Being able to shuck oysters is a valuable capability. Since switching to shucking, I’ve been able to save up to 60% on the cost of oysters. However this activity tends to be rather messy and when performed incorrectly, quite hazardous. So how do we make shucking more user-friendly and clean? Meet the Half Sheller™.
The Half Sheller™ is a beautifully crafted, solid maplewood shucking board that is shaped like an egg with an elevated heel in the middle. Strangely enough, it also kind of reminds me of the underside of a horseshoe crab. Not only is this board designed well (I’ll explain why later), the quality really shines through.
The Half Sheller™ is an innovative design by Littledeer, an artisan gourmet cookingware company based in Quebec, Canada. The inventor/designer Tom Littledeer and his wife had emailed me this summer about their product. Last month I was able to test it out in my own kitchen on some mega-sized West Coast oysters from Hood Canal Seafood. Then finally this weekend I had some time to write down my thoughts.
(Why the delay? I have been busy transitioning into a new job at Translation!)
First of all, there are not many shucking boards out there and this is definitely the most attractive one that I’ve seen. Technically, you don’t need a board to shuck an oyster. [To learn how to shuck, check out these videos that I've curated on YouTube] The result though is a messy wet counter or whatever surface you are using to hold the shell down. I have also done a lot of damage to my kitchen towels and rubber gloves, as they will quickly soak up the oyster liquid and shell debris.
The benefit of using the Half Sheller™ is that it keeps your surface clean. Any liquid that seeps out is contained in the trough area and can be swiftly discarded somewhere out of sight. With a little coat of wax, the maplewood surface becomes waterproof so that the liquid just wicks right off.
The “island” in the middle also helps protect your hand while you are holding the shell down. It helps reduce the chance of stabbing yourself in case your knife slips. Since my “accident,” where I stabbed myself right in the middle of my left palm, I no longer shuck the oyster by just holding it in my hand. The little ridges on the board grip the oyster in place and it’s able to accommodate even the largest of specimens. The image above shows an oyster that is at least 4 inches long!
When you’re finished, the Half Sheller™ is easy to clean. I rinsed the excess debris off and wiped the surface with a wedge of lemon. Then I simply patted it dry with a dish towel.
Afterwards, it also served as a great holding tray. The circular trough is perfect for holding all kinds of shells upright. This is actually my favorite part of this device. I’ve often been challenged with finding a quick and easy way to hold my oysters at home. When I try to lay them down on a flat surface, the unpredictable shell bottoms tend to tip and leak the precious liquid. With the Half Sheller™, it’s designed to accomodate all shapes and sizes so that they can all be kept upright and in place. By all sizes, I really do mean that. In my photo below, I was only able to hold five large (4+ inch) Pacific oysters on the platter. On Littledeer’s website, they’ve managed to squeeze in 18! The shape can also accommodate other types of finger foods including sushi!
I would recommend using two Half Shellers at once to allow one for shucking and another for holding the oysters. Perhaps there could be an evolved design where you can store two boards together–like they can become interlocked to turn into one piece–doubling as a nice cheese board perhaps?
The form is very aesthetically pleasing. I am all for the minimalistic, modern design. The light maple-colored wood grain wraps elegantly around every curve and corner, like as if it were always meant to be made into a Half Sheller. The board feels sturdy but also light. The surface has been sanded down and smoothed into silk. One thing about this wood is that it’s not like steel. Oyster shell is a tough substance so I did observe some wear on the ridges and middle island. It’s minor scuffing, but just wanted to note that scratches will be expected.
In fact, it’s compact enough to travel easily. Travel to where? Maybe to say, Brooklyn?
Yay, to Park Slope we go! Last weekend I had the pleasure of meeting Keith and Amy Swenson, the brother and sister team behind Righteous Foods, a purveyor of delicious live shellfish. They decided to throw a large-scale oyster party for their friends to kick off the fall. About 400 oysters were shucked and consumed, probably a good quarter by me alone. I brought the Half Sheller™ with me for Keith to try out.
