One thing Deborah Pratt knew growing up was that she wasn't going to spend her life shucking oysters the way her parents, who'd met at an oyster house, had done it.
She had no intention of coming home every day smelling that awful.
These days, her mailbox says it all: Queen Oyster. It's enough for a Richmond visitor to recognize her small house in Jamaica, Virginia, north of Saluda. There, she holds court with her sister, Clementine Macon Boyd, sharing stories of their lives spent shucking oysters since the 1970s, competing against each other to see who's faster.
Boyd, the younger and more subdued of the two, began shucking first and eventually taught her sister how to shuck after mastering the skill herself.
"It wasn't very easy in the beginning. I stabbed my hand a lot working every day learning how to get into oysters," Boyd recalls, grimacing at the memory of tetanus shots. "It's a mind thing, learning how to get in, how to cut it and gradually build up speed. I had to let the knife know I was in control — not it."
Reluctant as she'd been to start shucking, Pratt turned out to be a natural and soon was making $125 a day at it. She'd take her young children to the babysitter to be at the oyster house by 9 a.m. "They used to call me 'banker girl' for starting at 9," she says, "but I stood all day long." A fellow worker noticed her skill and suggested she compete, offering to buy her a glove and sharpen her knife for her.
At the Urbanna Oyster Festival in 1985, Pratt won her first oyster shucking competition before going on to the national oyster shucking competition in St. Mary's, Maryland. Eventually, she made it to the international oyster opening championship in Galway, Ireland. Four times. Often the sisters exchange titles year to year, one winning first place while the other takes second. In Urbanna, no one even bothers to challenge them anymore.
The sisters insist that it isn't only about speed.
"To be a champion, you have to shuck fast but also make sure you present beautifully," Boyd says. "You're judged by how they look, too. They can't be cut up, no grit, no dirt, no blood. They have to be cut completely from the shell."
The shucking smack down between the No. 1 world-ranked contender and the defending champion will be part of the Folk Fest's Virginia Folklife area craft demonstrations.
"Folks need to come see us shuck it down to see who's the fastest," promises Pratt, ever the promoter. "It's going to be a great show. All you're going to hear is shells falling."
Boyd tries not to let her have the final word. "I tell her I'm going to beat her and she gets a little nervous," she says. "That girl done worn my tail out. All this just started with a job and raising children."
From her kitchen, cozy on a rainy day with pictures of family, jars of canned vegetables from her garden on the counter, Pratt smiles. There's a framed poster of her in a black gown with an oyster glove and knife, her image rising like Sandro Botticelli's "Birth of Venus" from the shell. "Oysters have carried me around the world."
Everywhere except down her throat. She's passionate about not eating oysters. Boyd just started eating them a few years ago, finally seduced by the briny smell when she opens them.
"Just don't put sauce all over them," she says. "Always eat them plain first so you can taste the water."