“He was a brave man who first ate an oyster.” – Jonathan Swift
We will never know the first man, or woman, brave enough to eat an oyster. However, we know they were certainly brave. Or perhaps curious. Or very hungry. Nevertheless, we do have letters from early American colonists in the 1680s about “tonging” for oysters in the Chesapeake Bay. A tong was a long pole with a hand-like end used to raise the oyster from the shallow waters.
My own theory about early American oyster eating: The Native Americans witnessed shore birds cracking the shells on the rocks and consuming the oyster. Perhaps it was hunger or curiosity but some brave Native American said, “Why not.” They then shared this delicacy with other tribal members and eventually with the settlers. At least that is my version. And for me, this is very easy to believe because I have seen seagulls pick up stray oysters around the docks, fly high above the parking lot or road, and then drop them to the ground, breaking the shell apart and then feasting on the oyster inside.
Regardless of intent, our colonists did discover that something which does not look that appetizing (to some) can awaken and satisfy the taste buds. And, I am one who especially finds this small mollusk one of the many satisfying delights from the sea.
To many, an oyster may be simply a grimy, somewhat slimy, and totally repulsive product best left as a food source for blue crabs, sea otters, star fish, shore birds and other predators of the shore and sea. But to me, plucking an oyster fresh from the ocean is, “A unique and almost religious experience. It’s so damn pure … a singular, unadulterated expression of nature. You crack it open, cut it loose and throw it back. No pomp. No artifice.” This is a quote from some friends I will introduce later.
I can thank my father, Jean, and grandfather, Jules, for introducing me to oysters and opening my mind to a variety of foods often scorned by traditional American conservative palates.
To my family, fresh oysters were like caviar to the rich and famous. We could not always get them in North Central West Virginia, but when we did, it was an event. The men could not wait to shuck and let it slide down. The salty flavor of a fresh ocean oyster is unmatched. No spoken words, just nods of approval. The women preferred theirs sautéed, steamed, or as a (oyster) stew.
When Sandra and I moved to the coast of Virginia in 1972, we had unlimited access to fresh seafood, right off the boats. When dad came to visit, it was a celebration of the oyster: Raw, right from the shell (our favorite). On the half shell. Dozens steamed on the charcoal grill. Some sautéed in shallots, wine and butter. And as a stew.
For dad and I, there was no salad. No side dishes. Only plenty of cold beer. Sandra would join us for the sautéed, steamed, and stew. At the end, we would toast the evening with a nice chilled Sauvignon Blanc.
Those are special memories. Memories, I will (hopefully) carry with me forever. Today, the years have gone by, dad and my grandfather are gone. But, the appreciation they instilled in me for the often-maligned oyster will remain forever.
When Sandra and I returned to West Virginia in 2005, our world of fresh seafood changed forever, or so we thought. There was no fresh seafood available – regardless of what some local “foodies” told me. I knew better. What was laying on ice in the local markets, with a few exceptions, had been frozen and thawed for display.
The oysters locally available were “strong” smelling and lacked the “salty-zing” I remember from my former shore life. However, that all changed in the Fall of 2015 while I was reading an article about a chef visiting local restaurants in the mid-Atlantic states looking for the freshest seafood.
The chef mentioned the Rappahannock Oyster Company located in Topping, Virginia as wonderful source for oysters and clams. I yelled, “Sandra, you got to read this! We know where this is. Just up the coast from where we lived.” I thought, “Wonder if they would ship to West Virginia?” I immediately Googled them and was thrilled beyond belief to find out, that yes, they will ship, not only to West Virginia, but all over the world. And, as they say, “The rest was history.”
But, before I share “The rest,” I want to share some insight about my beloved oysters and the oyster industry. I remember my grandfather talking about oysters from the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries as large as the size of your hand. However, by around 1990, the industry was in real trouble due to over-harvesting and man’s pollution of the Bay. By 2001, the oyster industry in the Chesapeake Bay had all but collapsed.
However, things were about to change. In 2001, cousins Ryan and Travis Croxton received a phone call from their fathers asking if they had any interest in the family’s 200-odd acres of oyster leases. It seems the contracts were about to expire. Their family had been oystermen for four generations. Yes, they were interested.
So, it began: Ryan and Travis, along with a small contingent of like-minded oystermen set out to revive a once thriving industry in the Chesapeake Bay. But, they knew the old methods would not work. They researched different techniques and finally chose “aquaculture” or as it was commonly called “oyster gardening.” No longer were the oysters harvested from the muddy bottom, but now raised in cages suspended just above the bottom.
And thus, within a year, the Rappahannock Oyster Company was born, and the Chesapeake oyster was on its way to reclaiming its place among the great oysters of the world. Meet some of the people who made this possible. The Rappahannock Oyster Company team:
This company is just one of a handful of young risk-takers who have been responsible for taking a once dying, or as some said “dead” industry and bringing it back to life. Please, go to their website and read their complete story. It is a good read. I was especially fascinated by their video titled “The Commonwealth.” Even if you are not an oyster lover, you will appreciate the efforts of today’s aquaculturists (oyster gardeners). It takes patience, hard work and a few years to grow a delectable oyster. Here is the video “The Commonwealth.” Fascinating and informative.
The Rappahannock Oyster Company is not the only oyster aquaculturists in the Chesapeake Bay area, but they are the only one I highly recommend. Their Chief Operating Officer, Anthony Marchetti (pictured below), is wonderful to work with. He promptly responds to my questions. Ordering is very easy. They have overnight delivery. I can pick my delivery date. And, our shellfish arrive with that sweet, salty-smell and taste of the Chesapeake Bay I remember as a young man. In addition to oysters, they also offer clams – Sandra’s favorite (far right). And by the way, they offer shucked (oysters in a jar) and live oysters – ones still in the shell (below center) – my preference.
Nothing beats the sweet salty taste of a fresh-shucked oyster – ‘pop’r’ open and ‘slide’r’ down. But there is a caution: Learning to shuck an oyster is not easy, but it is a skill worth learning. I’m not very good, but I am determined. Word to the first-time shucker: Have someone teach you. Or, watch a video. And buy a strong oyster knife and gloves. Puncture wounds hurt – I know!
Many have told me they cannot stand the sight of, let alone the taste of, an oyster. I wonder, “Just how many of the ‘rejecters’ have ever tried a properly prepared oyster?” My favorite is, as I have said before, freshly shucked and immediately consumed. I understand the novice reluctance. But give one a try. I also enjoy oyster shooters (oyster, vodka, cocktail sauce, and a dab of Tabasco), sautéed, steamed, and oyster stew. “Not an oyster have I met, that will not satisfy my taste of the sea”
On my website, http://michaelslambiotte.com, I give recipes and step-by-step guides for all my suggestions. One teaser: Steaming involves burlap. Look for Michael’s “Hello World” on the home page below the cover picture. It is titled “Oysters, I do love thee.”
I would like to take this opportunity to thank Anthony Marchetti, Travis and Ryan Croxton, and the entire team at Rappahannock Oyster Company for their assistance and cooperation for this story. Do not forget to visit their website and view the video mentioned earlier. The Rappahannock Oyster Company: The result of vision marrying commitment.
Yes, “he was a brave man who first ate an oyster.” But, he also quickly became a very satisfied man.
Until next time,