I have two vivid memories of my dad saying to me, “You’re gonna have to learn to do this by yourself.”
The first was riding a bike and his exasperation came from having to give me a hundred pushes but then also having to catch up and run behind me as I peddled. He held onto the back of my bicycle seat with one hand, trying to keep up, exhausted after just a few hundred feet of that nonsense. (And once we’ve all attempted that awkward move ourselves as parents, we realize that crap’s for the birds.) Well, my dad figured out that pushing off of the curb with one foot provided the launch I needed and when coupled with a bike that was just a tad too small for me, I had the foot reach I needed to keep myself from falling over. Necessity breeds invention, so they say, and he stopped having to wear himself out while I, like every other child in the world, learned to ride a bike.
The other thing I had to learn to do for myself was shucking my own oysters. At an age when he likely had no business feeding me raw seafood, I perched myself across from him and waited impatiently while he sat hunched over, elbows resting on his knees next to an ice chest full of Apalachicola Bay oysters, shucking them as fast as I could eat them.
A parent gets no peace.
At no more than 8 or 9 years old, he showed me how to put my tiny left hand into a single padded glove. That’s the hand you hold the oyster in. It’s a jagged and ugly creature and the shell is flaky, and they stink like low tide in August. There’s the round side of the oyster, which flattens out into a fairly sharp edge, and there’s the side with the nub on it. I always thought the nub looked like a pair of lips. (I also thought that a crescent moon looked like a giant fingernail, but that’s another story.)
There’s a special knife for oysters and all I know is that it’s called an Oyster Shucking Knife. If it has another name, heck if I know what it is. The blade is short and stubby and not all that sharp. You hold the OSK firmly in your right hand. In a sitting position, you spread your knees apart very unladylike, like a man, and rest your left elbow onto your left knee, holding the oyster firmly in the palm of your gloved hand.
The tip of your OSK must find the ‘sweet spot’ on the nub of the oyster. Your goal is to apply just enough pressure to pop the shell open. Not enough pressure and you won’t pry the shell apart. Too much pressure and the knife will slip and undoubtedly stab you in the hand. It happens. Trial and error. Blood and bruising. All part of it until you get the feel.
When the tip of the OSK hits that spot and just enough pressure is applied, you start to wobble your knife back and forth just a little, side to side like a fishing boat in brewing bad weather. If you’re too aggressive, the shell around the nub will start to flake off and you can pop off your whole entire nub. Then you’re in a mess and you could waste the whole oyster like that. If you do it right, your wobble-and-pressure combo will pop those two shells apart. Crank up the wobble just a little and you will see the shells separate from one another completely. It makes a girl feel kind of like a cavewoman in the wild when that actually happens. A real badass cavewoman.
Once the shells are separated, you’re halfway there. The oyster on the inside is connected to the shell at the top or at the bottom, it depends. So you must take your OSK and with the shell still held somewhat together, you rotate and scrape your knife first along the top and then along the bottom to free the meat. Again, it takes practice, but after just a little time, you will fold that top shell open and over and what you will see is a perfectly intact crustacean floating in a delicious little tidepool of salty seawater.
Grab a cracker. An oyster’s perfect companion is a Saltine. When an oyster and a saltine go to dinner together, a splash of Tabasco is like a bouquet of roses sitting on their table for two.
You eat the whole thing at once. One move, in perfect synchronicity.
So you can imagine, history repeats itself. We pass things down to our kids. Stories are shared between generations. My son and I bought a bag of oysters and enjoyed them on our back porch recently. We talked about college and gossip and all but my memories still see him when he was a little boy, sitting across from my husband and me, waiting impatiently while we both shucked oysters as fast as he could eat them. Now, it’s just us…Ben and me, and some things do change. When we ate our bag of oysters together the other day, I was wearing stilettos, for one. He will remember that forever and I bet he will share that detail when he tells his own oyster-shucking stories, because that’s something that reminds him uniquely of me. I loved the scraping sound our hands made as we dug around in the icy cooler searching for a big fat one, one that would cover the whole cracker. We say out loud that “I hope it’s salty,” and you hear the plunk of an empty shell into a five gallon bucket… every bit of it the music of my childhood, and now of his, too. He will remember all of it as vividly as I do. When he sits with his knees spread apart on his own back porch, one gloved hand and one hand wielding that weird looking knife somewhere many years from now, he will remember. He will explain the glove, the lips, the wobble of the knife… all the nuances of shucking oysters, and he will think about me, his mama, just like I think about my dad, my uncles and my cousins. Then he will hear himself say to his kid, “You’re gonna need to learn how to do this by yourself.”