Like mine, Keith’s reaction was a positive one. He noted the added cleanliness brought on by the Half Sheller™–less towels to muck up. The board worked well against a variety of oysters, both East and West coast. Since Keith prefers to shuck without a hand guard, the board was able to serve two purposes: protect his hand from a potential knife slip and slightly calmed the nerves of a few anxious spectators (including me).
After sitting with the Half Sheller™ for awhile, I have to say that this is a great addition to my kitchen. It is very useful, versatile, beautiful, and would be a unique gift to give any oyster lover. I’m definitely going to continue to use and feature this board in my every day shucking life.
They are currently available in Canada, but I don’t believe they are at any US retailers yet. Contact Littledeer directly to make a purchase. Right now, you’re able to buy two for $75 ($80 reg)! If you do buy one, I’d love to hear what you think of it!
Legal disclaimer: The Half Sheller™ was free courtesy of Littledeer, but the opinions are mine.
While I was browsing through one of my favorite websites–GOOD Magazine–I bumped into their latest Doodle Project: “Something Good in the World.” I thought to myself, “Hey! Oysters are totally good, but few people know just how good they are.” So I knew I had to submit something them. It also helped that I’m a compulsive doodler…
The end result (above) feels more like an explosion of information than a doodle, but I’m still quite happy with the end result. Hence why I’m sharing it with you all! Maybe I’ll turn it into a multi-doodle series!
A new study about the global condition of oyster reefs is causing a tremendous amount of uproar on the Internet. Over 100 news sites are reporting on the findings and many reputable sources are using alarming headlines:
“Oyster Reefs Are Vanishing From Overharvesting.” — The New York Times Green Blog
“Oysters Vanishing on Overharvesting, Disease, Researchers Say.” — Bloomberg
“Enjoy your shucking while it lasts… More than 85 per cent of their reefs have been lost due to overfishing, according to a new study.” – The Independent UK
Others are coming up with eyebrow-raising speculations:
“Oyster fans: slurp them up. They’re heading toward extinction.” — Stone Hearth Newsletter
“The Oyster Apocalypse Approaches!” — Eater
“Will Oysters Go Extinct Before We Can Eat Them All?” — The Awl
“Oysters at risk: Gastronomes’ delight disappearing globally” — The Science Blog
“For many people this news is absolutely devastating, especially the owners of raw oyster bars!” — Gather
To take matters even further, some are coming to distorted conclusions like:
Don’t even get me started on the frantic jabber on Twitter about this topic.
While it is encouraging to see so many people concerned about the oysters, I am frustrated by both the lack of context that the public has been given as well as the media’s self-serving effort to sensationalize the issue. It is the responsibility of the press to inform the public, not to freak them out.
When Michael Beck and his global research team published Oyster Reefs at Risk study in BioScience (pdf), I can’t imagine that he ever had the intention of causing this much panic. I found the report to be very useful in understanding the current conditions of native oyster reefs; it’s a compelling piece for environmental conservation and I wholeheartedly agree with his recommendations for habitat protection and improved management. Where the report does not tread heavily is the impact these findings have on everyday oyster consumers. Given the academic nature of this research, the burden lies on the reader (or media) to determine how this piece fits into the bigger puzzle.
This is where I see most secondary news sources come to a fault. They make a giant leap in connecting the decline in global oyster reef to your favorite oysters vanishing from the raw bar. Perhaps it’s to drive more hits on a page or maybe it’s just a lack of understanding. Fortunately, this is not an accurate depiction of today’s oyster consumption trends.
I am not trying to downplay the importance of oyster reefs or diminish the need to scrutinize wild fishery management. I just want to put things into perspective so that unnecessary panic can be nipped at the bud. Here are three big things that need to be pointed out:
1. The majority of oysters that we eat today do not come from wild oyster reefs.
Rest assured that the next time you sit down for a dozen oysters on the half shell, you are probably not destroying the last remaining native oyster beds. According to Monterey Bay Seafood Watch, ”Farmed oysters account for 95 percent of the world’s total oyster consumption. Most oyster farming operations are very well managed and produce a sustainable product.” Today’s most sophisticated aquaculture methods do minimal damage to the environment.
