A slip, a shuck, a place in the sun

Irish oyster competition yields moment of truth

September 24, 2000|By Jonathan Pitts | By Jonathan Pitts,SUN STAFF

GALWAY, Ireland - This 760-year-old city on the Atlantic Ocean is one of the last strongholds of Gaelic culture, and for centuries, no word has been more central to Gaels than "craic." Pronounced "crack," it means the magical kinship people feel when having a wonderful time. After a lively bash, locals will trade a thumbs-up, nod to one another and say, "The craic was mighty, my friend."

This week in Galway, at the 46th annual International Oyster Festival, the craic has been mighty indeed.

For many, it started Friday night, when thousands packed the tent on Nimmo's Pier for a kickoff party, Irish-style, that rocked till the wee hours. It surely made an impression on one Baltimore native, George Hastings. "I've worked a lot of oyster roasts," says the U.S. oyster-shucking champ, here to vie for the world title, "but I've never seen anything like this. I left early, and they were already dancing on the tables."

Now it's 8 o'clock Saturday morning, the tent is quiet, and Hastings is back after a good night's sleep. Beside him is a basket of oysters. He snags one with his left hand, skewers it with the Chesapeake stabber in his right, and leaves meat on the half-shell as neat as yolk in an egg. "Still getting used to these Irish oysters," he says over a shoulder. He snares another. Six hours till the world oyster-opening contest, and already he is in his rhythm.

George Hastings has his own brand of craic.

Love from home

They're here from all over the world - old and young, foreign and native, in tweeds and T-shirts, in blazers, baseball caps and gowns. They're oyster fans, every one, and thousands - noshing salmon and prawns, swilling Guinness stout and Irish Cream - buzz, chatter and flirt, packing the 200-yard-long, candy-striped tent like an Emerald Isle traffic jam. The 28-piece Band of Angarda Siochana, the Irish police band, swings through "Brown-Eyed Girl," "Tequila," and "California, Here I Come.".

Hastings wears his red, white and blue U.S. Champion's jacket, and it's a magnet for Americans. They're here from Florida, Missouri, Maryland, and all want to wish him well. The laugh lines crease his face. "Thank you, sir," he tells one man, pumping his hand. "When I'm up on that stage, I'll hear you cheering."

He's one of 14 contestants, each the champ of his nation. The names are like a roll call at the United Nations: Johan Schlag, Pepe Espinoza, Espen Nyvedt. They'll compete in groups of four, one right after another, each shucking 30 Galway Bay oysters as quickly as possible. "Speed is important," explains Vernon Johnson Jr., a boyhood friend of Hastings' who is here to watch, "but don't forget that neatness counts. They look for a good presentation. No nicks, no cuts."

The words will be prophetic.

Lots are drawn; Hastings is in the second heat. The first four contenders come and go: Singapore, Denmark, Australia and Sweden. The crowd, packing the front of the stage as if at a rock concert, roars as Per Olofsson, the Swede, finishes in less than three minutes. He snatches up his handbell and rings it. Two minutes, 37 seconds: the time to beat. It's a pretty clean tray of oysters, nicely arrayed. The others finish behind him, and each gets a raucous cheer as he rings in.

Hastings' group is next.

The rules of shucking are quirky, but they're based on the Galway tradition and similar the world over. Each shucker comes out and takes his place (there are no female contestants this year), a basket of oysters to his left, a wood block in the center, a square tray to his right. As each pulls the mollusks from his basket and spreads them out, an announcer with a mike beckons the crowd to shout out a "nom de plume" for each contestant. That becomes the name used in the frantic play-by-play. The first group became "Caesar," "Lewinsky," "Sam Maguire" and "Boskateer."

Once the contestants are named, the announcer tells them to raise their hands over their heads. He counts down from 10, the crowd hollering along with him. On "three, two, one: go!" the shucking commences, and hysteria is in the air.

Hastings is stage right - a comfortable spot, with room for his right hand. Under hot spotlights, he distributes his oysters in neatly measured rows, already in a rhythm as he does so. The crowd is buzzing. A group in front chants "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" You can feel Hastings, his blue eyes gone steely with concentration, tuning out distractions. He tugs on his cotton shucking gloves like a surgeon preparing to operate. The raucous scene seems to go blurry, then fade. In front of thousands, he's as solitary as he was six hours ago.

His competitors are Rambo, Terminator, Loistag. Hastings is renamed "Hannibal." He doesn't seem to care: His eyes bore in on his board. The show begins.

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