We wandered through the West Village, neither especially hungry nor desperate for drinks, not quite sure of what we were looking for. We came across an A-frame chalkboard sign advertising buck-a-shuck. It was a quiet wine bar with white tablecloths and candles, where the servers were mostly old gents in crisp white dress shirts and black pants. Perfect. We ordered some cava and a dozen of whatever oysters they were offering. We chatted, sipped our wine, waited, and waited some more.
The charm of the place began to wane a bit, considering that the only other people in it besides our deuce were three servers and a bartender, and that became glaringly obvious as we looked around, hoping to spy a platter of beautiful oysters. When it came at last, we'd finished our glasses, but the sight of the waiter bearing toward us prompted us to order more.
From the moment the shell touched my lip and I tilted my head to knock the oyster back, I knew something was wrong. In it went anyway, and as I tried to chew, my teeth met not just succulent flesh but grit and bits of shell. When I looked down, the oysters lay on a bed of melting ice and were in what my Maritime friends would call "a right state." Translation: a very bad way.
These oysters had been massacred. Not a one seemed perfectly intact, and they all had grit floating in their briny baths. We threw down some bills and left.
Since then, I've avoided buck-a-shuck. I decided it was amateur hour for civilians taking a night off from crab claws at Kelsey's to get wild with raw oysters and erotic innuendo. They could have their buck-a-shuck and I'd get my oysters at regular price from places like Honest Weight, where John Bil—champion oyster shucker and my seafood sensei—would ensure a pristine oyster experience.
A lot of people have a horrible first oyster experience.
Last fall, Bil and I continued our seafood odyssey to meet some oyster growers in PEI during the annual Shellfish Festival. On the drive to Tyne Valley, I asked him what he thought: Is buck-a-shuck bullshit?
Bil thinks it can be, for sure. As an oyster shucker and purveyor, he's been dealing with those who try to nickel-and-dime growers over the years. He's seen chefs and restaurateurs trying to get oysters for nothing so they can give them away in exchange for brisk business and increased liquor sales on slow nights.
Tim Rozon, producer and star of the 2015 doc Shuckers, and co-owner of Garde Manger in Montreal (he also plays Mutt on the hit Canadian comedy series Schitt's Creek), isn't a fan, either. "People are serving shitty oysters to make money on alcohol sales. The restaurants try to get the cheapest oysters, and they may pre-shuck just to be ready for the rush. A lot of people have a horrible first oyster experience."
Bil's major beef is that buck-a-shuck also devalues what is a premium product, something that takes a lot of effort to bring to market and, as I was shocked to find out, takes three to six years to grow.
"It makes no sense to sell product at a loss," he argues, holding up draft beer as an example. "If you're selling beer, you're marking it up three times. You don't sell it at cost. And there's no labour in a beer—it's a non-perishable item. Why should oysters be priced less than a beer?"
Martin O'Brien and his dad Pat are the guys behind PEI's Cascumpec Bay Oyster Company. On a brilliantly sunny day, we hop in their boat from the shore at Arsenault's Wharf and head out to their oyster grounds.
"How hard can it be to grow an oyster? Don't oysters just grow in the wild?" I naively ask Bil.
He is taking me on a spiritual journey to learn as much as we can about this nebulous business concerned with creatures from rivers, lakes, and oceans. He's already introduced me to the world of oyster shuckers. Today, we're learning about the oyster growers.
This is not about cows standing in a field and later turning into T-bones, or acres of cornstalks becoming niblets in a can. This journey is about a world where the food is not out in plain sight, and methods of harvest aren't universally known.
Bil explains that the wild oyster fishery isn't a sustainable industry. "A wild oysterman would do other things as well, like work on a lobster boat or fish eels," he explains. "Almost no one would pay their bills just on wild oysters."
If left alone, a wild oyster would be a mess, studded with baby oysters like barnacles on its ass, with an ungainly and hard-to-shuck shell.
With wild, there is no consistency. "If you have consistent, beautiful shells and meat, your staff can shuck easier and less product is wasted," he says. Look at your average oyster, with its teardrop shape and relatively smooth shell. If left alone, this oyster would be a mess, studded with baby oysters like barnacles on its ass, with an ungainly and hard-to-shuck shell. After taste, the number-one thing that concerns a chef is oyster shell quality and shuckability.
The O'Briens' cultivated oysters are kept in wire mesh cages that stretch in long rows across the specific part of open water on the Atlantic that makes up the Cascumpec oyster grounds. Some of the cages are out of the water, drying on the buoys. This kills the algae that grows on the shells.
Throughout the year, every one of these 1,800 cages is hauled up and dumped into the tumbler set up on the O'Briens' barge. The tumbler breaks off any uneven edges as well as any baby oysters that have attached themselves to the outside of the shells.
"Why do you need to crack those off?" I ask as Martin O'Brien takes one oyster and with an oyster knife painstakingly hacks away half a dozen smaller shells embedded on its craggy surface. It seems like a lot of work for something I assume is cosmetic.
"Imagine all those little oysters dying in their shells once this guy is harvested? Imagine the stink," replies Bil.
Imagine doing that for all the oysters, in all 1,800 cages, every year.
