Shucking Oysters 40 Years
Willie Brown honored by city for 40 years of shucking oysters
By DAVID HOLLOWAY
Willie Brown doesn’t eat oysters, raw or otherwise.
This might not seem like much of a deal; many folks don’t eat them. But when you figure that over the course of the past 40 years he’s opened countless numbers of them, it might seem a little odd.
“I tried them once or twice. I just don’t have a taste for them,” Brown said.
Brown, who turns 64 in January, was honored last Tuesday by a proclamation issued by the Mobile City Council taking note of his years of service as a sort of goodwill ambassador for the city. “Willie Brown has been an icon at Wintzell’s Oyster House in Mobile,” the proclamation read.
“I certainly didn’t expect this,” the soft-spoken Brown said of the honor.
Brown began his career at the storied downtown oyster eatery the day after Thanksgiving in 1970. Prior to that day, he’d never opened an oyster in his life, but that was soon to change.
“That first day was kind of rough,” he said with a laugh.
Back when he was hired J.O. Wintzell himself — the man who started it all back in 1938 — was still holding court at the restaurant. “He was a good fellow, he always had a joke to tell,” Brown said.
Brown apprenticed for a few weeks, watching the other oyster-shuckers ply their trade before they handed him a knife and a glove and turned him loose. Since then he’s been a fixture at the Dauphin Street restaurant where he says meeting and chatting with the customers is the best part of his job.
As for his technique, Brown still adheres to the old-school method that calls for inserting the blade of the oyster knife into the front of the oyster and flicking open the shell. Some newer shuckers have adopted the easier method of going into the backside of the shell, prying open the hinged part.
But Brown said going in the front results in a cleaner opening and more surgical cut. “The muscle that holds the oyster to the shell is in the front. You go in that way you don’t cut up the oyster and it makes a better presentation,” he said.
Going in through the front also can be a bit trickier and therefore more dangerous. “The knife can slip a lot easier going in the front and you can cut yourself,” he said.
He notes that such technique may be a dying art. “I’m the only one here who still does it that way,” he said.
He demonstrated his technique for a hungry reporter who as ever so anxious to sample his wares.
Brown selects an oyster from the icy bin in front of him, perches it on its back and pokes around on it until he finds the sweet spot. Then, with a practiced hand he forces the blade between the shells and pops it open.
He lays the opened oyster on the bar and starts the process over again. The whole act lasted about 15 seconds.
The reporter gulps down the oyster in the ultimate homage to the master. It was salty and cold, just like he likes them.
Brown claims that his speed has diminished somewhat over the years, but he can still average about 3 minutes per dozen oysters.
As for self-inflicted wounds, Brown said he’s only suffered only a handful over the years, no more than seven or eight.
He has, however, found “more than a hundred” pearls in the oysters he’s cleaned. The biggest, he said, was about the size of a match head.
While he admits that eating oysters isn’t his cup of tea, he still derives the greatest pleasure from his job in the interaction with the customers. “Some people like to talk, some like to just watch me work. It’s always something different,” he said.
After 40 years and countless oysters, Brown has no plans to stop now. “I hope to keep going as long as I can,” he said.
Watching him work, that’s not going to be anytime soon.