Eating oysters on the half-shell in public is normally prim and proper, with the beautiful, icy tray placed in front of you with its tiny fork and diminutive ramekins of horseradish and wedges of lemon. You garnish the oysters, one by one, with nibs of hot sauce, and then sigh gracefully as you contemplate which lacy shell to put to your mouth first. The brine moves past your lips, and after a couple of moments savoring the subtle flavor you ease the bivalve down your throat with a satisfied smile and dab the corners of your mouth with a starchy white napkin.
It's not fast food.
If you try to adhere to any of the normal oyster-eating etiquette while participating in an all-you-can-eat oyster contest, not only will you lose in disgrace, but your teammates will possibly trail you into a dark alley behind the restaurant later and beat the dog snot out of you with a shell bucket and a few empty trays. In other words, there is no room for manners here.
Jax Fish House Denver hosted its 13th annual Oyster Month, ending with the 10th annual oyster-eating contest on Saturday, a team event to benefit the Emergency Family Assistance Association and The Gathering Place. Thirteen cents per each oyster eaten at the restaurant all month is being donated to both charitable groups, and according to Jax general manager Quinn Sabatini, 5,200 oysters have already been counted and consumed, with a projected number of 7,000 oysters by the end of the week. I was an alternate at the Saturday event, and the sales team from C.R. Goodman Distributing Company added me to their ranks. We were up against the warehouse staff of C.R. Goodman on a separate team, the team from Zio's, another one from Vesta Dipping Grill, a team of yellow-shirt-clad ladies from the Gathering Place, and Jax regular customers Daniel Cummings and his "Team Huffers."
The doors opened at 2 p.m. and spirits were high (in every sense of the phrase) with good-natured ribbing and beer bonhomie. There was a mysterious guy wandering around in a dress, but no one seemed to notice, or find him odd in any way. Denver is a great place. Everyone seemed to be taking advantage of the happy-hour drink-and-seafood specials, and the house Bloody Mary was truly a work of art, garnished with spiced shrimp, bits of crispy bacon, and a huge green olive stuffed with blue cheese.
Right at 4 p.m., Sabatini grabbed an iPod and an ingeniously rigged microphone and announced the judges and competitors while blasting out "cheesy cock-rock jams" to get the crowd fired up. It worked, and the combination of great drinks, loud tunes and seemingly endless trays of fresh-shucked oysters set the mood of competition chaos. I stood meekly in a corner, scribbling notes while the guy in the dress kept wandering by. The gigantic trays of oysters were a bit daunting, but I had deprived myself of food the entire day to make certain I was primed, so I resisted the urge to eat bar garnishes and listened patiently to the rules of the game.
Each team had two minutes to eat as many oysters as possible; each team member had his or her own thirty-second increment to cram, and when I asked one of the bartenders if the white plastic buckets littering the bar were for shells or vomit, he replied, "Yes." The first heat was announced, and while "Chariots of Fire" was booming from the speakers, the first set of contenders took their mark, got set, and went. I was in the second heat, so I paid close attention to technique. It was a madhouse of grabbing, stuffing and slamming shells; the female contestant from team Zio's had filled her cheeks like an insane chipmunk, gnawing as fast as she could to make room, damn near losing the last oyster as it tried to shoot out of her mouth and hit the tray. Sabatini called time, and she spent a good ten minutes chewing while bemoaning the sharp tidbits of shell scraping the inside of her cheeks.
It was my turn. To Jax's credit, they went big here and didn't skimp. These oysters were plump and weren't going to be an easy conquest. My teammates slathered their trays with hot sauce, but I figured breathing was somewhat important, so I went au naturel, with a few squeezes of lemon. As the tray loomed before me, I wondered whose brilliant idea it was for me to do this, then I realized that it was mine, so I popped my knuckles, cracked my neck back and forth, and clutched the edge of the bar. Asia's "The Final Countdown" was on the speakers, and normally I would have given this a few eye-rolls, but I had to focus.
Sabatini called time, and I grasped the first shell. That's when I realized that everything I had ever learned about proper oyster etiquette was going to cost me. I tried to gulp down oysters with at least a modicum of manners, taking each shell and tipping it into my mouth, but as we passed the fifteen-second mark and I'd only managed to get five or so down, I knew I had to change strategies. My cheering squad behind me was cursing, screaming and impolitely urging me to "just grab them!" I stuck my fingers into the shells, grasping the slippery little mollusks and packing my cheeks. I was like a squealing pig at a trough. Decorum was forgotten as the final seconds came, and I scrounged to jab a final two into my trap as the time was called.
Then I chewed...and chewed. I had to shove my fingers in every few seconds to search and rescue the shell fragments lodged in my dental work. But the rules were clear: If any oysters came back up, they didn't count. My stomach cramped, my eyes watered, but not one oyster escaped. The final tally had me at around a dozen, the last six choked down in the final seconds, and Sabatini and the bartenders counted shells while everyone was still chewing. In third place was team Zio's "winning nothing but a stomachache," hollered Sabatini. They had eaten 95 oysters. Coming in second was the warehouse team from C.R. Goodman with 96, and the clear winners were Daniel Cummings and "team Huffers" with a tab of 125 oysters in two minutes. They deserved the grand prize of round-trip airfare to anywhere in the U.S., and I had a well-earned afternoon of gastro-trauma.
I didn't win anything except a possible beating from my teammates for being too sweet and prissy, but time heals all wounds, so fifteen minutes later, everyone was right back to drinking and carousing; all that was left was my painful march to the car, still trying in vain to dislodge chunks of shell from my gumline. Jax's entire staff was fantastic with the organization and pulled off this rowdy event seamlessly, and having a belly full of oysters was prize enough for me.
See a photo gallery from the contest on the next page!