BY BRUCE BRANUM
The Greenville Standard
To do what you love and make a living at is a dream for some.
For Wentzell’s Oyster House employees Tim Holp and Gary Collinsworth, the dream is a reality and it shows by their smiling faces.
On National Oyster Day, which was last Thursday, Aug. 4, Wentzell’s offered a happy hour for oysters from 11 a.m. until 7 p.m.
Gary, who is a seasoned oyster shucker with over 35 years’ experience, loves his job and has a passion for shucking oysters.
He hopes in the near future to break the oyster shucking record, or at the very least, establish a classification and record for the proper way to shuck an oyster.
According to Gary, the record of shucked oysters stands at 39 in one minute. That feat was accomplished in Maryland with a species of oyster that has a brittle shell and the oysters were set on a rack where it made shucking the oysters easy.
“It’s like cheating,” said Gary. “I believe the competition should be about shucking oysters which are ready to be served.”
Gary noted of the eastern oysters, the easiest way to shuck them is to go through the front or bill, but with southern oysters the shucking tactic changes.
Gary is originally from Milton, Fla., and has easily shucked 24 oysters in a minute by his method. “My grandfather taught me the proper way to shuck oysters and everyone I know in the south pretty much shucks oysters the same way,” he said.
Gary’s technique seems simple but requires a firm grip and the right application of pressure through the shucking tool which is similar in shape to a paring knife.
He also dons rubber gloves and then a pair of stainless steel mesh gloves to prevent possibly stabbing his grip hand and also to prevent abrasions from the oyster shells.
After selecting an oyster, Gary will grip it with his left hand and let the butt end of the oyster rest in the bottom of his palm. He then takes his knife and works it between the top and bottom part of the shell near the hinge.
Once the knife is inserted firmly, he leverages down to pop the shell and then twists the knife to pry the shell open and pop the top half off. He then runs the knife under the oyster to detach it from the bottom shell while leaving the oyster to rest in its liquor (the liquid contained in the shell).
Gary prefers Gulf Coast oysters. “You just can’t beat the taste,” he said.
Flavor comes from the species, the region of harvest, and the method of growth, such as rack grown, bottom finished.
East coast oysters tend to be salty sweet. West coast oysters have a more complex flavor of ocean, sweet melon, sea salt, cucumber, and sweet cream.
Tim Holp, area director for Wentzell’s and also site manager said, “Oysters are our namesake, and we don’t short cut on quality. With product availability a problem due to COVID, we have to be very diligent to make sure we have an adequate supply of quality oysters.”
“We do our best to only serve select oysters,” said Tim. He added, “We don’t buy boat grade. Our oysters have been hand selected according to size and quality. One hundred go into a box and that’s how we receive them. We pay a little more but the return is worth the extra cost.”
The oysters, which Wentzell’s is serving now, come from Louisiana, but into Fall, Wentzell’s will also get oysters from Texas.
Another local source is Navy Cove near Gulf Shores. Tim said those oysters are almost double the price but Wentzell’s is going to provide customers with the best quality available.
There main distributor of oysters is out of Bon Secour near Gulf Shores.
If needed, they will ship in oysters from Virginia and other areas along the east coast.
In 2020, Wentzell’s in Greenville sold over 3,400 oysters on National Oyster Day. They offer a daily oyster happy hour from 3-6 p.m. Monday through Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. until 6 p.m. and oysters cost a dollar apiece.
Wentzell’s also offers catering and capacity for large gatherings and a variety of seafood dishes suited to anyone’s tastes, from fried to grilled to blackened, along with po-boys, their signature gumbo, and a variety of tasty side dishes and appetizers.
The Greenville Wentzell’s has been in operation for over six and one half years. December will bring their seventh year anniversary of operation.