyster shuckers, Samantha Baker and Shaun Mitchell.

Mitchell is a local kid. Baker, who goes by Sam, is from Wichita. Neither had shucked an oyster in their lives prior to be hired by Jax. Mitchell moved into the shucker spot from a back-of-the-house position. Baker was hired as a shucker on the spot. Both told me that they like their jobs and that they’ve come to appreciate oysters.

“They brought in a corporate shucker who taught us the proper technique in about five minutes,” Baker said. “We have the biggest shuck cage in the system (Jax has five restaurants, four in Colorado and the one in Kansas City), and it’s the first thing customers see when they walk in, so it’s important we do our jobs quickly and correctly.”

Mitchell said the keys to success are a good knife and good technique, so there’s hope for me yet. He prefers a knife that’s got a shorter blade and handle, but is thick and sturdy.

As for the technique, both he and Baker say it’s simple: Find the seam in the tail, pry your way in with more finesse than force, then slide the blade of the knife through the length of the oyster and gently pop it open.

These two super shuckers were even kind enough to allow me to pop a couple of oysters with the understanding that I would be eating any I managed to open and would not be serving them to an unsuspecting public. Mitchell even let me use his knife, and Baker her towel.

The knife went in through the back just as they advised. Pressure, not force, was exerted. There was a small turn of the wrist, a nice popping sound, and as I dragged the knife the length of the oyster, it magically opened cleanly and completely. I was amazed, as most of my prior shucking attempts resulted in broken knives, bits of broken shell in the oysters or pierced flesh on my hand. Usually it was a combination of all three.

Baker and Mitchell say they can handle up to 1,400 oysters over an eight-hour shift. I know I will never get anywhere close to that proficient, but thanks to their tutelage, I am confident I will be a superior shucker moving forward.

Dave Eckert is the producer and host of “Culinary Travels With Dave Eckert,” which aired on PBS-TV and Wealth TV for 12 seasons.

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