Isabella Cain can shuck 48 oysters in three minutes. That feat is what earned her first place at this year's Lowcountry Oyster Festival. She's not only a full-time oyster shucker at Rappahannock Oyster Company, she's a champion shucker with international ambitions. In her first four competitions, she managed to take two state titles, a third place regional finish, and seventh overall finish at the national championship. She has plans to compete in the Galway International Oyster & Seafood Festival one day, but first she hopes to win June's NOLA Oyster Festival where she took home third last year. If she can pull it off, she'd be the first transgender woman to claim the prize.
A born and bred Charlestonian, Cain is about as legit Lowcountry as they come. She can trace her family lineage to the French Huguenots. "We go back to the 1600s in the city," she says. Her ancestors were from Brittany on one side and Scotland on the other. "They came over after the Battle of Culloden — pre-Colonial, Revolutionary War." With four centuries in Charleston, it's no surprise that oysters are in her blood.
You can imagine how her shucking skills began. Cain spent her youth shuttling between her mother's home downtown and father's home in Mt. Pleasant's Old Village going to cotillion and learning to sail at the Yacht Club with plenty of oyster roasts in between. She always knew she was a good shucker, but it wasn't until later that she'd realize her award-winning talent.
By the time Cain was old enough to enroll in Porter-Gaud for high school, she asked her mother instead if she could go to Camden Military Academy. Cain was a model student there.
"I always liked history and military tradition. I loved my time there," she says. Cain became the most decorated student, finishing seventh in her class, with a handful of varsity letters to boot. Naturally, she enrolled at the Citadel for college. But that's where what she had always suppressed, her true sexuality, caught up with her.
"I left the Citadel because I had a breakdown, an identity crisis," Cain says. "I loved what I was doing, the job, the work, the school but to suppress who I was for so long, and exude the masculine side of things, military, sports and hunting, it got to be too much. I broke down and was medically discharged and left the Citadel." Cain moved to Holland to study international business and while she didn't come out immediately, little by little she was able to begin to express who she truly was.
By mid '09, Cain was back in Charleston. Her uncle invited her to help open Amen Raw Bar and that's where her bivalve aptitude began to come out.
"I had a great time, partied a lot, started experimenting and going out in drag," she says.
It was while working later at an area resort though, that Cain allowed her true identity to hide no more.
"I was doing the overnight shifts for two years as a hotel manager. Trying to deal with sleeping during the day, my life was falling apart. I broke down one night and I was close to ending it. I said, 'I can't do this any longer, I'm going to come out.' I started simple by wearing foundation and mascara to work. I carried a plain purse, then the purses got a little more exaggerated. Ultimately I was asked to leave. I got written up for uniform and other small failures with emails and other things, they decided I wasn't the right fit," she says. "It was the best thing to ever happen to me."
Cain began opening up to friends about her transition. "I didn't want to give up on the industry and on life. I was trying to find a place where I could fit it in this awkward period," she says. Loyal and supportive industry members helped her through. And today not only is she living life as the person she always knew she was, but she's made a name for herself as one of the up and coming oyster shuckers in America.
Cain can talk at length about the various shucking strategies particular to each type of oyster and competition. When it's a premiere event, she says she's looking to plate a perfect set of 24 oysters.
"First thing they do is look to see if all the oysters are placed in the shell properly," she says. "If it's a properly placed oysters, the inductor muscle is right where it should be." However, if it's Cape oysters she's working with, Cain takes an entirely different approach. "Farm raised oysters can have brittle shells. The shape of the oyster it doesn't take the bill easily so you go in on the side," she says. "I take a clam knife and whittle it out so it looks like a prison shank and is razor sharp. Holding the oyster hinge, down, I'll put the knife straight in where the muscle would be, then bring the knife across the top shell, in one movement."
Presenting clean, grit-free oysters as fast as possible is always the goal, but achieving that doesn't necessarily have to do with brawn.
"Lots of people think it's a strength thing," say Cain. "I like to remind them that at the national shucking level, there are as many women grand champions as men. Men put up faster times, a minute 30. But the ladies are just over two minutes. When they start seeing penalties, the gap reduces. The lady might have a minute 40."
Cain's aptitude for fast clean shucking is what's earning her oyster festival prizes across the country. But she admits she had some trepidation when she first decided to compete as a woman.
"When I went to New Orleans and saw Deborah Pratt — they call her the Black Pearl, she is the living legend of the oyster shucking community and women's national grand champion — I saw her and I said, 'I have great respect for you and all the other women. I'd like to compete in the ladies division. If y'all have a problem, I'll consider staying with the men's, but I'd like to shuck with my gender,'" Cain remembers. 'Deborah gave me a big hug and told me she loved me and accepted me. Having her endorsement meant I wouldn't have to worry about pushback."
Cain is seeing more of that acceptance not only in her industry but beyond.
"Charleston is right on par with the rest of the country. People look at South Carolina and say we're backward-minded. I feel like we're just genuine people. Everyone in the world wants to be a nice person and do good. It's just being able to bridge the gaps and bring it full circle."
Isabella Cain will be giving a master class in oyster shucking during Charleston Wine + Food's "Shuck It! Oysters 101." The event takes place Thurs. March 1 at 9:30 a.m. at Rappahannock Oyster Bar. Tickets are $135.