Paul Dinet made his living serving up an ephemeral pleasure, shucking oysters to slurp down on the spot, one after another. Over the course of decades and countless dozens, Dinet himself became the model of consistency, a perpetual presence behind the marble counter of Felix's Oyster Bar in the French Quarter.
Now, finally, his oyster knife is still.
Dinet died April 18 at age 85 at University Hospital, following an illness, Felix's manager Robbie Orgeron confirmed. Funeral arrangements are pending, and Dinet's co-workers at Felix's are discussing a memorial event or second line in his honor.
Known as the oldest oyster shucker in New Orleans, he worked regularly at the oyster bar practically until the end.
He was never recognized with any culinary awards and he never pursued any competitive shucking titles. But his regulars adored him, his coworkers admired him and, day after day, he demonstrated what keeps the wheels of the city's famous food culture turning in its restaurants.
“I’ve never been the fastest shucker, but that’s not what I’m about,” Dinet said in a 2017 interview with the Advocate. “The thing is you got to keep it steady and keep going, keep opening them and make sure you do it right, keep those oysters clean.”
Dinet was born among the oysters. A midwife helped him into the world aboard his parents’ houseboat on Grand Bayou, around the oyster harvest areas of Plaquemines Parish. His father was a Houma Indian, he said, and his mother was Spanish. He was raised speaking French and working the oyster grounds.
“My daddy taught me to open oysters, banging on them with a hammer, I was 8 years old,” Dinet said. “I’d take my pirogue out and pick them by hand off the reef.”
By the time he was a teenager in the 1940s, Dinet was working at an oyster processing plant, earning about $7 a day. He had a stint overseas in the Army, stationed in Germany, and he lived in New Orleans ever since.
The job at Felix’s came much later in life. Dinet started working there in 1984, when Felix’s was hiring extra staff for the World’s Fair crowds and when he was looking for a side gig. He was 51 at the time and working full time at the American Can Co. in Mid-City, where he’d already logged more than 30 years on the manufacturing floor.
That’s where he lost three fingers on his left hand. They were cut off when he reached into a die press, trying to fix a jam in the machine. Later, he would describe the grievous injury almost like a lucky break. When he came back to work at American Can he got a desk job for a few months and then was moved up to driving a lift truck.
“I never saw myself as handicapped, because I had my thumb,” Dinet once said. “I still had my right hand too.”
He “retired” when the can factory closed in 1987. The company offered him another job up north, but Dinet didn't want to leave, and he still had his oyster shucking job.
At the oyster bar, his left hand was usually covered by a thick rubber glove. Beneath it, he used his flat run of short knuckles to keep the bivalve in place against the curve of the oyster lead. He gave a stout, quick twist with his knife, wiped the blade to remove any grit and repeated the process, usually about 800 times a day.
A widower, Dinet lived in the 8th Ward with his son and grandson. Even in this 80s, he would ride his bicycle to work. As the years ticked on, Dinet just kept shucking. Asked in an interview if he could foresee the day he'd finally retire, Dinet shrugged off the suggestion.
“It’s like with the oysters,” he said. “You just keep it steady and keep it clean.”
You can love crawfish, you can be obsessed with them and you can post your social media pictures of all their red shell glory until your phone dies.
What’s on your itinerary for Jazz Fest? Ask some New Orleanians that question and you might hear the name crawfish Monica before Alanis Morissette.
The character of New Orleans comes through in its restaurants. This dining guide pulls together a story of that character and puts 100 recomme…