Ameen Lawrence considers the oyster. Say it's a duck-billed Cape May Salt, sealed up extra tight, as is its wont. You don't want to break your knife. So in the case of the Cape May, Lawrence goes in from the front, digging the blade between its pursed lips.
This is a rather unusual point of entry - "billing," as it's called - a technique I've witnessed only once before, at the anvil in the sink at old-school Snockey's Oyster & Crab House in Queen Village.
Lawrence's venue this evening is in Center City, on narrow Sansom Street, behind the raw bar at the Sansom Street Oyster House. Perhaps venue doesn't quite capture it; these ice-sinks, piled with gray oysters and clams, are his domain.
He came here as a dishwasher and busboy eight years ago, and was captivated by the magic of the shuckers, especially a master named James Trice, who became his mentor. He is 27 now, and if there is a better shucker in the city, I haven't had the pleasure.
What is it that makes for a good shucker? For one thing, it sure helps to know your oysters. It was the night that Lawrence steered me to the Onset oysters fresh in that day from Cape Cod - plump, firm, "salty with a seaweed finish" - that I knew he knew what he was talking about.
Secondly, the shucker has to keep the shell chips and grit out of the oyster. A crisp, chilled oyster on the half shell is a joy in this world. A gritty, shell-littered oyster - and there are far too many served like that by the amateurs staffing Philadelphia's raw bars - is a harsh disappointment: Lawrence's oysters are as clean as I've ever had.
Third, and this should be a no-brainer, a good shucker needs to take care to slice through the oyster's adductor muscle, the pulley that winches down the ligament, closing the oyster drawbridge - if you can think of the bivalve in those sorts of terms.
The best strategy for eating a raw oyster is sliding it from its craggy cup along with the pool of oceanic essence called its "liquor," well, right down the hatch. No fork, no cocktail sauce, maybe - as former Sansom Street Oyster House owner David Mink always advised - a squirt of lemon and dash of black pepper: Poise shell at your lips, tip, slide.
You can't do that if the darn muscle is intact. You've got to tug, yank, dig, drip, shred the darn oyster. What a shame! Lawrence understands; his oysters always slip-slide away.
Finally, you've got to have good, quick hands. A shucker can't get by on jive. Lawrence has good hands.
He palms the big clams. One sure stab, a wrenching twist, then one scooping scrape along the bottom of the shell, the unhinged top plate tossed away into the trash bucket. The oysters get a different treatment: He presses them onto the padded sink board, knife pointed.
For the brittle Hama Hamas, he slips the knife in from the side so as not to shatter the shell. The harder-shelled Long Island Blues (six for $5 at Happy Hour) get stabbed in the back, at the hinge, the better to pop their lid.
There is no glove on his hand. He dips it in the water, again and again, rinsing his prey, arranging his half-shells on trays of ice, plunking lemon wedges on top, and the superfluous cups of cocktail sauce and oyster forks.
Cooks emerge from the kitchen to get him to shuck clams for soup. He dissuades a couple who want a dozen oysters half-shucked to take back with them - to the Poconos hours away! He doesn't pause to admire his handiwork: the oysters posed in their porcelain sleighs, pearls on ice.
He shares some of James Trice's advice: "Make the clam look like a bubble," which is to say, alive, which is the way that Sansom owner Cary Neff happens to like his clams. In the event of a flaccid oyster - not a bad oyster, just a flabby one - he'll flip it with his knife, present the sunnier, plumper side up.
Each time, he'll check the oyster, slit that infernal muscle, flick away any trace of shell, each time with a sure-handed, almost mechanical economy of motion.
Pull up a stool. You may find yourself ordering an extra half dozen, just to see shucking as shucking was meant to be.
1516 Sansom St.