Shuck & Jive
New Orleans is a city rife with buskers and grifters, hustlers and hawkers. The accomplished opener of oysters is held in high regard by that fraternity, recognized as a fellow journeyman, as the inheritor of a storied tradition that began with Eastern European immigrants and Creoles of Color of the nineteenth century, who set up jerry-rigged stands along the river levee near Picayune Pier and peddled bivalves by the gunny sack, cracking open a dozen at a time for anyone with a few coins jangling in their pocket.
There are a host of other port cities that can claim a long line of oyster shuckers, among them Seattle, San Francisco, Baltimore, Boston, and, of course, Manhattan, where during the middle years of the twentieth century, along the brick alleyways and cobblestone lanes adjacent to the Fulton Fish Market, the late New Yorker contributor Joseph Mitchell befriended and ultimately profiled a cast of garrulous characters who earned their keep shucking pecks of Shinnecocks, Hog Necks, or Fire Island Salts.
What is more, there are some who are inclined to dismiss oysters dredged from the waters south of New Orleans as lacking the coppery, saltlick intensity of Malpeques harvested off Prince Edward Island, Canada or fan-shelled Blue Points hauled in from the mudflats of Massachusetts. Their voices are rarely heard in New Orleans. If sounded in one of the city’s oyster bars, such conjecture is more than likely drowned in a beery huzzah and a call for another dozen.
And, yes, there is some debate as to what constitutes a shucker. Old school oystermen will tell you that a shucker is the man or woman who plies his trade at one of the city’s wholesale houses like P & J or Captain Pete’s, wielding a hatchet to chip off the bill end of the shell, and a knife to slice the meat free. They work fast and somewhat sloppily. Their yield goes in quart jars bound for grocery stores and, eventually, gumbos and po-boys. An opener, on the other hand, is the man – rarely if ever do you see a woman -- who works a raw bar in a restaurant or tavern, serving oysters on the half shell to be slurped up then and there. Today, however, the distinctions are blurred, and shucker is the almost universal appellation of choice.
Such quibbling aside, few would deny that the littoral of New Orleans is where the art of oyster opening can be observed at its zenith, where quicksilver speed, surgical precision, and randy banter converge and complement. For it is here, in the dank barrooms of the French Quarter and dowdy old Uptown emporiums alike, that the two great traditions of shucking and jiving fuse and reach fullest flower.
First, the shuck:
Michael Broadway, age forty-two and a veteran of more than twenty-five years behind the bar, is the senior opener at the boisterous, neon-gilded Acme Oyster House on Iberville Street in the French Quarter. His friends and customers know him as Hollywood. Acme, in business since 1910, is the highest volume oyster house in the city, the spot where oyster-eating contests are decided, where generation after generation of locals and tourists alike were first introduced to the bracing taste of those briny mollusks. And make no mistake: hereabouts, Hollywood is king of the middens.
“They call me Slow But Good Hollywood,” he says, a shy smile spreading across his thin face. True to his moniker, he is a student of technique and yield, unconcerned for the most part with speed. “It’s as important to cut a clean oyster as it is to cut it quick,” Hollywood says. “I can go fast if I want to, but I’d rather go steady and clean.”
He snags a mottled gray shell from one of the white tile bins piled high with chipped ice. In his right hand is a short knife with a plastic handle. If it weren’t so dull, it would resemble a dagger. He taps once with the knife to “wake that oyster up, let him know I’m coming in to get him.” He also listens for a telltale hollow report, meaning the creature within is dead and shriveled.
Failing that, Hollywood tucks the shell against the lip of the bar, wedging it firmly in place with his gloved left hand. Others steady the oyster with a lead pallet shaped like a truncated trough, but Hollywood prefers the sure grip of flesh on shell.
He leans into the oyster, ratcheting his body weight down like a vise. The knife comes in from the top right, aimed not for the narrow hinge but the wide end of the shell, seeking purchase in a crook or cranny. “That’s how you tell the boys from the men,” says Hollywood. “The men take it in through the front door.” With a grating screech, just a decibel or two below that of fingernail on blackboard, the knife skitters along the seam of the shell, and then slips in the side.
Hollywood pulls the knife back toward his body, twisting as he goes. The shell pops open with a gurgle that is at once mechanical and nautical, something akin to what it must sound like to open a submerged treasure chest: a clank, a swoosh of water, and a spray of salt.
For the briefest of moments, the oyster is suspended between the two halves of the shell, tethered by the bone-white adductor muscle near the center. Two quick chops of the knife and the quivering gray mass is free of its mooring. Not a trace of the meat remains attached to the shell.
“One last thing; you got to clean that oyster up a bit before you’re done,” says Hollywood, as he draws his knife alongside the meat, pushing aside a thin effluvium of silt. Seventy, maybe seventy-five seconds after he began, he slides the oyster onto the marble bar, taking care to tip the wide end of the shell up and reserve the precious liquor.
On a good night, Hollywood and his band of fellow shuckers open 1,000 oysters apiece, maybe a bit more. Come New Years Eve or Mardi Gras, the number reaches 2,000. But after all these years – and all those oysters – the mechanics are rote, the shell count unimportant.
Even among shuckers who consider themselves to be as good or better, Hollywood has earned a grudging respect. He’s the shucker that other restaurant owners turn to when they’re scouting for new talent. He’s the man to call when you want to hire a crew for a private party. And this past fall, in concert with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, he began teaching shucker certification classes at Nicholls Sate University in nearby Thibodeaux. Hollywood’s co-workers were quick to dub the enterprise Shuck U, eliding the first syllable in a blatant effort to exploit the double entendre.
