Barbara Austin is a Wellfleet legend. With hands like quicksilver, she’s won the Annual Wellfleet OysterFest Shuck-Off multiple times since it began in 2001. The Festival, held each October the Saturday and Sunday after Columbus day weekend, brings tens of thousands of shellfish lovers to town to eat, drink, and watch as local shuckers compete for the title. According to Austin, she developed her knack for opening oysters over 20 years ago.
“I got fast opening when the river had a lot of shucking stock in it,” she explained. “Back in the early 80s, we were allowed five bushels a day. It was really very unglamorous, but every day, seven days a week I’d go pick five bushels of oysters, bring them home, and shuck five bushels of oysters. So when you do that, day after day after day, and you’re chasing around two little kids at the same time, and you just have to get it done—you get pretty fast at it.”
Austin’s talking about the Herring River in Wellfleet. It was diked in 1909, but started to break down in the late 70s and water broke through. Before they fixed the hole, a wealth of new shellfish beds appeared on the flats, declining again after the dike was repaired. Luckily for Austin, she’d already mastered her high-speed shucking technique. She gave me some home-shucking pointers.
“Choke up on the knife, so only about a quarter-of-an-inch of the knife is sticking out of the end of your hand,” she said. “Use that to pry the oyster open. Once you get your knife into the oyster, then let your hand slide back onto the handle and push it the rest of the way in. Never hold your hand at the end so you’ve got a three- or four- or five-inch blade exposed, because if you slip, the potential for putting that through your hand is really great.”
I asked Austin if she thought that oysters from certain areas of Wellfleet are easier to open?
“Oh, most definitely,” she said. “There’s a big difference between the areas. The stuff I was shucking from the Herring River was those long “banana” ones, and the shells up there aren’t real thick. They’re a good, what we call a “cutting” oyster. And when you get the oysters off the West Side, the real round deep oysters–they can be like trying to get into a rock. I mean really tough.”
Austin leases a shellfish flat called a grant, where she grows oysters with a nice, mid-weight shell and briny white meat. She grows a mix of native spawn, caught underwater, and also some hatchery born oysters, bought locally and started from seed. It’s easy to tell she loves growing and shucking, and she said a win every now and then doesn’t hurt.
“It feels good, I hate to admit it,” she said. “It’s just all in fun, to have a girl be able to beat the “big” boys. But if you look at shucking competitions around the country, you’ll see that there are a lot of other really good women shuckers who do win from the Carolinas. I competed at the Mohegan Sun a year ago, and I only came in sort of middle of the road. There’s this community of people that take shucking really seriously and travel around, and the girl that came in second, she was good.”
So what’s Austin’s best time?
“I think my best time with the deductions was like two minutes twenty-three seconds for twenty-four oysters. And that’s with the deductions for, you know, a chip in the shell and an oyster not properly detached from the shell.”
“Do most people get deductions,” I asked. “Does anyone get through without a deduction?”
“Most people do get deductions,” she said. “I was just talking to Chopper the other day. He said that he lost—well, didn’t lose, but didn’t come out on top—a competition a year or so ago because when he went to flip the top shell off he actually threw it into the crowd! So something like that just will destroy your whole run—a mistake like that.”
At the end of the Shuck-off at the Wellfleet OysterFest, the trays of almost perfectly opened oysters are auctioned off on stage. While Austin says she does love a raw oyster, she’s not sure she could eat a whole two dozen, with one exception.
“I’d say a dozen oysters for me is sufficient,” she said. “Unless you’re frying them up. Fried oysters in the middle of winter, with garlic breadcrumbs and olive oil and parsley... I’d probably eat a couple of dozen of them!”
Now is the best time of year to eat Wellfleet oysters. They’re bulking up for the winter, which means the meats are big and sweet.
By the way, Barbara Austin isn’t the only champion Wellfleet shucker. Wellfleet shucker William “Chopper” Young, mentioned in this article, won the world oyster opening title in Galway, Ireland, several years ago, shucking 30 oysters in 2 minutes and 37 seconds, after deductions.
Here's a video of the Wellfleet OysterFest Shuck-off:
This piece first aired in October, 2015.