The shucking never ends

From left, Jacob Walbert, Oleg Nikolaev and Mark Blair shuck scallops in the “shucking room” at Menemsha Fish Market. — Photo by Michael Cummo

In a cold back room of Stanley and Lanette Larsen’s Menemsha Fish Market, Jake Walbert and Oleg Nikolaev are busy. They stand at a stainless steel table parting bay scallops with shuck knives, skimming their guts, and scraping the thumb-tip-sized plugs of muscle into food pans. It’s four in the afternoon and they still have bushels to work through.

“To be quite honest we can’t keep up with the demand,” said Mr. Walbert, a Texan living in Chilmark, to a Times reporter on one cold December day. He’s confident he’ll be at shucking at that table until April. “That’s what Stanley keeps telling us,” he said.

The knife each of them uses doesn’t have the menacing, shiv quality of an oyster knife. With a short, stubby blade, it actually looks tame enough to spread pate.

“It’s special for scallops,” said Mr. Walbert. “It’s like a shorter butter knife that’s a little sharper.

“You can also use it for shucking clams,” said Mr. Nikolaev, a Russian national living in West Tisbury. Unlike Mr. Walbert, who is two months into this type of work, this is Mr. Nikolaev’s second season. He considers opening scallops pretty easy as compared with oysters, but monotonously easy.

“Every oyster is like a puzzle. You need to find a way to open each one,” he said.

“Each one is different. These [scallops] are all the same – same movements. Kind of boring, actually.”

Shucking for science

Christopher Schillaci, a biologist for the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, who in addition to being the vibrio parahaemolyticus program coordinator, does a lot of shucking.

“In collecting oyster samples from four areas throughout the state, about 25 oysters per sample, I shuck a hundred oysters at least every week, if not more than that,”

he said in a phone interview. “I’m generally shucking scientific samples so I don’t want to stick the knife into the hinge like a lot of people do, because there’s a lot of dirt and grim in the hinge and I don’t want to force bacteria into the oyster. So get it from the side,” he said. “A lot of folks will basically stick the knife in the hinge and break the hinge and that renders the abductor muscle useless. Then you can just slice off the bottom of the abductor muscle and open up the oyster. And that’s really what you’re doing when you see oysters in the half shell, is you’re removing the abductor muscle from its attachment point and then you have the whole oyster inside of one shell.”

Why so shucking difficult?

Mr. Schillaci pins the technique for opening either bay scallops or eastern oysters squarely on a type of muscle they share in common, the abductor, essentially a little biological jack that opens and closes the creatures’ shells. Although they both have strong abductor muscles and are both classified as bivalves —  two-shelled mollusks — the toughness of oyster and scallop shells, as anyone who has picked shells for a driveway knows, are not at all the same.

“Scallops don’t need as hard of a shell because they can use that abductor muscle to actually swim away [from predators],” he said. “Scallops are actually one of the few bivalve shellfish species that can actually get up and move if they want to. The same way an oyster uses that abductor muscle to close really tightly, a scallop uses the abductor muscle to open and close its shell to actually propel it. Because they’ve evolved with the ability to move they don’t need to protect themselves in the way an oyster does that can’t move.”

Unlike the scallop shell, the oyster shell isn’t known for its beauty. It makes up for its homeliness with durability. Clinging to rocks or layers and layers of its dead ancestors on an oyster reef, the oyster deals with smashing surfs, temperature swings, tidal rips, the open air and all the wildlife that can reach it in the open air — threats and conditions that would (and does send) the bay scallop cowering into the mud and eel grass of relatively calm ponds and coves.

“Oyster shells are pretty incredible they way the [crystal] matrix is actually formed,” Mr. Schillaci said. “You have these layers of calcite crystals that are each one-hundredth of an inch thick. There’s a group that’s making body armor using the same concept as oyster shells. Basically if you were to damage an oyster shell instead of cracking along a fracture line, it really just reshapes the crystals inside of it and it might change the shape of the shell, but the shell itself remains intact.”

Even inside, oysters are tough. Though their shells are air- and water-tight when closed, they don’t protect it against cold, but part of its internal chemistry actually does. “These things have a sugar in their cells that acts like an antifreeze,” Mr. Schillachi said.

Don’t write off scallops as thoroughly dainty, however. Even though it takes about 20 pounds of force to pry open an oyster, it actually has a smaller abductor muscle than the scallop. With an oyster you’re eating the whole creature.

“What you’re eating in a scallop is just the abductor muscle,” said Mr. Schillachi. “It’s much larger than in the oyster’s.”

But the struggle is worth it

Scallops are most popular cooked. Oysters are frequently eaten raw and that may lend enhanced nutritional value to them.

“Oysters are an incredible source of magnesium, zinc, and protein,” said Mr. Schillaci. “They’re full of omega fatty acids. I think there’s also some research that shows you retain more of that when you eat it raw versus cooked. But oysters are still good for you, whether they’re cooked or raw.”

Mr. Schillaci pointed out scallops can be, and are, eaten raw — even whole like oysters. With sea scallops served whole and raw, the term is roe-on. Attached to the alabaster muscle is a coral lobe that’s a shade darker than say shade row – evidently quite a delicacy. When bay scallops are eaten raw, it’s more often the abductor muscle alone. In a New York Times Magazine article written by Mark Bittman from June of last year, six illustrated recipes for raw bay scallops are given.  Mr. Bittman calls “true bay scallops — possibly the best and certainly the priciest…”

Island oyster growers are being rewarded for their efforts with similar priciness.

