“Our shells clacked on the plates.
My tongue was a filling estuary,
My palate hung with starlight. . . “
~From the poem, Oysters, by Seamus Heaney
By Charles Segebrecht; Photos by Linda Segebrecht
Some food critics nauseously question Shakespeare’s refined 16th century palate. Just the reading of some of his favorite dish names can cause a 21st-century epicure to question William’s tastes: gallimaufries, umbles, carbonadoes, ambergris* and a favorite of mine, funeral baked meats! Are they comedic or tragic or just plain awful?
If the world is your oyster, as was the case with Pistol in Shakespeare’s, “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” why would you eat any of these? Or how about eating an oyster–even if the offering happens in a month with the letter “r” in its name (the proverbial rule). And here’s a stronger query: what would compel someone to eat over a hundred of these raw, slimy, ugly bivalves in one setting? Personally, I would prefer Shakespeare’s corner pie, fig’s end, saddle of mutton– oh, wait–I digress. Is your mouth now watering? Regardless, please read on!
Lake Quivira resident, Justin Wood, was recently compelled to let perhaps too many raw oysters slide across his tongue during a timed, fundraising competition–all for a very good cause. On April 6, he once again (fifth year!) aligned with his sister, Dolly Wood, and two of their friends to form their team: Shuck This.
At Jak’s Fish House and Oyster Bar on the Country Club Plaza, this formidable foursome nearly set a Kansas City record of three first places in a row in this annual competition, but missed it by one gruesome morsel.
Jason studied the other contestants prior to the showdown, and he recognized potential tough competition coming to this year’s table. Shuck This went on to eat a respectable and whopping one-hundred-and-thirty-five over the two-minute contest while going against six other four-person teams. In this sport, one contestant from each team mechanically slams down oysters for thirty seconds before the next team member takes over for another thirty seconds. The debauchery continues until each participant has suffered. Judges are nearby, watching for sleight of hand trickery and keeping time for the quick two minutes and then eventually counting empty shells. All the while, cheering friends; e.g. Brian Albers – and loved ones; e.g. Jennifer Wood, Justin’s wife (“can’t stand the grey things!”) are literally yelling and screaming.
The “why” Justin and Dolly do this year after year (and have confirmed they will do it again next year) is because each sees the importance of the cause they are supporting. They have no choice in their participation … their father had non-Hodgkin lymphoma fifteen years ago and is now defined as a survivor. The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS) is very dear to them. Amy Michale, with the Overland Park LLS office, shared how this organization is the voice for all blood cancer patients while advocating for policies to accelerate approval of new treatments and ensuring patient access to quality, affordable and coordinated care. (Please see sidebar on page 13.)
Justin remembers eating these creatures with his father while growing up. He will tell you he loves their flavor, but in the same sentence says he prepares them topped with onion and horseradish. Perhaps he can’t taste the oysters for the accoutrements? Regardless, a startling fact remains: after wrapping up the contest, Justin ate still more oysters to celebrate, and this time, “slammed down some beers!”
Jennifer and Justin had just completed a rim-to-rim hike of the Grand Canyon when we talked about their Jak’s eating adventure. The question just had to be asked: with all the oyster-eating postulations, does he prove any of them to be true with these binging contests? He says, “not at all!” Do notice his thickening beard next time you see him. These oysters, all cherrystones by the way, came from a Jak’s parent company-owned oyster farm called Rappanannock River Company.
The winning team of this gastronomical contest receives $1000 from Jak’s home office in Boulder, Colorado. Established protocol suggests the champion team donate their winnings to the LLS. In addition, the LLS receives the $100 each participant uses to buy in to play. The venue and oysters are provided by Jak’s, as they continue to quietly grow a new Kansas City tradition. Quiet is the operative word. By design. Jak’s Fish House and Oyster Bar’s home office in Boulder is called Big Red F (“F” for fun, fish, family, food, etc.). Talking with John-Mark Larter, a senior associate, he described the fine line between “look at what we do!” to just doing the right thing. Thus, they prefer word-of-mouth advertising for the contest in lieu of television or radio spots. Dolly Wood, a Kansas University nurse, initially found out about it because of her connections with lots of KC chefs; Justin through Dolly.
The affiliation with the local LLS proved to be aligned with Big Red F’s core values, along with the fact Kansas City’s Jak’s manager, Ken Roy, had a sister on the board of directors with LLS. The same oyster-eating contest has been held for over twenty years in Boulder and has been affiliated with charities other than the LLS over the years. It, too, is wildly popular and is driven by contestant commitments and word-of-mouth sharing. John-Mark describes how the contest is encouraged to be raucous, ridiculous and ludicrous – this is the how to the contest. The why is raising money for important organizations up to doing good. It is not a contest fun to watch every day, but certainly is fun once a year!
Every graduating college senior should read an introductory letter from Big Red F’s founder at BigRedF.com. It is obviously an amazing place to work where employees don’t take themselves too seriously, but are very serious about providing the best seafood and eating experience out there. John-Mark wisely knows all his cohorts must have fun and laugh along the way, “or what’s the point?” If graduating this spring with whatever degree, do yourself a favor, interview with the Big Red F group and gather a benchmark to judge all other employers by. Should you become employed by Big Red F, you may eventually acquire a taste for oysters like Justin and Dolly, complementing what Shakespeare had observed. . . “The world is your oyster!”
*Ambergris: whale vomit!
Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS)
The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS) mission is to cure leukemia, lymphoma, Hodgkin disease and myeloma. The society exists to discover life-saving therapies and ensure all blood cancer patients have access to these. LLS is the leading source of free blood cancer information, education and patient support in the world. New and effective therapies, once unimaginable, are now saving the lives of these individuals today – not just someday. Hope has systematically been created over years for an improved quality of life for these patients and their families.
These four blood cancers affect bone marrow, blood cells, lymph nodes and other parts of the lymphatic system. Nearly 1.3 million people in the US are living with or are in remission from one of these cancers.
More than $1 billion has been invested nationally in research by the LLS since its inception sixty-eight years ago resulting in innovative, life-saving treatments. The five-year survival rate for patients with Hodgkin lymphoma has raised from forty-percent in the early 1960’s to 88.5 percent in 2012. The five-year survival rate for non-Hodgkin lymphoma has raised from thirty-one percent in the early 1960’s to 72.6 percent in 2012. In addition, $81,000 worth of travel assistance was made available to 162 patients in 2018, and in the same year, 558 patients received needed financial support totaling $1,166,316.
Call Amy Michale, Brenda Sparks or Kristen Johnson with the Mid-America Chapter of LLS at 913-262-1515 for information on how you can participate with their successful and growing mission by eating lots of oysters and/or joining in on one of their fundraising walks, bike rides, marathons, bike rides, etc.