At the Martha's Vineyard Oyster Shucking Contest, which will once again support the Island Affordable Housing Fund (IAHF), contestants will open just six oysters in each round, an indication of an era in which at least two precious things - cheap houses and oysters - have become scarce.
While the oysters will be fewer, the speed will be no less staggering, the competition no less fierce. The winner of last year's contest, Jon Holden from the Oyster Bar Grill, opened six oysters in less than 40 seconds.
The 2nd Annual Martha's Vineyard Oyster Shucking Contest will seem like a sprint compared to the 19th century marathon-like versions of the traditional East Coast event. According to "The Big Oyster: History on a Half Shell" by Mark Kurlansky, in just two hours, 23 minutes and 39 and three-fourths seconds, one remarkable shucker proceeded to open 2,500 glistening bivalves.
But in those days there seemed to be no limit to the bounty of oysters that filled the harbors from New York to Maine. Similarly, a few decades ago, it was laughable to suspect that the abundance of affordable housing on Martha's Vineyard would ever shrink at the frightening pace that it has.
Guinevere Cramer, the Development Director for the Affordable Housing Fund, was awed by the competition's intensity. "People came and got their shuck on." She laughs. "I mean, the shucking was fierce."
Ms. Cramer was just as impressed by the event's success, which raised $1,500. The local non-profit organization also accomplished exposing a new audience to its cause, something they hope to repeat at this year's contest that will be held at Nancy's Restaurant in Oak Bluffs on Saturday, June 7. The $20 entry fee will benefit the IAHF along with the proceeds from the oysters that are sold after the contest.
"It was just a fun experience because it brought together so many types of people," Ms. Cramer says. "It's really nice to be able to reach out to people who might not have us on their radar."
Austin Higgins, who worked last year at Coop de Ville in Oak Bluffs, dreamed up the contest as a means of attracting crowds to the raw bar, while at the same time supporting a local organization. "It was something to benefit the community we live in - to give back," says Mr. Higgins.
Photo by Ralph Stewart
This year Mr. Higgins expects at least 40 contestants, almost twice as many as last year. "Hopefully we'll get a lot of people from the different restaurants," says Mr. Higgins. "It's pretty much bragging rights for them if they do well."
Heineken and Heineken Light will be sponsoring the event, providing giveaways and prizes for the contestants. But the real goal is to benefit IAHF.
The fund is a relatively young nonprofit organization that, since 2001, has been working to improve the Vineyard community by providing affordable homes for Islanders who struggle to stay here in spite of wildly escalating real estate prices. As indicated in their 2006 Annual Report, their mission is not only to allow "hard-working Island men and women to stay where they grew up," but to design and preserve homes in a way that is responsible and innovative.
In the report, John Abrams writes, "We support housing solutions that are small scale, scattered site, high quality, and mixed-income, to create a new Vineyard fabric carefully woven into the old."
One of their latest successes, Jenney Way is a pocket community of nine two- to three-bedroom homes in Edgartown. It is the first affordable housing community in the state to achieve LEED platinum certification, the highest standard for Leadership in Environmental Design awarded by the U.S Green Building Council.
"They're green, high performance with solar panels. They're houses that you can really be proud of," Ms. Cramer says. "We don't just go in and throw down some modular homes and walk away. We get a feel for the community and what the neighborhood is like. That's why each one of our projects is so unique."
Photo by Susan Safford
And unique is what Saturday's contest will be.
The fastest shuckers from each of the four heats will move on until a champion emerges. Whoever can shuck half a dozen oysters in the shortest amount of time wins. To be counted, the oysters must be placed on a plate free of any shell fragments. John Tiernan, of Oak Bluffs, will be judging.
Expert shucker Andy Vandal, a Lookout Tavern employee who came in second in last year's contest, explains that the three major techniques to shucking an oyster differ on the point of entry: the backdoor, the front door, and the side door. "Personally I think the backdoor (the hinged end of the oyster) is the easiest because if you break that, everything else opens up." But Mr. Vandal says, "The problem with going in the backdoor is that shell fragments can fall into the oyster. You have to be delicate and firm. That's the trick." After you've gotten inside, you have to scrape across the top and the bottom to break the muscles that bind the oyster to its shell.
For the inexperienced shucking competitor, Mr. Vandal's advice is simple: "Don't cut yourself."
Mr. Higgins hopes that Saturday's event will culminate into a just-for-the-heck-of-it contest between two of the Island's most seasoned shuckers, Teddy Karalekas and Jimmy Hoe.
"They can't really compete because they will beat everyone they go up against," Mr. Higgins predicts. "They should be able to open 12 oysters in under 10 seconds."
Not long ago, the two friends traveled to Wellfleet to compete at a three-day oyster festival. These events bring shuckers from all over New England to compete. And even the two champs found themselves learning new tricks, like opening the oysters from the side, a technique that only applies to the gapped oysters from the Wellfleet area. On Saturday, the two will be showing off their fast-paced Vineyard style.
Nancy's will be providing their outdoor patio and all the oysters come from Sweetneck Farm in Katama Bay.
Doug Abdelnour, general manager of Nancy's, is pleased for the opportunity to benefit a local cause, even if he's unsure whether he's in over his head. "I hope that's not too much, but I'm going to do it. We're normally pretty busy on a Saturday, but this is a good cause."u
Benefit Oyster Shucking Contest will be held on Saturday, June 7, 2-5 pm, at Nancy's Restaurant in Oak Bluffs. Benefits Island Affordable Housing Fund. $20 entry fee. Rain or shine. 508-696-0943.