“You have an incredible quality of oyster on the Vineyard,” Mr. Schillaci said. “Many of the guys on the Vineyard are getting a higher price for their oysters because of the quality. I’ve enjoyed working with all of them.”

Menemsha Fish Market has been selling their bay scallops for between $22 to $28 a pound. That’s sans guts.

“A lot of folks will actually eat the guts as well,” said Mr. Walbert, “even raw, but the majority of the people like just the [abductor] muscle. It lasts a little longer too when you package it and send it across the United States.”

What’s that smell?

Mr. Walbert has found a productive use for the guts that involves serving them up, just not to people.

“First I’ll chum with the guts. Then I’ll put one on the hook. I’ve caught striped bass, tautog, all kinds of different things. Normally very quickly, too.”

Shucking rolls on at the Menemsha Fish Market where Messrs. Walbert and Nikolaev have yet to even pause. They’re averaging six to seven pounds an hour (shucked). As liquid from heaps of shells and guts trickles into a drain in the concrete floor, the chilled air doesn’t completely stifle the baity aroma hanging in the room. “The smell kind of gets too you and it starts makin’ you sick,” Mr. Walbert said. “I take an India pale ale and kind of sip it along and it makes the smell of the scallops kind of appetizing.”

She shucks seashells by the seashore

Professional shucker Aretha Brown tells it like it is.

I learned how to shuck oysters and clams while working at Larsen’s fish market. I did eight summers there, so I got pretty good. Isaiah Scheffer is the fastest shucker I’ve ever seen. I used to work elbow and elbow with him at the raw bar for the starving masses that line up out the door for the good stuff. You have to be fast to satisfy these people!

There are lots of shucking competitions in the region but not really any that take presentation into account. Any ol’ brute can open a clam, but can you open it without slaying through the belly? Can you plate it without spilling the liquor? Can you do all this quickly? That’s what really counts. Product knowledge and presentation are just as important as the shellfish you’re shucking.

My parents used to scallop in the winters. I’m pretty sure they were scalloping Menemsha pond for winter work. Maybe bartering, definitely some personal consumption. Probably all of the above.
I remember them cutting down in the basement. I have tried my hand at scallops but I need much more practice. I can do it, but I can’t do it with the speed needed to actually make opening them a worthwhile endeavor.

Shucking oysters and clams for weddings and functions is the way to go. Maximum hourly wage for only three or four hours of work start to finish.

Plus, it’s fun to have people sidle up to the raw bar who don’t often get to enjoy fresh raw shellfish. They go “ohhhhh so gooooooood” and they’re so appreciative and thankful that you’re doing all the work. There are very few things I do in life where people are so grateful.

Scallops are indeed easier to open in terms of the amount of strength required. The knife kinda slips into a corner and then you swipe the blade up and across the roof of the thing as not to sever the meat. I can open them, but because I have only ever done 200 or so in my life, I don’t have that finesse that it takes to shuck say… one every 5 seconds.

Some people say oysters are the hardest, probably because they aren’t all the same shape, and they all have their own unique twists and turns and curves. You have to wear a glove so you don’t cut your hand on the sharp edges of the oyster. Sometimes the amount of pressure you put on the tip of the knife to “crack the seal” can be enough to break the shell and your hand can jam into a sharp broken shell and that’s how you cut yourself if you’re not careful.

There are several ways to open an oyster. You can enter from the side; you have to look at the natural folds on the side of the oyster and this takes some practice, and then you put the tip of your knife in the “sweet spot” that you’ve found to crack the seal. You can do this with just the tip of the knife. Oyster knives are long, dull, and very firm with no flexibility to the blade, where a clam knife is sharp and offers more flexibility so you can bow it inside the clam so you don’t sever the meat. I wish I could give you a visual explanation of this: I’m afraid some seasoned shuckers are going to laugh at these descriptions. The other technique where you pop the hinge at the point (which I’d call the bottom) of the oyster. Either way, once you break the seal you can shimmy your knife in there and detach the muscle first from the top shell, and then slide the knife under the oyster to detach the rest of the muscle from the bottom shell so the whole oyster slides off smoothly and intact. You also have to keep an eye out for shell bits that break off during opening and scoot them out of there so someone doesn’t get a bite of crunchy shell and get totally turned off from raw shellfish. (I even lose my appetite when crunching into a little piece of clam shell while eating a white clam sauce).

Any shellfish will be much, much easier to open if they’ve been iced for at least 30 minutes prior to stating opening them. The colder the better. Fridge temperature just makes twice as much work. When I find an oyster I can’t open easily, I either let my ego take over and destroy myself trying to open it (and usually win)… or I set it aside to a place on the raw bar where it can sit in ice a little longer and I try again later.

People definitely eat raw scallops! Our bay scallops are so sweet, “they taste like candy.” I have heard these words uttered so many times by my grandmother and others.

Only once or twice have I had a raw bar customer who requested raw bay scallops at their bar. Part of that might be because the raw bar season and the bay scallop season don’t have much overlap (raw bar season = wedding season, basically). But it is done, and they look gorgeous laid out next to oysters and littlenecks.

Champions? The Larsen sisters [Christine and Betsy]! They both make it look easy. Too easy. Deceptively easy. They can probably shuck with one hand tied behind their backs (lol).

Aretha Witham Brown is a shucker with Vineyard Sound Raw Bars, a full-time dispatcher for ABC Disposal, and mother to 4-year-old Fiona. She lives in Chilmark.