A Raw Deal

You'd think the U.S. champion oyster sheller would be steamed about missing the world finals. But Severn's George Hastings just keeps on shucking.

November 22, 1999|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,SUN STAFF

He ignored the warm, steady rain that slicked his full beard to his face. He tuned out the crowd in the bleachers. He didn't glance across the stage at his foe, the ex-U.S. champ he was about to fight for a title he'd coveted 30 years. He never thought of the trip to Galway, Ireland, that hung in the balance.

No, for two minutes and 19 seconds, George Hastings saw oysters and -shucked -- lancing and scooping in a Zen-like rhythm -- until his trusty Chesapeake stabber had dispatched eight, 16, and finally the two dozen oysters the judges had set before him. "I only won by seven seconds," marvels Hastings, 44, a Baltimore native, of the national oyster-shucking championship he netted last month. "Your mind can't wander. You've got to stay on task."

Forgive Hastings if he sounds a little like Michael Jordan in a zone. Oyster shucking -- the sleight-of-hand craft by which oyster meat is freed from the shell and served -- is more than a piece of Maryland's living history. It's an exacting, often dangerous task, one practiced by a few brave souls who don't mind getting soaked to the elbows in ice water and risking self-inflicted bloodshed -- for hours on end.

The competition he won Oct. 17 -- the 33rd annual contest at the St. Mary's County Oyster Festival in Leonardtown -- has been known as the Super Bowl of American shucking for nearly a quarter-century. "All the best shuckers are there," says Hastings, awe edging his voice. "Any of them could have ended up where I did. For whatever reason, I was `on.' I'm just thankful I won."

Hastings repels praise the way a horse shoos flies, but get him to talk his trade and his blue eyes gleam. The size, the shape, the brittleness of shells. The different-shaped oysters from different regions of the country. The "zenith" of an oyster, the optimum angle of entry, the knife to be used -- no detail is too small. "Oysters are funny," he says, shucking one as he says it. "No two are alike. When you shuck, keep a steady rhythm going. But `read' the oyster. Treat each oyster on its own terms. It isn't like putting lug nuts on a tire."

What he doesn't bring up is that in the very year he realized his dream, one major reward he sought -- a trip to the world championships in Ireland -- is very much in doubt. The master shucker, the first native of Baltimore ever to reap the title, may have to stay on task even more than usual in the coming months.

They don't call it the Raw Bar for nothing. Early on a Friday evening at the Cross Street Market, the eclectic crowd -- Rastafarians, yuppies, tourists, old-time Bawlmer folk -- settles into its high-energy rhythm at Nick's Inner Harbor Seafood. Unprintably raucous jokes are already flowing as freely as 32-ounce Budweisers. Uncooked clams and oysters, straight from the bay, rest in heaps of ice. And what began as a murmur of conversations blends into a steady, happy roar. "Hey -- I ever tell you the one about the priest and the peanut?" hollers one young man to another he's only just met. It's too noisy to hear the punchline. Most likely just as well.

If you want to learn oyster shucking, this is your lucky night. George Hastings, a highway engineer from Severn, is filling in for an off-duty regular, just as he's done at Nick's and half a dozen other local establishments for the past 25 years. He's been stuck in parkway traffic for an hour, but you'd never know it: He seems unacquainted with stress. A smile creasing his face, he dons a spattered apron, tugs on his cotton gloves like a surgeon preparing to operate, and settles himself behind the built-in wooden block on which he'll work his magic for the next four hours.

He doesn't seem like a man whose dream of three decades may have been diminished. George Hastings seems at home.

The bar is a cacophony. A man in an ill-fitting Tulane University shirt is bashing Orioles owner Peter Angelos. "All I'm saying," he hollers, jabbing another man in the chest, "all I'm saying -- you're not gonna have a GM? You're gonna make all the decisions? Put on a uniform then. Put on a uniform! Just go down in the dugout and get it over with!" Nearby, a man in dreadlocks tells his date that oysters really are aphrodisiacs. "Maybe you're just drunk when you eat them," she says. A blond woman, free of her toddler for the night, mutters, "All he eats is crab cakes and Gatorade."

Hastings loves shucking, has since he was 15, because it's a bit of Baltimore history. Like most good shuckers, he learned from watching old-timers ply a trade whose heyday was a century ago, when each season brought a rich harvest. And as he grew up in West Baltimore, two of the best in town, Vernon P. Johnson Sr. and Robbie Robbins, lived in the neighborhood. He'd soak in their patter, see their act at Lexington Market gigs and gaze in wonder. "It mystified me how they did what they did, how fast and how clean. And there was always a certain jocularity around the raw bar -- people debating who was the best."

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