Deborah Pratt has represented the U.S. four times in the Oyster Shucking World Championships in Ireland and in 1997, she was second in the world. As an eight-time State Champion, Deborah promotes shucking as an important Virginia tradition and encourages youth to learn. Her accomplishments and advocacy combined with her easy charisma makes her a living monument of Virginia. This summer the Virginia Tourism Board selected Deborah to represent the state in ads featured in Oprah’s O Magazine, Bon Appétit, Good Housekeeping, and many more.
Accomplished shuckers are becoming increasingly rare, as Chesapeake Bay oyster populations dwindle due to over-harvesting, pollution, and disease. Yet the tradition continues to run strong in Deborah’s family. Her parents were professional shuckers and Deborah says her sister Clementine, from whom she learned her unique style of opening an oyster from its mouth, is her most formidable competitor. Her nephew, Jermaine Brokenborough, 24, of Chesterfield is also an accomplished shucker, and will compete in State Championships next week.
When she’s not traveling as an unofficial spokesperson of Oyster Shucking, Deborah lives in Jamaica, Virginia, and works full time at Walter Reed Nursing Home. “I enjoy being around the elderly people because of their wisdom,” she says. “They teach you a lot.” Deborah is mother of four children; daughters Jackie Pratt, 34, Regina, 31, sons Bernard Redmond, 26, Davila Redmond, 25, as well as three grandchildren. She’ll compete at Urbanna Oyster Festival Nov. 7 and 8 at 11 a.m.
In her own words, Deborah tells us what it’s like when the world is your oyster.
So Does She Eat All Those Oysters?
“That’s a question I’m always asked. The answer is no. I shucked so many oysters that I don’t like to eat them. When I was a child growing up, yes. But now, no. I like fish from the Rappahannock or the Chesapeake Bay. Anything out of deep water I cannot eat. No crabs or lobsters or foods of that nature.”
“I have been to New York, I have been to Alabama, Galway, Ireland, Connecticut and Boston [to compete.] It has been a lot of fun travelling all over because you get to meet a lot of different people and you can show that a woman can do as well as a man. And I have gone against the best of the best that’s out there. I enjoy making people happy or even to see them smile and know that a woman can stand up against a man.”
Pearls of Wisdom
“I enjoy talking to young kids, trying to get them on the right track. One oyster can take you around the world. You don’t have to do drugs. You don’t have to go out and get in trouble. There’s a job for everyone. If an oyster can take me around the world, then I know that you can make it out here by doing something that is honest and make an honest living.”
“Our young kids are getting lost in this world today. There’s a lot of things that they can get back to doing. I would like to have a class to teach our young kids how to shuck an oyster to keep the tradition back here in Virginia. There aren’t too many young people that are opening oysters. They would be surprised. It’s something they can do on the weekend or it’s something to make quick change for gas. You don’t have to ask your parents for something everyday. It’s going to take a little while to train, but you can learn. You get paid every Friday. You don’t have a boss. You can laugh and joke. Whatever you make is your money. If you don’t work, you don’t earn anything. It’s something that teaches you responsibility. You’d be surprised how much money you can make shucking oysters. Going to college is great, I wish I had gone. But I have four kids and we have done well.”
The Making of a Champion
“You need to practice. You have to concentrate. And the most important thing you need is a sharp knife. You can’t get into an oyster with a dull knife, and I go from the lip of the oyster. Most people from the South, they go from the hinges. Going from the hinges is very quick. At this point right now, I’ll be honest with you: I am trying to learn to go from the hinges. I don’t want to change my style but I see that it’s very quick, but it’s a lot of twisting and turning to get a clean cut from out of that oyster. But I’m going to work on it. It’s always good to learn a different technique. I don’t care what it is out there, it’s always good to learn something new. You’re never too old to learn.”
“I’ve been on TV so many times it’s just pathetic. I give Virginia Tourism great hands up because they are the ones that found me. I don’t know what to say about it, but I’m very proud of myself. I have made a lot of friends in my time, since 1985 until now, just by shucking oysters. I even train a few people how to shuck oysters and those that are trained turned out to be pretty good. I get the honor that I am their coach.”
“Being a Christian woman, I always pray before I enter a competition, because I have to give God big thanks because he has been my protector wherever I went. Traveling on planes and trains and cars, He has been my great protector, number one in my life today. He’s the Man.”
“A path is never done until a job is finished. I will continue to compete as long as I can. I’m trying to learn how to play piano or some other type of instrument. I would like to win the World Competition over in Galway, Ireland. I would love to give thanks to all of the fans and everyone who has supported me during this career. From a small little town in Virginia, a young lady found her way.”