So keep calm and slurp on. You don’t have to gorge yourself silly or stop eating oysters them all together. Your favorite oysters will not be disappearing from the raw bars. In fact, by choosing to eat sustainable seafood products (such as farmed oysters), you are essentially voting with your (cocktail) fork for conservation. Every so often, you will encounter wild oysters on the menu and it probably won’t tell you which harvesting method was used. If you want to be dutiful about eating environmentally sustainable oysters, ask who the supplier (the original source, not the distributor) is and their method of harvest. Restaurant owners, chefs or buyers who are well versed with the product should know this information, but if no one seems to have a clue, it’s probably best to avoid the selection until you learn more.
2. Restoring the oyster reefs will be vital to our environment, but aquaculture is key to supplying to the world’s long-term oyster demand.
The oyster is an important keystone species, which means that despite their small size, they have the potential to greatly impact the environment that they live in. As the study points out under the Oyster reefs and ecosystem services section, “Native oyster reefs provide many ecosystem services including water filtration, food and habitat for many animals (e.g., fish, crabs, birds), shoreline stabilization and coastal defense.” Research has also shown that “lost habitat caused by declines in oyster reefs is also linked to broader drops in coastal biodiversity, which has both intrinsic and economic value.” So saving them is a no brainer, but not exactly for the reasons that many blogs advertise.
We cannot expect wild oyster reefs to sustain the world’s insatiable appetite for them. While there are still many fisheries in operation on the East and Gulf coasts, the ultimate goal is to evolve towards aquaculture. When you think about all the other foods that you eat–fruits, vegetables, meat, even fish–almost everything is farmed and oysters are no different. By farming oysters, we reduce the stress on wild oyster populations. Keep in mind that a farmed oyster does not taste any different than a wild oyster–the biggest difference is that their quality of life has been significantly improved; thanks to the TLC they get from farmers! On the other hand, saving oyster reefs could very well improve the bounty of other seafood that we enjoy. So helping restore oyster reefs and promoting oyster aquaculture is a two-prong solution to ensuring future generations of happy raw bar patrons.
3. The optimal path towards conservation and restoration is a gradual one: we need to take care not to disrupt economic stability.
Given the overwhelming benefits of oyster reef protection and aquaculture, you might ask, “why don’t we just do away with wild oyster harvesting entirely and rely on purely oyster farming?” Like most issues involving the environment, it is a fine balance between maintaining economic stability today and investing towards the future. Tommy Leggett of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation estimates that there are roughly 400 Virginia and Maryland watermen who make part of their living off of the Bay’s wild shellfish. The oyster industry in the Gulf, the largest and healthiest reef in the US (despite the oil spill), still also depends mostly on wild harvest. Aggressive restrictions or banning it all together will cost thousands of jobs and sabotage the economic foundation that communities need in order to support conservation initiatives.
Efforts are being made to gradually move the industry away from wild harvests and towards aquaculture. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Virginia Marine Resources Commission provides oyster farming training to old-school watermen, which have been pretty successful according to Leggett. Meanwhile, new and unfamiliar faces are showing up in the business. Entrepreneurs from all kinds of backgrounds (finance, education, etc.) are setting up aquaculture shops in hopes to do a little good and make a little money while they’re at it.
I think that the oyster industry will undergo a big evolution in the next couple of decades: legacy methods of harvest will become limited to tourist demonstrations and aquaculture will become the next big investment opportunity. Hopefully conservation and restoration will go hand in hand with commercial development.
Ways on how you can help oyster restoration
1. Eat farmed oysters and other kinds of sustainable seafood. The Monterey Bay Seafood Watch Program has an extensive guide to eating seafood sustainably that you can access through their website or iPhone!
2. Donate to the Nature Conservancy, which runs a global Marine Conservation initiative. Part of their focus is to restore coastal habitats and develop better fishery and management practices. The report’s authors Michael Beck and Rob Brumbaugh are both part of this organization.
3. Get involved with your local or regional oyster conservation & restoration organization.
4. Ask your favorite oyster bar or seafood restaurant to participate in shell recycling programs.
5. Learn more about oysters in general by reading these great books:
- The Living Shore by Rowan Jacobsen
- A Geography of Oysters by Rowan Jacobsen
- The Big Oyster by Mark Kurlansky