WELLFLEET — The oysters won’t shuck themselves, and so Big Daddy does it.
A half-dozen. A dozen. Another dozen and some littlenecks. Sometimes somebody orders the tuna.
Again and again, David “Big Daddy” Fontaine’s short-bladed shucking knife goes into a Wellfleet oyster at the hinge, pops the flat top shell free and then works its way under and through the adductor muscle.
“Best shucker in town,” someone says as they shuffle off with a plateful.
“Oyster samurai,” says someone else.
‘I’m not fast for around here. I just try to get nice, clean oysters.’
“I’m not fast for around here,” says Fontaine, 50, somehow making small talk while shucking an oyster every 10 seconds or so using a small knife, a wet towel, and his bare hands. “I just try to get nice, clean oysters.”
From the Thursday before Memorial Day until the Beachcomber closes on Labor Day, Fontaine and the other shuckers do this 1,200 times a day, give or take. And then they go back to their real lives.
For pretty much everyone at this impossibly busy restaurant on Cahoon Hollow Beach in Wellfleet, this is a summer job. The bartenders and wait staff make a mint by seasonal worker standards and then return to teaching, or carpentry, or wandering the earth.
Not Fontaine. A 50-year-old Oklahoma kid and self-described restaurant lifer, he never gets too far from oysters these days: Come Labor Day, when the summer job is done, he farms them in nearby Eastham, where he has been running a small operation with a friend for three years.
But it is the summer, behind the raw bar where he has spent the last 8 years and in the kitchen before that, when he is in his element. He shucks another dozen. His hair is pulled back in a green bandana. His T-shirt is orange and faded. His public is adoring.
“You see him, you know you’re in good hands,” says Bess Goldstein, another regular.
About those hands:
They’re strong and thick, perhaps owing to the days when he really was Big Daddy, untold pounds ago. His short fingers are built to wrap around a spiny oyster. And on close inspection, there’s not a nick to be found.
“I’d have 10 Band-Aids on my hand and still be trying to do it,” says Javier Nichols, in from near Philadelphia. “It’s an art form.”
If Fontaine is built to shuck oysters, the guy working next to him in the cramped quarters of the Beachcomber’s raw bar is built for something else. Pete Lynch is 23, tall and wiry with hands as big as a 2-pound lobster. He works the steamer station, sears tuna, and dives in to do some shucking when he can.
“He’s learning faster than I did,” Fontaine says, but the barely healed wounds on Lynch’s hands show he’s not there yet. Whether big hands make shucking harder is not entirely clear. And anyway, Lynch says, his hands are not getting any smaller, and they are the only pair he will ever have.
Every so often Lynch slips a packet of Sour Patch Kids from behind a pot for a quick sugar hit. It is hot back there by the propane burner and the pots of steamers. But both he and Fontaine are oyster addicts, too.
“I try to eat six a day,” Fontaine says of his beach diet. “They’re delicious and they’re good for you.”
The oyster’s point of view is likely somewhat different.
Reasonable people differ on whether an oyster — an immotile creature with a simple nervous system and nothing resembling a brain — would experience anything like suffering when Fontaine’s knife works its way through the shell.
Oysters are not evolved to elude predators — they cannot move or see — so why would they have evolved to feel pain? On the other hand, how could we possibly know for sure?
But that is more of a winter worry, and these days the line at the Beachcomber’s raw bar rarely stops moving. Thursday is a slow day by Beachcomber standards, what with the approaching hurricane: Every seat is taken and it is three deep at the bar.
A co-worker races by: “You good, Big Daddy?”
“Yeah,” says Fontaine, and gives the tub of big old shrimp on ice a little shake.
Things are picking up for the season. It’ll be 65-hour work weeks for Fontaine until September, when things mellow out considerably.
“It’s not easy being seasonal. Budgeting is a pain,” Fontaine says. This will be the first year he and his oyster farming partner pay themselves a salary.
But to Fontaine, the Beachcomber and the workers who come summer after summer are like family.
“It’s beautiful,” he says, and turns just a few inches to the right to gesture out at the sand and the ocean beyond.
“Look at our office.”