We Finally Learn to Shuck Oysters

On an extremely steamy afternoon, Lizzie and Kaitlyn put on thick gloves for a good reason.

A collage of photos in purple hues—hands shucking oysters, people standing around watching a boat race, a woman with a parasol.
The Atlantic

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Kaitlyn: I’ve never been jealous of seafaring people, but I did go through a pretty intense nautical phase when I was 21 and got a hold of Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News. I read most of it while lying on my back on Valentino Pier in Red Hook, and for a while I thought it might be my destiny to start a newspaper about boats. My destiny is still unfolding, so we’ll see. (But I now doubt it.)

Red Hook is, of course, the site of some important American history and also of an IKEA. It is quiet and creepy and “a watery place,” like the fictional town of Killick-Claw, where the protagonist of The Shipping News gets a job at a newspaper about boats (and grisly car accidents) and thereby comes into his own after decades of indecision and fear of self-knowledge. Also like the fictional town of Killick-Claw, there are a lot of places where you can buy fried seafood, and far fewer where you can avail yourself of public transportation.

And of course there is a boat scene, mostly passenger ferries and oil tankers. As huge boat fans, Lizzie and I long ago made plans to go to the annual Red Hook Regatta, an event at which a bunch of people gather at Valentino Pier—a park on the corner of Brooklyn, where the East River meets the Atlantic Ocean—and race boats that they’ve made themselves. (We did not realize that these would be tiny, remote-controlled boats incapable of bearing the weight of even a small dog, but that was our fault.)

Lizzie: I can’t say we were dying to go to the Red Hook Regatta on a 97-degree day, despite half of us dreaming about potentially starting a newspaper about boats someday. But we couldn’t back out of it, because we had already RSVP’d on the Eventbrite page. Besides, there could be something narratively interesting about a DIY-boat race: local engineers and crafters (mostly children) fighting against extreme elements (sopping-wet humidity) and charting a new path forward for nautical sporting events (amateur, miniature-boat regattas).

Michele and Jorye were visiting from Philly, so we drank some Liquid I.V. and took two buses to Red Hook, where we met Kaitlyn, who was already standing around sweating.

Kaitlyn: It was so hot that people were describing, out loud to one another, the paths the trickles of sweat were taking underneath their clothes, and a surprising number of the spectators were carrying old-timey parasols. Others had bucket hats, or, in one case, a Mets cap with a towel stuck underneath it to protect the back of the neck, like in Holes.

I was seeing some severely burned tummies and calves, so I asked Lizzie to help me with my sunscreen—she must have spent eight minutes rubbing it onto my back, saying that she had to be meticulous, otherwise I might get a burn spot and become angry with her. I was like, “Yeah, I would get so angry with you.” I said it as a joke, but then I thought it would be funny if that ended up being our first major fight.

I was begging for something dramatic to happen. I think it was the sun and my dehydration, or the sense of foreboding whenever a bunch of people are gathered around squinting out at the same thing. It reminded me of the West Indian Day Parade several years ago on Eastern Parkway: After Chuck Schumer marched past, just as I was handing money to a woman selling grilled corn on the cob, I got a series of thrilling text messages from a boy. That was a day of drama, and of reading texts aloud to Stephanie for her opinion.

Honestly, we stopped paying attention to the boat races after 10 minutes.

Lizzie: I’ll give you some details, if you’re interested. The regatta competitors had all been given the same electronic kits from Pioneer Works, including a motor, a propeller, and a speed controller. Their job was to create a floating vessel capable of transporting “cargo” (we thought these were bricks, but apparently they were foam containers) from the shoreline to the end of the pier and back again. I think the teams received a point each time they made the round trip successfully. Astoundingly, each race lasted 15 minutes. I don’t know if I need to point this out, but this is a long time for a boat made out of an IKEA bag to race for.

We’ve said this already, but it was an important part of the experience: It was really hot. Matt had bought me a Gatorade, because I tend to barf in the heat (for the drama!), but I found out too late that it was actually G2, some kind of horrible half-the-sugar version that made my throat feel like there was too much room inside of it, if that makes sense. Like an empty abyss in the back of my throat where nausea settled.

Because I am brave, I put this aside for the moment, since we were angling to join a free, first-come-first-serve oyster-shucking workshop on the regatta grounds.