Trevor Munroe runs Sober Island Oyster Co out of Nova Scotia, he's got no problem with how his oysters are priced for customers, but he is concerned with how much he's offered as a grower. "Any restaurants that want to sell our oysters for buck-a-shuck, I have no problem with that, as long as they still pay me my regular price. Some of the oyster bars we've been in contact with, the bigger wholesale buyers will tend to start a conversation with buck-a-shuck so they can beat the price down."
Martin O'Brien feels the same way. When asked how it would affect his business if buck-a-shuck were to disappear, he replies, "If it ended, there'd be a bit of a dip. I don't think the guys who buy in any volume are necessarily doing buck-a-shuck; they are just good, reputable oyster restaurants."
To serve a bad oyster, it's the worst thing you can do—hacked up, pieces of grit in the shell, the stomach pierced, sperm sac or roe sacs split.
"I get that Martin doesn't think it will affect his business too much, but the reality is that buck-a-shuck creates a false economy," Bil argues. "If it proves to be a passing fad, the growers will be the ones left holding the bag." And if that were to happen, would there be enough oyster fans willing to pay full price to keep those growers in the black?
Along with Rodney Clark of Rodney's Oyster House, Adam Colquhon is one of the pioneers who helped make oysters a thing in Toronto. He runs Oyster Boy, a restaurant and oyster wholesaler to the best restaurants in the city.
"Once an oyster is a year old, only half of them make it to market," explains Colquhon. "This oyster has survived all that weather and the elements and its about to be consumed by someone. Whether for a dollar to two dollars or ten, it should be properly presented."
He continues: "To serve a bad oyster, it's the worst thing you can do—hacked up, pieces of grit in the shell, the stomach pierced, sperm sac or roe sacs split."
If you want to know whether a given buck-a-shuck will serve clean and well-shucked oysters, Colquhon says that you should make sure they are being shucked out in the open and being kept cold. "If the person shucking can answer your questions about the oysters, and if lots of people are eating oysters, it's probably a good buck-a-shuck."
"Buck-a-shuck is bullshit for sure," says chef Rob Rossi, owner of Toronto's Bestellen. "When, it's not being done right." He admits that when he started doing buck-a-shuck, he purchased the cheapest oysters he could: 150-count Malpeques. He soon discovered that the cheaper oysters "have mangled shells and are really hard to open."
Rossi doesn't buy the cheap oysters anymore. During buck-a-shuck at his restaurant, you'll find any number of premium oysters like French Kiss, Saltgrass Point, Cook's Cocktail, Blue Points. He pays between 95 cents and $1.15 for each.
Rossi shells out between $3,000 and $4,000 per month on the promotion, but he treats it as a marketing cost to build sales, and compares it to other restaurants offering half-priced wine on slow nights. "A lot of restaurateurs that aren't interested in the food part would say, 'Fuck it, I'm not doing this anymore, I'm losing money.' As a chef, I'm happy to see people come in and eat a hundred oysters—I think that's cool. Oysters are expensive and I want people to eat them more. Even if they're only coming to my restaurant on that day, I still think that's a good thing. It's better to have people in the restaurant than to have an empty restaurant."
If the shuckers aren't skilled, you'll just be spitting out shrapnel all night.
Geoff Hopgood feels the same as Rossi about selling quality oysters. The dollar oysters he offers on Monday nights at Hopgood's Foodliner are always Sober Island oysters, and he pays as much as $1.15 per oyster. "It doesn't matter what the price is. The price is irrelevant as far as I'm concerned. I'll pay what Trevor asks me to pay," he says.
Hopgood pays that price and takes the loss because these particular oysters are consistently fresh with hard shells, and he never comes across a bad one. He picks up his oysters at the airport every two weeks. One of the beauties of a well-grown and properly packed and shipped oyster is its long shelf life; at the right temperature, an oyster can stay alive in storage for three to four months with no degradation in quality.
As far as buck-a-shuck goes, Hopgood believes it's best to leave the shucking up to the pros. "I've gone out for buck-a-shuck at other places, and if the shuckers aren't skilled then you'll just be spitting out shrapnel all night," he says. "We have trained shuckers. You can't have your bartender doing it."
Colquhon rents his staff out for buck-a-shuck nights to restaurants that want a professional shucker. Every Tuesday at Böehmer, a restaurant on the bustling Ossington strip in Toronto, they go through a thousand oysters during buck-a-shuck, and they hire an Oyster Boy shucker to ensure the shucking is done right.
So is buck-a-shuck bullshit? It depends.
Is buying sushi on sale at 9 PM from the kiosk next to the Sunglasses Hut a good idea? If you, as a consumer, put saving a few bucks ahead of having an exceptional experience with a great product, if you don't mind spitting out Tabasco-flavoured bits of shell while some sophomore nervously bloodies himself with a shucking knife, then yes, it is bullshit.
But you can still enjoy the bargain if you head to the right places, like Hopgood's Foodliner, Bestellen, and Böehmer. If, on the other hand, you want it done right and want to ensure a healthy and sustainable oyster economy, then head to the best source you can find, like Honest Weight, Rodney's Oyster House, and Oyster Boy, where world-champion shuckers will ensure you have a worry-free and top-rate experience.