Oh what joy: watching slurping, shucking

April 28, 2003|By KEVIN COWHERD | KEVIN COWHERD,SUN STAFF

BEFORE WE get to the great Richard Hooper, who is fast becoming the Barry Bonds of oyster-slurping, a word about oyster-shucker extraordinaire Vernon P. Johnson, who has the fastest hands this side of a Ginzu chef.

Both men brought their considerable talents to the recent Oyster Shuck-Off and Slurp-Off at the Baltimore Waterfront Festival, which I was privileged to attend -- at least the Shuck-Off part.

As for the Slurp-Off, let me say this: There is nothing more disgusting than watching someone slurp oysters against the clock.

Due to a confluence of events too complicated to get into here, I have now covered a shrimp-eating contest and an oyster-slurping contest in the past seven months.

And while that surely signals a career on the decline, I can tell you that watching people cram shrimp into their mouths looks like the ballet compared to watching oyster-slurping.

In any event, before getting grossed-out at the Slurp-off, I got to watch Vernon P. Johnson turn shucking into an art form.

Johnson is 54, a retired engineer who has been a professional shucker for 39 years. He has a business card that identifies him as an "Award-winning Shucker to the Stars."

The rules were simple: Each of the four contestants had one minute to shuck as many oysters as he or she could.

The oyster needed to be cut completely loose from the shell. The oyster also had to be presented without grit or shell particles (they would earn a deduction).

On the crowd's countdown, the contest began. Which is when I discovered a significant fact about oyster-shucking contests: There's not a whole lot of action.

But what action there is is oddly riveting. All four shuckers went at it with gusto, bent low over the oysters, their hands a blur, oyster knives clicking against the shells, the discarded shells clattering to the floor.

On a typical weekend, Johnson said he'll shuck between 2,000 and 3,000 oysters working for various catering companies.

For the record, he employs what is called the "Chesapeake stabbing style" of shucking, which involves opening the oyster from the front of the shell, severing the adductor muscle, then breaking the hinge, discarding one shell and scooping the oyster out of the remaining shell.

As you might imagine, professional oyster-shuckers tend to have hands that look like they wrestle lions for a living. These people will never do Nivea commercials, is what I'm saying.

At the National Oyster Shucking Championship in St. Mary's County last year, Johnson's knife slipped and he carved a nice gash into his thumb.

"I saw blood coming up, so I just held [the cut]," he said.

The reason he held it is that in professional competitions, there's a penalty for getting blood on the oyster. Apparently, this is based on the theory that most people tend not to like their food flecked with blood.

Anyway, on this sunny day at the Inner Harbor, Vernon P. Johnson was too good for the rest of the competition.

When it was all over, he had shucked 11 oysters in 60 seconds to best Scott Buddemeyer of Bob's Seafood for the top prize -- a $150 gift certificate for a local restaurant.

Johnson seemed pleased with his effort. "Ten or 12 a minute -- that's a good time," he said.

At the Nationals in St. Mary's County, where contestants shuck for two minutes, "they had a guy do 24 oysters in a minute and 55 seconds," he added. "The guy was from Alabama. But he had over two minutes in penalties."

On this day, though, Johnson's oysters were almost pristine, according to the judge, a fellow pro shucker named George Hastings.

Hastings is so good at shucking that he won the Baltimore Shuck-Off three times. He also won the Nationals three years ago, earning him a trip to the international shucking championship in Galway, Ireland, where he finished second.

In Ireland, said Hastings, they're just nuts about oyster-shucking. There, he competed on an elevated stage in a tent the size of a football field, with a crowd of several thousand whooping and screaming for their favorite shuckers.

Anyway, a few minutes after Johnson won the Shuck-Off, it was time for the Slurp-Off, where this Richard Hooper absolutely destroyed the competition.

Hooper is 38, a supervisor for the city's Transportation Maintenance Division. He didn't merely slurp the oysters, he vacuumed them into his mouth.

In an astonishing feat destined for the record book -- if they even have a record book -- Hooper slurped 18 oysters in about 20 seconds.

The great ones always make it look easy. When he was declared the winner and the media descended on him -- well, OK, I was the only media -- Hooper said casually: "Oh, I could eat a lot more."

Was this his best slurping effort of all time? I asked.

"Well, I had 12 in six seconds last year," he said.

But when I asked him to explain his slurping technique -- that little hoovering number with his lips -- Hooper shook his head and went into classic no-comment mode.

He said he wasn't about to share his secret with the competition.

"If I win it next year, they'll ask me to be a judge" and retire from the competition, he said. "Then I'll tell you."

Which means I'll have to cover next year's Slurp-Off, too.

Some guys have all the luck.

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