“Opening Minds, Opening Oysters”
When I started this blog, I was most excited about the thought of meeting new people who shared the same passions I did for these little creatures on a shell. It’s opened doors to meeting incredible people with very different backgrounds, and I’m most thankful for those who engage and want to tell their story as much as I want to share it.
Bella, a.k.a. “Gator”, is one of those people whose life philosophy is about opening minds through her journey and love for oysters. After months of missing connections, we finally sat down last week to talk. You may have seen her name in bright lights for the two titles she’s taken this year as one of the nation’s greatest shuckers – claiming the #1 spot at the Lowcountry Oyster Festival in Charleston and the most recent Urbanna Oyster Festival in Urbanna, Virginia. She landed in the #2 spot at the US National Shucking Competition. It’s safe to say that she is truly gifted with a shucking knife!
Behind her medals is a friendly, warm, intelligent, and all-around awesome person, who happens to also be a transgender woman. In this story, I wanted to ensure we captured the essence of her journey through the lens of her past, her shucking skills, and gender identity.
This is Gator’s story.
Virginia: You’re a true South Carolinian. Tell me how you came to love oysters.
Gator: I’m what they call “Old Charleston” – my family came over in 1672. My mom’s family is from Brittany, France and my dad’s side is Scottish. Growing up downtown in Charleston, oysters was a part of life and social gatherings. The debutante ball season mirrored the oyster season, so there were big events and celebrations with oysters always present.
Growing up, I got a can of smoked oysters every year in my Christmas stocking. It’s been a long-time favorite food of mine. When I was in 4th grade, we did a science project to learn about the water’s ecosystem and that’s when I learned that oysters changed their sex. That always stuck with me, and it’s funny how I was destined to work with them later on. After finishing college at the height of the financial crisis, it was tough finding a job, but my Uncle called me into his office one day and brought me into the board room with all these plans laid out. He said he was opening up a seafood restaurant and raw bar. My Uncle told me that, because I was outgoing, liked talking to people and knew a lot about history, he wanted to give me a job shucking oysters. That’s really where I started to see a career in oysters. I needed a job after college but I also stumbled on something amazing.
I ended up with Rappahannock when I was doing more things with oysters. Last year at the National Shucking Championship I was approached by George “Shooter” Hasting Jr., who introduced me to Rappahannock. They were opening a place in Charleston and thought I would really like them. Everything just came together through mutual parties and I am with them today. I love the company.
Virginia: Charleston is a pretty iconic place to go for oysters. I love it there! Give us a little piece of history?
Gator: Charleston is an amazing place for oysters. The original city used oyster shells to make concrete to create Charleston’s buildings and fortified walls. A lot of people go to White Point Garden at Battery Park and enjoy it for it’s history, but it really got its name after oysters. I was always told that the Native Americans would eat oysters down there at the point and leave the shells. Eventually we created a park and used oyster shells to line the park and pathways. Due to the oysters the park shimmers when the light hits, which they say is how it got its name, White Point.
V: Okay I have to ask… I’m sure you’d talk the world of Rappahannock oysters, but what’s your all-time favorite?
Gator: When anyone comes to the raw bar and asks me what my favorite oyster is, I say well, you know, my native oyster experience is Mom’s cooking growing up, and no one will ever beat that. But I look at the great oysters around the world, and my favorite would have to be the Beausoleils out of New Brunswick. They’re the perfect little cocktail oysters – salty, meaty and plump, and I always get a smoky/oaky flavor off the back of them.
Virginia: Let’s talk the National Title… How did you figure out that you were so great at shucking in the first place?
Gator: I would argue that it all started when I was five years old, down at High Battery during a party hosted by a man named Mr. Cato. I wondered up to a table and I started trying to pull the oysters apart. My Mother started to worry that I would slice my hand on an oyster, so she handed me a glove and a knife and was trying to tell me how to do this. I was being a stubborn kid and wouldn’t listen… So Mr. Cato leaned over and showed me his hand where part of his finger was missing, saying, “I lost this finger shucking oysters!” so I would listen to my Mom. He had actually lost it woodworking as his hobby. But I still never listened and have always had a very cavalier way in my approach to getting at them. You can’t have any fear. I got pretty good at it. Now working at a raw bar, people began to notice my attention to detail – not just how fast I was, but the very clean oyster shuck – preserving the meat and ensuring no shell fragments were there. After enough years of people telling me this, I finally said, you know what? I’ll throw my hat into the Lowcountry Shucking Competition. I won there my first year, and went to nationals placing 7th, just barely missing the top six. So after finding that I was pretty good at this, I began working towards my goal of trying to participate in at least 12 competitions a year.
V: Give us some insight your journey, first competing as a man and now a woman. Could you share more on your gender identity in the oyster community, and your experience?
Gator: Like I mentioned, and not everyone knows this, but oysters can change their sex. And for me it was kind of like, well yeah, duh! Before I began deciding that the oyster industry was the path I wanted to go on, I was working as a Food and Beverage Director for Marriott and then a Rooms Manager for a 5-star hotel. I always struggled with this identity crisis no matter what I did in life and how much I enjoyed it. And as I became more open about it, it started affecting my job… where I was getting written up for things like wearing mascara to work for what they deemed inappropriate. Eventually, I was let go when I was just trying to be myself.
That took me right back to oysters. And still, it wasn’t always easy transitioning. I don’t think it’s easy working in any industry, but at the end of the day, all people cared about was how good of a shucker I was, and of course… the oysters didn’t care! I was essentially one of them. So I kept pushing my passion towards oysters and my love for them, my knowledge, etc., and the better I got, nothing else mattered. I probably got the best support I could in the industry.