And now, the jive:
“When I was little, my mama used to tell me that I talked too much,” says Thomas Stewart, the opener at Pascal’s Manale, a 1913-vintage, Italian-Creole restaurant set on an Uptown side street. “No doubt about it, she was right. I do like to talk. The thing is, I found a way to make a living at it.”
Thomas works alone at a sloping, white marble bar in the front room, just inside the door. The wall behind him is plastered with black and white portraits of prizefighters. Above hang wagon wheel chandeliers.
Nearly twenty years into his tenure at Pascal’s Manale, Thomas has worked his way up from dishwasher to chief shucker. “When I started out, nobody would take the time to show me how,” he says, scooping a tin dust pail of cubed iced into the bar bin. “So I just snatched a few oysters and a butter knife and sat down on a slop bucket to teach myself. Now I’m the man. The ‘Don’t-Stop-Until-You-Drop-And-Then-You-Wanna-Pop Man.” A violent swivel and bump of the hips accent this last linguistic flourish.
If Hollywood is, at heart, a steely-eyed technician in an apron, then Thomas is his alter ego, with a style that might best be described as an amalgam of the flamboyance of Little Richard and the zealotry of Ron Popeil. He is also handy with a shucker’s knife. “I don’t believe in serving chippies,” says the thirty-eight-year-old. “No chipped shells...My hustle is my hands. Without a good set of hands, I’m nobody.” But that’s not what keeps his regulars coming back.
On a recent Friday night, as the cocktail hour gives way to dinner, the lobby crowd at Pascal’s Manale turns as thick and boisterous as a rugby scrum. Orders for oysters pour in, dozen upon dozen upon dozen. Just when Thomas is on the verge of losing it, he hits a groove. His knife work slows, his voice drops a register or two. And Thomas goes skittering back and forth across the duckboards of the bar, trading jibes here, slinging shucked platters there. When he catches sight of a regular leaning in close, waving a ten spot, Thomas stops dead in his tracks, tosses an imaginary cape across his shoulders, and leaps for the bill, calling out in his best imitation of Mighty Mouse, the Saturday morning superhero, “Here I am to save the day!” His voice rings clarion, a basso profundo worthy of an opera star weaned on cartoons.
At a little before eight, a young couple walks in. The boy makes a beeline for the bar, but the girl hangs back. She looks anxious. The boy orders a dozen. “I got big ole gooduns and good ole biguns,” says Thomas. “Which you gonna have?” The girl cracks the barest of smiles and sidles up alongside her date. The boy introduces himself. “Howdy chief,” replies Thomas. “What’s slappin’ captain?” And then he attempts to answer his own question in a singsong rap: “Ain’t nothing shakin’ but the eggs and the bacon and the beans on the grill. Ain’t nothing smokin’ but the peas in the pot ‘til the water gets hot.”
“Better make that two dozen,” allows the boy. Thomas fishes the first oyster from the bin and plunges his knife in to the hilt. “If I can get ‘em smiling,” he says, “I can get ‘em swallowing,”
John T Edge
Sidebar: My Little Black Book of Oyster Bars
There remain a few stalwart New Orleans spots where either the openers are entrenched veterans, or the owner of the oyster house cares enough to recruit the best among the ranks of the freelancers who wield a good shtick and a quick knife.
In addition To Acme and Pascal’s Manale, I’m particularly fond of:
Casamento’s – Thanks to the gleaming ceramic tile that covers ever surface except the ceiling, downing a dozen at this Uptown institution feels vaguely akin to eating in a Paris Metro tunnel. Service at the bar is stand-up only. Beers come in frosted pony glasses.
Drago’s –Of late, Tommy Civanovich has taken to hiring Bosnian refugees as openers, a nod to the old country, the old ways. In a city where most houses buy their oysters from a wholesaler, Drago’s sends a refrigerated truck two hours south to meet the boats at the docks. Located out in suburban Fat City.
Felix’s – Cater-cornered from Acme, this utilitarian bar is home to Paul Dinet, the Django Rinehart of the oyster world, who lost four digits on one hand long ago, but still can lay ‘em down clean and cold. Locals of long tenure pronounce the name Fee-liques.
Uglesich’s – Rumor has it that owner Anthony Uglesich gets his pick of the city’s best oysters, that even Emeril must take his place in line behind the one cook to whom all local chefs kowtow. Once Anthony has snagged the perfect bag from his distributor P&J, opener Michael Hall works quickly. The neighborhood is chancy. The restaurant is a glorified joint: When Anthony painted the building a few years back, the local paper covered the application of a new coat of enamel as a news story.
Originally published – in slightly different from – in Gourmet, October 2002.
Sidebar: The Croatian Dynasty
Over the course of the past fifty or sixty years, the New Orleans oyster industry has – forgive the pun – undergone a sea change. The shuckers who work the wholesale trade have shifted from men of Cajun French or Creole ancestry to, within the past twenty or so years, Vietnamese women.
As for the openers who work the raw bars, they were once owner-operators, Italians and Croatians for the most part. Today, the owners rarely [work the bars] and the openers are African-American, almost to a man.
The Croatian presence, however, remains strong, a vestige of the waves of immigrants from the Dalmation coast who disembarked (or jumped ship) here beginning in the 1840s. In years past, there was Gentilich’s across from City Hall and Ziblich’s on Claiborne. Today, Mandich’s on St. Bernard, Uglesich’s on Baronne, as well as Drago’s and Bozo’s, are still going strong. “Iches, Viches, and Son-of-a Bitches, we’re all Croatian,” says Tommy Cvitanovich, the proprietor of Drago’s in suburban Metairie. “And almost all of us are related.”