In Alabama, the state that processes more delicious oysters than any other in the U.S., Juan Cordova stands at the top of the shell pile as the fastest oyster shucker of the year. The 28-year-old father of three won the honor in January, when he represented PJ Seafood of Coden, Ala., in the local oyster-shucking contest at legendary Wintzell’s Oyster House in Mobile.
Over two minutes and 36 seconds, Juan carved two-dozen gorgeous, ready-to-eat Alabama Gulf oysters out of their rough shells. Less than two months later, he and his family were on their way to Massachusetts for the International Boston Seafood Show for the Oyster Shucking Competition. Out of dozens of competitors, the soft-spoken native of Tabasco, Mexico, won fourth place – even when shucking the oysters of the Atlantic, which lack the tell-tale lip that Southern oysters have and Southern shuckers use to their advantage. During the international competition, Juan’s skill lay not only in his speed with the knife but in flawlessly carving the juicy mollusks out of their shells, preserving every morsel for the judges.
Since he was 12 years old, Cordova has made a career shucking oysters, having learned the trade from his father and brother who harvest the warm waters of the southern Gulf of Mexico. His brother, Juan says, is twice as fast at shucking the salty delicacies. Back home in Tabasco, Juan was raised in a family of oystermen who dive for the delicacy in the Gulf of Mexico and prepare them as his ancestors have for centuries. At PJ Seafood in Coden, the geography and methodology might be different, but the legacy’s the same.
Owner Ricky Collier is carrying on the business his father, Jimmy, started more than 50 years ago. And Juan is a part of that family, too, making a home a short walk away with his wife Andrea, who also works at PJ. The Cordovas also love to eat oysters, and after his trip to the Northeast, Juan is more certain than ever that the saltier Southern oysters of the Gulf are his choice, hands down.
“I love them,” Juan says of the bountiful oysters that not only support his family, but also make up a major portion of the Alabama seafood industry that employs 8,000 people just like him.
By MICHAEL DUMAS for ASMC