AVALON — Area chefs competed in a clam-shucking contest Saturday as part of the borough’s annual Seafood Festival. Seven shuckers lined up on stage in front of buckets filled with 20 top neck clams pulled from the Delaware Bay. Shucking a clam plucked fresh from the water is tricky, because the mollusks have strong adductor muscles that keep their shells sealed tight.
Sponsored by the Avalon Chamber of Commerce, the contest was part of a borough festival that featured a dozen seafood booths offering crab cakes to chowder. Many of the contestants had competed against each other for years.
At the start signal, the contestants grabbed their first clam and began prying, slicing and twisting away.
Steve Lawson, a sous-chef from Lower Township, and his co-worker at the Stone Harbor Yacht Club, line-cook Mike Loefflad, of Middle Township, stood side by side focusing on every clam.
Lawson has been shucking clams for 20 years, or five times as long as Loefflad.
“It takes a little dexterity. You need a good, firm grip. You sort of twist it open to release it from the shell. The trick is to open it without piercing the clam,” Lawson said.
Loefflad said his favorite clam dish is clams casino, which has bacon, peppers, bread crumbs and butter baked in the oven.
The contest initially had more contestants, but some dropped out because of the difficulty of the challenge and level of competition, organizer Patrice Davis said.
“It takes a lot of talent,” she said.
After only a few minutes, one contestant raised his knife in triumph — Warren Wade, of Middle Township, head chef at Avalon Seafood and a teacher in culinary arts at Atlantic Cape Community College. Wade was presented with a winner’s plaque in front of an appreciative crowd.
Wade said learning how to shuck clams and oysters is an important skill for his culinary students. Those who can do it with precision can get a job at any oyster bar, he said.
“You can make money at it,” he said.
He demonstrated his technique — sliding the edge of the knife into what he called the knuckle of the clam to cut the adductor muscle on one side. Then he twisted the knife to crack the shell open slightly before doing the same on the other side.
When he opened the shell, he discarded the top and scraped his knife along the bottom of the lower shell to free the clam meat.
When he was finished, the clam was sitting in a pool of its own clear juices, ready for eager festivalgoers to swallow whole. But at first glance, an uncooked clam does not look particularly inviting.
“I agree. I can’t eat them,” Wade said.
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