George Hastings watches a fellow shucker demonstrate the Chesapeake-stabber method, prying an oyster open from the front. "There are different styles for different areas, depending on where you're from or how you're taught," Hastings says. On the Gulf Coast, shuckers tend to break the hinge to open the shells, but Hastings isn't picky. "Any way you open an oyster is OK," he says.
Tonight, Hastings is sitting on a barstool at Nick's Oyster Bar in Cross Street Market, what he calls "a rare treat." Usually he's on the other side of the counter, where, as a freelance shucker, he might shuck over 400 oysters an hour on a game day.
Hastings, the two-time winner of the U.S. National Oyster Shucking festival, is sampling a variety of oysters from the Eastern Seaboard. He starts with some from Chincoteague, Va., makes his way up through Maryland for a taste of the Chesapeake, and then goes for the Connecticut Blue Points.
There's no sauce and no horseradish on his oysters. Not even a squirt of lemon.
"Every time I eat oysters, I always start with nothing on them. That way you get the taste of the oyster," he says, explaining how oysters taste a little salty at first and then finish with a bit of sweetness, thanks to the little muscle inside.
"If you put sauce all over it, you don't get any of those nuances of the oyster," he adds.
Hastings, who works as a highway engineer by day, has been shucking oysters for more than 40 years. A neighbor in the small community of Violetville in Southwest Baltimore taught him how to open oysters as a teenager.
Before long, Hastings wound up working at Cross Street Market. Back then, several of Baltimore's markets would each send a shucker to the citywide competition, where they were judged on speed and cleanliness. By chance, the normal shucker called in sick, so Hastings was sent in his place-and he won the competition.
The victor of that contest, four years later, went on to the nationals, where Hastings found himself named the champion once again. From there, he was flown to the World Oyster Opening Championship in Galway, Ireland. Although he didn't come out on top, he beat out hundreds of competitors to land second place in 2000. This weekend, he's off to defend his title at the Mohegan Sun Oyster Open in Connecticut, which he's won three times already.
His motto is "have knife, will travel," but he believes oysters are truly a Baltimore tradition. "There needs to be oysters in every neighborhood in Baltimore," says Hastings. "At the turn of the century-the 1890s until about 1920-there were oyster shucking houses in every alley around here. When everybody thinks of the Chesapeake Bay, the first thing they think of is the crab. But 100 years ago, crabs were bait. Crabs were nothing. It was all about the oyster."
Hastings, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of oyster history and lore, possesses proof in his collection of oyster memorabilia, which he has gathered from local antique shops over the years.
"If you came to Baltimore in 1913, your convention badge had an oyster on it," he says. A few years ago, Hastings took the collection of oyster-related memorabilia to Maryland Public Television to be appraised on Chesapeake Collectibles, a show similar to Antiques Roadshow but with a local focus. The collection, which he had no intention of selling, was appraised at $1,500.
"Some of them I paid five bucks for, some of them I paid 25 bucks for," he says. "But my point is they are oysters. They're not crabs. The bay has fish and oysters and crabs."
The oyster houses have dwindled in Baltimore, and so have the number of shucking competitions in the area. But there are some who, like Hastings, are trying to keep the tradition alive. For the past two years, Ryleigh's Oyster in Federal Hill has taken the reins, holding the Baltimore Oyster Shucking Championship during the restaurant's Oysterfest. The winner of this competition gets to go to the national championships, and Hastings has yet to be beat.
But for Hastings, shucking isn't just about celebrating oysters or winning awards. It's about making personal connections.
"People and oysters have a particular fondness," he says. "You come in here and you'll see judges next to street sweepers. . . and they're all enjoying oysters."
Hastings takes a final sip of Guinness, his drink of choice to accompany oysters if no Muscadet wine is available. "That's what makes this side of the knife special," he says.