Shot from behind, a photo of two people sitting on a beach holding old-fashioned parasols.
What year is it? (Courtesy of Kaitlyn Tiffany)

Kaitlyn: Lizzie has been dreaming of learning how to shuck an oyster ever since the idea entered her mind five weeks ago via a magazine about Long Island. So, when we learned that the table in the oyster-shucking-workshop tent had only eight seats, we started hovering over it like irritating jerks. We didn’t have a choice. Sometimes, if you want something badly, you just can’t play it cool. And we wanted so badly to put on those big oyster-shucking gloves and hold those little oyster-shucking knives and slurp down some free oysters that we’d shucked ourselves! (Except Lizzie didn’t want to do the last part, because it was so hot and she feared “the danger zone.”)

Lizzie: It seems like a useful skill to be able to shuck oysters. For example, if I ever got trapped somewhere surrounded by oysters, I’d be able to keep myself from starving, provided I also had an oyster knife.

The five of us sat down at the table with a few strangers who had also managed to snag the coveted shucking seats. Before we started, our instructor wanted to tell us a little bit about oysters, and he started by asking if we knew how oysters reproduce. No one said anything—a free oyster-shucking workshop isn’t the place to be a know-it-all. “Basically ejaculation,” our instructor said.

About three minutes later, he said, “I can’t believe I have to do this three more times today.”

Kaitlyn: The instructor told us the old joke about how the first person to eat an oyster must have been really hungry in order to give that a whirl, and then he said, “That’s the stupidest joke I’ve ever heard.” He seemed genuinely upset about it.

He gave a captivating if somewhat bewildering account of the evolution of bacteria, as well as the history of the New York City coastline and the origins of currency in the United States, which all had to do with shells. He was an amazing talker. He mentioned ancient animals that looked like plants, even “more plantlike than the plants we know today.” (One of the more challenging concepts I have ever tried to visualize in my mind’s eye.) At various points, he insisted on things that could not be true—for example, that there are no cities in the middle of the United States.

He told us that shucking oysters is a lot like picking a lock. You don’t want to use force; you just want to wiggle the knife from side to side until you get lucky. The girl next to Lizzie was pushing way too hard and breaking off chunks of her shell. “He’s going to get mad at you,” I told her. I was trying to be playful, but then he did get a little mad at her.

Lizzie: Our instructor knew so much about oysters that it seemed to upset him when others knew less. Given my emotional tendencies, I hoped I would be naturally skilled at shucking oysters. When one of the strangers in our group shucked his oyster very, very quickly — surprisingly quickly—I said, “Oh you’ve done this before!” It was a dumb joke (you might say the same thing to a child who has just finished a puzzle), but it didn’t land. “No, he hasn’t,” the woman he was with responded, before anyone had a chance to laugh.

I don’t know if it was the heat, but I started to feel like we had unknowingly entered some kind of competitive-shucking bootcamp, and any bending of the rules or general unseriousness would not be tolerated. I kept my eyes on my own oyster from then on.

Kaitlyn: Both of my gloves were for a left hand, which was lucky because my left hand was the one I was worried about slashing open with the oyster knife. I struggled to shuck my first oyster, and the instructor had to guide my hand the whole time, but my second oyster came apart seemingly by magic. I gasped. Everyone except Lizzie ate one oyster with cocktail sauce and vinegar and the other with ponzu sauce and seaweed, while the instructor sipped from a bottle of rye whiskey. I was like, “Can you believe this? You never get anything for free these days!” Let alone a novel experience and two oysters. I was really moved.

Lizzie: I feel like we can’t say for sure that everyone but me ate their oysters. They may have just pretended to, like I did. Of course I didn’t want our instructor to see me not eat my oysters, so I mimed eating them, like an actor. I tipped each oyster shell to my mouth, but instead of dropping the bivalve in, I swiftly and skillfully tipped it over into a napkin in my other hand. In my defense, it was 110 degrees, I had just roughed up my oysters into mush for the past 20 minutes, and there was that whole G2 thing.

After that it was time to leave.

Kaitlyn: In the Uber, Michele asked that we refer to her and Jorye as “Jess and Mike” in this newsletter, for privacy reasons. But the request didn’t make sense to us, because if you search Michele and Jorye on Google, Famous People is already the first result. Also, we can’t run fake names in Famous People, because then how would any of our friends and family ever become celebrities?

Lizzie: Earlier in the day, she also suggested we refer to Jorye as “Jay” since “that’s his name at pizza places.”