You know, a lot of people consider this industry a little “rough and tumble,” but they’re a very open and accepting group. You just let them know that you care about this as much as they do and you’re as passionate like they are. It’s been awesome. One of our owners, Travis Croxton, commented to me after I did well in Nationals, saying, “you know, you’re opening minds opening oysters.” I am hoping I’m just showing in my little way – being good at my job, being open and honest with others – that someone can get to know a transgender person for the first time. Not only would I probably be the first transgender person to win a competition, but I’m also the first to place, and the first South Carolinian to do it, too… and it’s all a pretty big deal to me. If it’s not me one day, hopefully I can help pave the way for the next person.
V: That’s a lot of firsts. Fantastic work. Regarding competition, what happens when you’re on that shucking stage? What is going on through your mind under pressure on stage?
Gator: Beforehand, I don’t eat, I don’t drink – I have to force myself to remember to drink water before a competition because I’m freaking out. I get scared and sometimes I want to run away because I worry what people will think of me… But as soon as they call my name and I walk up on that stage, I let all of that go and clear my mind. I count my oysters and lay them out and tell myself that I’m here to do the job that I do every day, and if I just do my job, I’ll do great. I say – slow is smooth and smooth is fast, and I just pay attention to little things – no rushing. Don’t break shells because you’re excited. You’ll take some penalties. Then when I’m done and I walk off, I just break down and really want a drink! Having the courage, though, to know you’re doing what you love, you’re going to be great.
V: Your gear – tell us about your shucking knives. What’s your tool?
Gator: In order to be great, you have to be versatile. You’ll see all the guys at big competitions with big bags of knives… and I certainly have mine. I probably own 40 oyster knives. I’ve also helped a few times with the research and development of oyster knives going to the market. But it’s knowing your oyster – what you’re working with – and knowing a little bit of your own skills without being afraid of trying something new. So for example, some Chesapeake oysters are so brittle you can barely get in them on the back so there’s a knife that works better for hinging, which is what I grew up doing. So to ensure that every one is perfect in that sense, I like using the Chesapeake Stabber. I go right through the front towards the muscle and clean it up nicely.
I also like the Dexter New Haven – I love their grip – it’s supreme in my palm. Great feel and great lines. In all these cases I’ll buy a knife off the showroom floor and take it home and put it through the grinder to work it out and put razor sharp edges on them for competition. I don’t really use those at work often. I shuck so many at work so I don’t want to end up hurting myself! But I can really clean that muscle off the bottom perfectly in one swift slice with my competition knives. I’ve used a lot of different knives but if I was forced to choose one, I’d say it’s my Dexter New Haven. I’ve had it for three years. It’s my go-to.
V: So that leads in to your technique – walk us through it.
Gator: There’s a lot of different techniques. You get sized up by your technique! And I can do a lot of styles – I’m a shucker – this is what I grew up doing! For me, it’s taking my New Haven, with the point facing upward of that curve, and I get it into the oyster where I’m not pushing through the back end but it’s firm enough where I can pick up the knife where the oyster is balancing and it looks like a lollipop. Then what you’ve got to do is lightly hold the oyster and turn a key like your home door and it pops right open. Then I turn it back the other way where it’s flat and then just run it down the top of the shell to remove the top muscle in one quick act. Then I shift it to the side and go straight for the bottom muscle. A lot of people go around long-ways. I just go straight in. Like they always say, “the more you tamper with your food, the worse the outcome” so I don’t fiddle too much.
The “lollipop turnkey” – that’s my strategy.
V: Lollipop turnkey. I love it. So what’s next for you?
Gator: Urbanna will be the last one I’ll compete in this year. It’s a bit older than the US National Oyster Festival and the Virginia State Championship, so I’ll go up there and hopefully bring home my second title of the year. (NOTE: Since then, she did bring the trophy home).
Colorado is the big one I want to do – Rocky Mountain Oyster Fest. I would love to go to the middle of the country and shuck oysters. From what I understand, they shuck 12 east coast and 12 west coast oysters, which has given some east coast guys a challenge. Then PEI – the Canadian Championships – that will be a big one. These are places I’ve never been to before. Whether I win or not, you can’t take away from the experience.
I hope it brings publicity not just to myself but the bar as well. I was sponsored by Tal Petty of Hollywood Oysters at Nationals. He called me up this summer and asked me if I was going to come back so he could sponsor me. He’s just an incredible person. He sent me his personal Chesapeake Stabber knife which was just amazing. Rappahannock supported half of my competition sponsorship as well, and then Toadfish Outfitters, an oyster knife company that started last year, offered some great support too.
V: Other hobbies – what else do you love to do? I saw that you rode a bike across Europe!
Gator: My biggest hobbies growing up were sailing and hunting. In my adult years, I’ve grown to love biking and triathlons. When I lived in Holland for college for a few years, I was fortunate to do several internships in multiple countries. They do everything on bikes in Europe. I was really interested in that and it really helped me break down that fact that I wasn’t just the typical American. I liked learning the many differences between their countries – their languages and cultures. It was so eye opening and fun. I love to travel and cycle, and being on the bike you can really clear your mind. It is the same liberating experience as sailing on the water. I always loved going out on the storms off the coast and beating around the harbor, venturing out into the Atlantic, getting tossed around by mother nature and feeling that force. It’s humbling. Knowing that you’re able to conquer that makes you feel stronger going forward, whatever you’re doing in life.
V: What is the message you would like to leave your followers?
Gator: This is all about opening minds while opening oysters. Never be afraid to experience something new or different. It’s my philosophy!
Editor’s Note: Follow Gator’s journey! You can find her socially at @bellavici or pop into Rappahannock Oyster Bar in Charleston. And of course, you can cheer her on at National’s next year in St. Mary’s, Maryland.
Thanks to the U.S. Oyster Festival and the Urbanna Oysterfest for your photographs.
Wow what a great read