As they do just about every day at 9 a.m., the sons and grandsons of St. Mary's County's watermen and tobacco farmers gathered at Copsey's Seafood Restaurant on Thursday for a little freshly brewed coffee and good-natured trash-talking.
About 9:30, a waitress emerged from the kitchen with the lunch menu carefully noted in erasable marker on a white board. The self-described old-timers immediately began assessing the day's fare, which included a $4.95 oyster sandwich with fries. Underneath that item were the words, "Guess who did the shucking?"
For the regulars, it's no mystery.
Wayne Copsey, the 48-year-old owner and manager of the Mechanicsville restaurant, is celebrated as the most accomplished oyster shucker in the region. He was preparing to defend that title at the National Oyster Shucking Contest during this weekend's Oyster Festival at the St. Mary's County Fairgrounds.
Copsey, a two-time champion going into the competition, faced shuckers from across the country. Contestants are judged not only on how fast they can open 24 oysters, but also on how presentable the mollusks are.
"You turn it, flip it and cut that muscle," Copsey explained as he used a small knife to pry open a particularly stubborn oyster in his restaurant's kitchen. "Can't have any mud, blood or shell on it. It's got to look ready to serve on the half shell."
Copsey's fingers are dexterous, but he admits his arms are sore. This work is hard on the joints, leaving many master shuckers with arthritis. Scars line the hands of folks who aren't precise with the knife or who don't hold the shell properly. There's a rhythm to shucking, Copsey said. It's a finesse that comes from years and years of watching oystermen practice their craft in the 30-year-old shuck house his father built.
"If you get the first one open, you can go on," Copsey said. "Some people jump up and down, some hold it in their hands. I just keep going."
While Copsey opens oysters for the sandwiches on the menu, the men in the dining area chat about what they see as the decline of the seafood industry in Southern Maryland. But they still make plans to cheer on their buddy at the festival.
They're proud of Copsey, who recently returned from the international oyster-opening contest in Galway, Ireland, where the Mechanicsville resident placed eighth out of 11 contestants.
"Wayne and people like him who keep the tradition going are the only positive thing going on in the industry," said Pat McWilliams, the 53-year-old grandson of a lifelong St. Mary's oysterman. "That's why people my age and up keep going to the festival--to hold on to a piece of the heritage."
The Oyster Festival runs through 6 p.m. today.