GALWAY, Ireland - Here in western Ireland, the locals say, you can have all four seasons in the span of 10 minutes. This morning proves they aren't just slinging blarney. Sharp, slanting sunlight kindles the lawn in Father Burke Park to a shimmering green. As you cross the roiling River Corrib, an icy wind brings low, gray clouds. And by the time you reach the champ's hotel across town, a bone-soaking rain is falling - but the sky is brighter than a noonday sun.
This isn't weather, you think; it's sorcery. But then every facet of George Hastings' journey has seemed a little bit like magic.
Hastings, 45, here for the 46th annual International Oyster Opening Championship, slides his bulky frame behind the wheel of his rented Toyota. The Baltimore native and top oyster shucker in the United States smiles nervously and gets the feel of the car. It's backward, you see, this steering wheel on the left side, this driving on the wrong half of the road. He worries he might sideswipe somebody, but he can't fret about that right now. It's Thursday, two days before the shucking showdown, and he must make it six kilometers south to Clarinbridge, the tiny town known as "The Home of the Oyster." It's there that he'll see, for the first time, the mollusks of the Emerald Isle, and get their ancient feel.
Small wonder the village claims such a grand title. There, at the end of a winding one-lane road, hard by a black, burbling stream, stands a small house with a thatched roof. As Hastings nears it, his eyes go wide. It's Moran's Oyster Cottage, likely the oldest - and most widely revered - oyster-shucking site in the world. The place has been in continuous operation since 1760; generations of Morans have served up what they now call "the last affordable delicacy on earth." The U.S. champ can hardly believe he's here.
Hastings is a man who likes to feel anchored, and the wait has been long enough. For more than 20 years, he dreamed of this trip, for his chance to square off against the best in the world. But first, another task: research.
Oysters are different in different regions around the globe, and though he can shuck a Long Island Bluepoint (hard) or a Maine Boulognese (small and flat) with the best of them, Hastings has only heard about the Irish ones. Wholesalers up and down the East Coast of the U.S. failed to score him any. "All I know is what other people have told me," he says. "I know they're smaller, but I don't know how much smaller. I've heard they're hard; I've heard they're soft. I've heard everything you can imagine. I won't feel right till I get a few in my hands."
Galway Oyster Fest officials have told him to ask for Willie Moran, the white-haired proprietor, two-time world champ and epic local character. "He'll let you open a few," they said. "Drop in around lunchtime." And so he cracks the door of the old-world pub and steps lightly as if into a shrine.
The place is as awesome as he expected. He pauses a moment to take it in. Light falls through a mullioned window onto a wooden plaque above the doorway. On it is etched a poem. He reads a little:'Tis long ago that oysters were the pride of Moran's Bar.
But when you eat them here today you'll know that they still are
And it will be for ever so, in years they'll taste the same
And little child not yet born will know why Granddad came.
These people get it, he thinks. Shucking - or oyster-opening, as they call it here - isn't just about food, partying, even competition. The feel of an oyster, rough in your hand, is the feel of history, the feel of generations gone by and, God willing, the feel of more to come. Here, he can tell already, people understand where the oyster belongs: right at the top of things.
But he can't tarry. He crosses the plank floor, passes the hutch full of conches, makes his way through the crowded tables and heads for the bar. A black-haired fellow, tall and rangy, extends a hand.
"Willie's not in today," he says with a cheerful brusqueness. "I'm Vincent Graham. It's practice you want, is it? You're the American, are you? Well, follow me, then."
And he leads George through swinging doors into the kitchen, with the confident air of a Merlin leading his apprentice to the lair.
The orders fly in - thick, fast and noisy. "Twelve Europeans!" cries a waitress to Vincent, who is hunched over a stainless-steel counter, two-inch knife in hand. "Twelve Europeans and 12 Irish!"