My Recent Episode of Oyster-Induced Rage

Struggling to shuck a bundle of beautiful Barnegat bivalves, I became unhinged.

oyster rage

Illustration by Michael Witte

I think of myself as mild mannered. A stickler about sentences, sure, but essentially easygoing. Just try telling that to the two dozen oysters that were delivered to my house during the coronavirus lockdown.

I had just finished writing a story for our July issue on the toll the Covid-19 pandemic had taken on New Jersey’s commercial fishing industry. In reporting the story, I spoke with Scott Lennox, CEO of the Barnegat Oyster Collective. While restaurants were sidelined, the oystermen had increased their online outreach to consumers, offering what they dubbed the Party Pack: two dozen oysters overnighted to your door in a cooler with a shucking knife. 

I was charmed by the name. After two months of lockdown, who wouldn’t be up for a party pack? I ordered one.

Thrilled by its arrival the next day, I lifted the mesh bag out of the cooler and set it on the counter by the kitchen sink. Susan, my wife, sat patiently at the kitchen table, checking email and sipping a cool glass of sauvignon blanc. 

I’d shucked oysters before, without much trouble. To steady the oyster, you place it on a folded towel, flat side up. Then you insert the stubby blade of the oyster knife near the hinge, push in, twist, and up pops the flat side of the shell like the lid on a crate. 

That was then. This is now.

“Damnit, you stinking no-good dirty bugger!” My wife looked up from her phone. “I am talking to the oyster,” I explained. 

The tip of the knife was going nowhere. There was no gap in which to lodge it. The knife skidded off. Did I hear laughing inside that shell? I was staring down at this craggy rock that hadn’t changed much since dinosaurs ruled the earth.   

“You call this a hinge?” I yelled. “There…is…no”—probing and poking with the knife—“hinge, you useless, miserable sucker!”

Susan opened another email. 

I kept grinding away. I tried a steeper angle with the knife, and something gave. But not the lid. It was the cup-shaped part of the shell, the part that cradles the spineless (but stubborn!) little creature. All the delicious oyster juice—the liquor, as cognoscenti call it—ran out of the shell, into the towel.

“Look what you’ve done!” I screamed, again addressing the oyster. 

Idea. Lower the angle, go in shallow. Aha! The tip found a bit of purchase. Time to wiggle the knife. What? It won’t wiggle. The oyster had it locked in its jaws—never mind that oysters don’t have jaws. Its one measly muscle was holding off all of mine. 

“No-good dumb-ass!”

Susan sipped her wine. 

Suddenly, I remembered the instructions: slide the blade along the underside of the jimmied lid, detaching the muscle. I did that, and the lid slipped free. I looked down at my prize. Not much to it. 

One down, 23 to go. Mano a mollusk. 

When I placed the first shucked oyster on the oval platter I had set aside, it looked rather insignificant. After more effort and more cursing, I had seven shucked oysters on the plate. 

“Maybe,” Susan said, “we should save the rest for tomorrow?”

“No,” I said, wiping my brow. “I don’t want to go through this again. It’s Armageddon for these guys.”

Eventually, I got them all shucked (without feeling I ever quite got the hang of it; after finally releasing each lid, which I tossed disdainfully in the garbage, I had to painstakingly pick tiny shell fragments out of the cup).  

I ate my dozen as I always do, with no lemon, sauce or mignonette. I usually say I just like to taste the sea, but on that night, I seasoned those suckers with something special: spite. 

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