When I began my culinary career nearly 40 years ago, one of the first jobs I had was working at a busy oyster bar. I learned my craft from seasoned masters. While those competing in the national oyster shucking contest can turn out 24 picture-perfect half-shell oysters in just a few minutes, getting there takes a bit of practice -- and a good oyster knife:

* Scrub the oysters under cold running water using a stiff brush to remove any sand and mud. Then place the scrubbed oysters on a flat dish in the refrigerator. Remember, oysters live in salt or brackish water and they will clam up to protect themselves against the tap water and human handling. Refrigerating will help them to relax so you won't have to pry them open.

* If you don't have an oyster glove, place the oyster in a kitchen towel, with the flat side up, and hold it firmly on a flat surface such as the kitchen counter or cutting board. Hold the knife firmly and place the tip into the hinged end of the oyster; jiggle the knife quickly as you push it in and then give it a quick half-turn to "pop" the back end and break the airtight seal. Then slide the blade around the edge of the shell so the two halves are separated enough to slip in the blade.

* Turn the blade at an upward angle and cut across the inside of the top shell to separate the muscle from the shell. Discard the top shell. Cradle the oyster to keep it level so none of the juices spill and carefully slice the edge of the knife through the bottom muscle. The oyster is now swimming free for you to enjoy.

-- Russell Cronkhite