"Eating an oyster without a fork is kinda like kissing," says George Hastings. He's evaluating the denuded and glistening mollusk now lolling in the half shell he holds in his hand.
"A lot of people will take the shell and jam it in their mouth—" he demonstrates, tipping the shell to his lips like a teacup and stopping just short of scraping the muddy underside across his bottom teeth. "No, no, no," he grimaces. "Take it from the top, give it a little suck, chew it up." He tips his head forward and presses his lips to the oyster's plush surface. With a polite slurp, it is quickly in his mouth. He chews thoughtfully. "Mmm," he says. "Good flavor. That was good. They say eating an oyster is like kissing the sea."
If you've ever struggled, knife in hand, to convince a tight-lipped shellfish to open wide, consider this: On one occasion, at the Guinness Oyster Festival in Chicago, Hastings was part of a team of shuckers that opened 16,475 oysters in one day. His best officially clocked time for opening two dozen oysters is a jaw-dropping one minute and 55 seconds—that's one oyster in less than 5 seconds. When not jetting across the globe in pursuit of championships on the competitive oyster shucking circuit, this professor of shuckery can (on Ravens gamedays) most likely be found behind the raw bar at Nick's Inner Harbor Seafood in Cross Street Market, where he's opened oysters for hungry crowds for over 15 years.
"A lot of time people think that I go out and catch oysters," says the bearded Hastings. "I really don't. I'm just an oyster shucker."
Hastings learned his craft as a teenager in the Southwest Baltimore neighborhood of Violetville, where his neighbors Newton Robbins and Vernon P. Johnson Sr. taught him the skill they'd learned as a source of extra income during the Depression. Hastings, who at the time was dating Johnson's daughter, learned from them the secret of "traditional, mid-Atlantic style" shucking.
As with so many things in life, it turns out that there is more than one way to shuck an oyster. The various regions of the U.S. where oysters are harvested each have their own local styles, just as the oysters from different areas each have their own unique taste. Hastings is an expert in the "stabbing" method traditional to the mid-Atlantic: he presses the oyster to the tabletop with his left hand and jams the pinky-sized blade of his "Chesapeake sticker" oyster knife into the oyster's underbite, as opposed to prying the oyster open at the hinge (popular in the Gulf Coast and West Coast) or holding it in hand while jamming a wider style blade into its side (a New England technique). Each style has its aficionados, but Hastings insists no one technique is faster than another—it's all in the hands of the shucker.
"I love his technique. It's different than what we use in Canada," says fellow shucker Patrick McMurray, on the phone from Starfish, the Toronto oyster raw bar and restaurant he oversees when he's not also competing (frequently against Hastings) in oyster shucking contests.
"He presents the oyster on the top shell"—the flatter of the two halves, as opposed to the cupped bottom shell—"so you've got this soft, plump, beautiful oyster." And, as lovely as the finished oysters appear, McMurray emphasizes that Hastings' speed is just as startling as his flair. "It's already in his hand before you know it."
McMurray definitely knows oysters: besides writing the comprehensive Consider The Oyster: A Shucker's Field Guide, he also won the Guinness World Oyster Opening Championships in Galway, Ireland in 2002. But as impressed as he is with Hastings' skill with a shucking knife, he's most thrilled with him as a human being.
"George is instantly everybody's best friend," he says. "He befriends everyone he meets. And he has a great passion for the oyster, which is a benefit in our line of work."
"Shucking oysters, to me, became therapeutic," Hastings explains. "It's kind of repetitious, it's a little Zen, but it's a day out meeting nice people." And while no one ever got rich opening oysters, there are still many intangible rewards for the shucker. "Whoever's on the line with you, you sit around and talk about war stories—the hardest oyster you had to open and the weirdo people that you saw, or the beautiful people that you saw—all that kind of stuff. Even though you're tired and your hands may ache, it's all part of the fun."
In 1994, Tom Chagouris, owner of Nick's, suggested Hastings should fill in for a guy who'd dropped out of the Baltimore On The Bay festival's oyster shucking contest. Hastings, who'd never entered a shucking contest before, decided to give it a whirl. "So I went up to the Inner Harbor, and guess what?" he smiles.
