I used to hate oysters. Typically, tidewater Marylanders pat oysters in cracker meal, fry them, and if you need a condiment, slather on some tomato ketchup. Churches in the area used to have fried oyster and ham suppers, though the increasing costs of oysters have certainly limited how many of those signs you drive by in the Maryland countryside. I equated fried oysters to a bit of breaded tire. It wasn’t until I was in my early twenties and enjoyed the briny sweet slide of a fresh oyster down my throat that I realized oysters were a dream.
I’ve never shucked my own oyster, but have a great respect to those seafood packers who deftly disassemble oysters and crabs so that those of us removed by a degree from our tidewater heritage only have to buy a “pint of selects” (oysters) or a “pound of backfin” (crab). The National Oyster Shucking Competition is held in St. Mary’s County, Maryland. But I find historic images of oyster shuckers really compelling, especially when you see the rows of skirts and children that indicate the primary workforce for this industry. What you can’t see in the historic images is the long-held belief that oysters should only be consumed during R-months: September through April. These women may have struggled to open wet oysters in the damp Maryland winter and tried to avoid accidentally running the oyster knife into their numbed hands. That would mean a loss of livelihood.
I find this early 19th century image of an oyster shucker equally compelling, both in the strength of her forearms and the piles of tubs surrounding her as she fixes plates of oysters for her establishment’s customers. In this “Oysters Fresh Every Day” print, the quality of the oysters focuses on her, the printed handkerchief and necklace that indicates her personal quality, the white apron indicating her cleanliness, and her readiness to deftly prepare the establishment’s wares on demand. One hundred years later, the women in the Library of Congress image are preparing oysters for commercial sale. The sweet meats and juices wouldn’t be served on the half shell, but instead would be poured into paint can-like tins and sold at the market, an example of separation of people from food sources that occurred over the 19th century.