Isabella “Bella” Macbeth Cain can shuck 24 oysters in as little as two minutes and nine seconds. That time, which accounts for penalties, earned her the ranking of second place in the women’s division at the U.S. Oyster Festival Shucking Competition in October.
“A lot of people think shucking oysters requires a lot of strength,” she says, sitting at the raw bar at Rappahannock Oyster Bar, where she is the lead shucker. “It comes down to skill with the knife and not brute force.”
It also requires attention to detail. In shucking competitions, time is added for penalties such as breaking the shell, cutting the meat of the oyster or having the oyster slide down the shell after it’s been placed on the table.
Bella, who grew up south of Broad and can trace her family’s history back before the Civil War, has been eating and handling oysters since she was 5 years old, when she was known as Charles. “We ate what our parents ate,” she says. That meant she was introduced to canned smoked oysters when she was in kindergarten. When a friend of the family held an oyster roast, her mom was afraid she was going to cut her hands, so Bella soon learned how to use an oyster knife to pry open the shells. By the time she was in high school, she was eating oysters raw.
But she didn’t fully realize her affinity for oyster shucking until two years ago, when she began working at Amen Street Fish and Raw Bar and entered the oyster shucking competition at the Lowcountry Oyster Festival – and walked away the champion.
At first, she says, working behind the oyster bar was a safe place to hide during the awkward years when she began transitioning to a woman. Bella had attended The Citadel and enrolled in the Army. She planned to become an army officer and later a history professor. But, she says, one day she realized she “couldn’t live that lie anymore.”
“I had to come out and be my authentic self.”
After she won her first oyster-shucking competition, Bella, who has lived as a female for four years, gained more confidence and says she began “to step out of that comfort zone.”
“I started to come out of my shell and see the possibilities,” says Bella, who has been working at Rappahannock since it opened last March. She started touring the country competing in oyster-shucking competitions and making a name for herself as “Gator,” an army nickname she says she once used as a shield. Now, she’s working to brand herself as the Holy City Oyster Maven.
Bella is clearly passionate about oysters. She can tell you why the shell of a wild grown Charleston oyster is elongated, like the shape of a blade, and how the shells of farm-raised oysters are different. She can tell you how briny should taste different from salty.
Bella is teaching an Oyster 101 class at this year’s Charleston Wine + Food festival. She has helped cook at the event in the past, but this is her first time being featured. She thinks oyster-shuckers should be treated with the same respect as other food and beverage professionals, such as chefs and mixologists, and says seeing her name and photo along with stars of the food and beverage industry is “huge.”
Bella no longer is looking for a place to hide. She’s going to be a star.