By Juhwan Seo, JCamp Live Reporter, and Gomian Konneh, JCamp Live Video Reporter
Surviving the shucking knife takes more than swiftly opening oysters.
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The seemingly elementary task is limited to only a small group in New Orleans, many who stumbled upon the craft and never abandoned the job. In the city’s French Quarter, shuckers can be found in the oyster bars.
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The beginnings of shuckers are often unintentional, with many picking up the professions just by being “at the right place at the right time,” said Tim Andrews, a former shucker and now waiter at the Royal House restaurant.
That was the case for James Lang, who works at Desire Oyster Bar.
“One day, I was the only guy at the restaurant, so I had to fill in for the position at the restaurant’s second location,” Lang said.
Eddie Williams of Pier 424 Seafood Market Restaurant learned at the age of 7 from his grandfather. The experience left him with a scar on his left hand, but put him on the path to deftly handle the knife. Now Williams can open oysters without gloves. He claims he is the fastest shucker in town, opening 47 per minute.
“Stormin” Norman Conerly, a shucker at Acme Oyster House, said he has no emotional attachment to the job he’s done for 30 years but admits it makes him happy.
“It’s just about making people happy,” Conerly said. “That’s all that matters: making people happy.”
The oyster industry has seen tough times, though shuckers have mixed views on the effect of Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill. Andrews and Lang said the industry suffered a “mid-life crisis” by seeing business drop when local supplies shrank. At Acme Oyster House, customer demand was satisfied through other suppliers.
Some shuckers didn’t return to work after Katrina and instead chose a job that didn’t have the same physical demands. Those that did come back could be the end of the pipeline.
“No longer are there enough young who are interested in shucking,” Lang said. “The honorable occupation is quickly becoming undesirable and disregarded.”