Hastings' first place prize was $50 and a slot at the National Oyster Shucking Championship in St. Mary's County, where he placed seventh out of 28 contestants around the country. After that fortuitous start, Hastings now competes in an average of half a dozen competitions a year (he often helps judge contests he's won too, like the Baltimore Waterfront Festival). He's a regular at the Mohegan Sun Oyster Open in Connecticut, the Global Gaming Expo in Las Vegas, and, most spectacularly, the world championships in Galway.
So far, Hastings has qualified for the world championships twice: once in 2000, when he finished in second place, and again more recently in 2004, where he finished sixth. "It's quite a party in Galway," he asserts. "It's all about opening oysters, and in the evening there's a black tie affair—great food, great wines, and the shuckers present the flag of their country in a procession going into the final banquet."
Nearly every continent is represented at the finals, with entrants coming from as far away as South Africa, Singapore, and Australia. While every competitor's hungry for bragging rights to being fastest oyster shucker in the world, Hastings insists that the competition's not cutthroat. "Some folks show up with that chip on their shoulder, but not long after they arrive they figure out that everybody's pretty damn good at what they're doing," he emphasizes. "That little chip slowly goes away."
The rules of competitive oyster shucking value speed and precision, with a special emphasis on aesthetics. It's not just about who can open the shells fastest: Each of the 24 oysters (or 30, for the world championships) shucked for competition must be good enough to be served in a fine restaurant. There are infractions for grit, sloppy severing of the connecting muscle, or cuts on the oyster's surface. All three no-nos mean penalty seconds added onto your time. "It needs to look like a little pillow on the half shell," says Hastings about the perfect oyster. "Some people's oysters look like a scrambled egg. Judges don't like that."
And the biggest penalty of all, worth a whopping addition of 30 penalty seconds at the world championships, is for blood on the oyster. Jamming a blade into a closed shell is risky business, and injuries aren't uncommon.
"I've only been to one competition where there was a bad stab," recalls Hastings, whose own hands are festooned with silvery scars earned from collisions with the rough edge of the oyster shell. "A guy actually ran a knife right through his palm. It came out the other side. He finished shucking his tray, got off the stage, wrapped a towel around his hand, went over to the medic, and they took him to the hospital." he chuckles. "He got three stitches on this side of his hand, where the knife went in, and three stitches where it came out."
The contest is held in a tent erected on Galway Bay, with a huge, noisy, Guinness-enriched crowd of eager spectators pressed up close, less than five feet from the competitor's table. Just to add to the hysteria, every oyster shucker is given a nickname so the emcee on stage can give commentary on their progress like a racetrack announcer. During his first appearance at Galway, for reasons that are still a mystery, Hastings was dubbed "Hannibal." "The crowd gave it to me. Go figure, right? To this day, when I get around to some of the contests that's how they know me, George 'Hannibal' Hastings."
At the starting gun, each shucker grabs their first oyster, dispatches it as quickly as possible, and places it neatly on a tray before moving on to the next one, while the well-marinated throng of spectators hollers their support. The noise is deafening, but Hastings' attention is focused only on oysters. "When you're in the zone, there's nothing like it. There's 5,000 screaming people cheering you on, and you don't hear anybody. All you're doing is tooling along on your 30 oysters. You don't hear anybody until your bell rings and then the volume comes up."
In 2006, Hastings took second place at the Nationals in St. Mary's County. Not bad, but it didn't qualify him for Galway this year. His next shot to head to Ireland again will be determined this October 20 and 21 in St. Mary's, but until then, he hones his craft at Nick's, where the smiling faces of happy oyster eaters—including shucker friends from around the globe who come to visit when they're in town—mean more than titles.
"Folks that love oysters love their oyster shucker," says Hastings. "They want to talk to them. They want to hear about what kind of oysters they're eating. They want to hear where those oysters are from. And then, once folks find out that you get around the country and compete, they want to hear about that, too. I tell people that's my 13 minutes of fame."
"I've got two minutes coming," he smiles. "And if I ever get to cash them, maybe I could be world champ."