Today we have the cheesesteak but years ago oysters were an iconic Philadelphia treat. While slapping some Cheez Whiz on a bun may be easy, opening an oyster requires skill, as was on display at the Oyster House’s third annual Philadelphia shucking contest.
The crowd came from as far away as Maine to cheer on their favorite shucker. Pro’s and amateurs competed for the glory and prizes.
“I’ve been shucking professionally for about four and half years. It takes a little dedication and skill to get to the point where you are not serving shells or breaking oysters,” said Andrew “Tiny” Shattuck from Philadelphia’s Capital Grille. He took the $200 grand prize and wears the prestigious gold spray-painted oyster shell medallion. But this win is only the beginning for Tiny — think NASCAR of the bivalves.
“You move your way up the more recognized you get the better you are the more lucrative opportunities come and that can lead to more things,” said Shattuck. “There’s national competitions there’s global competitions; you get sponsorship and that’s pretty much your career.”
While Snockey’s on Two Street has been around for a century, Philadelphia is enjoying a resurgence of oyster bars. Sam Mink is proprietor of the Oyster House and created the contest three years ago. His family has been in the fish house business for three generations. At the Oyster House, it’s not unusual to shuck almost a thousand oysters in an evening. And, on any given night, there are at least six buck a shuck happy hours in the city.
But, according to Dr. William Woys Weaver, food historian and Director of Keystone Center for Regional Foods, up until the early 20th century in Philadelphia there were oysters bars on every corner much the same way we have pizza joints.
“I know from archeology that the 18th century oysters were huge in Philadelphia because I’ve seen the shells. These things were monsters could be a foot and half across. I can’t image an oyster that size.” laughed Weaver.
Weaver studies hotel menus from the late 1800’s that list an astonishing 30 to 40 different oyster dishes. There were oysters terrapin cooked as if it were turtle, Oysters Havana style sautéed with hot habanero peppers as well as pickled oysters in spicy vinegar that were available all year. But the one that remains today is fried oysters and chicken salad, a strange combination for sure, says Weaver.
“I was curious myself to figure out how this happened,” said Weaver. “If you look at the Victorian menus businessmen’s luncheons went on all day. The meals come in waves like a chinese menu pick out of this and pick out of that. You have fried oysters and chicken salad. And there it is.”
Eventually businessmen were too busy for elaborate lunches and savvy restaurants began to combine offerings on a single platter – a chicken salad fried oyster mash-up in today’s parlance. Another notable aspect of the dish was how the oysters were cooked.
“There was a special technique for doing true Philadelphia fried oysters,” said Weaver. “The oysters were dried off, dipped in fine cracker powder, then allowed to dry for 15 to 20 minutes. then they were put down in very hot oil for a minute at most. They were juicy in the middle, slightly hot in middle but the outside had this very thin crisp shell to it. That was Philadelphia style fried oyster!”
But no matter how you shuck it, Philly oysters are making a comeback!