Editor’s Note: Try on this image: if author David Hammond ’73 were a recipe, its ingredients are the liberal arts—mostly literature and writing (he was an English major, after all), but also heaping measures of food and travel (in Strasbourg, France, and beyond, to be specific), enough science to understand the effect of nuanced environmental differences on organisms in seemingly close proximity, a taste for history (in chronicles such as The Oyster Wars of Chesapeake Bay), and an appreciation of the ebb and flow of economic-environmental influences. I hope readers enjoy, as much as we did, the following piece–product of a curiosity refined by an education in the liberal arts. And not just any such education. Like oysters, a liberal arts education can have important variations, even in close proximity. Cheers to David Hammond, and to the K way of doing a liberal arts education.
In a recent Chicago Sun-Times “oyster guide”, I mentioned, with a hint of disbelief, that “some oyster enthusiasts even claim to detect subtle flavor differences between bivalves grown on different sides of the same bay.”
That claim once seemed to me somewhat unbelievable. I’m not scoffing any more.
A few hours after landing in Richmond, Virginia, I went to an oyster tasting that involved sampling the same breed of oyster grown in multiple locations all around Chesapeake Bay, north and south.
What I discovered in this pan-Bay sampling was that flavor variations in oysters from different parts of this bay are, indeed, clearly palpable.
It just makes sense: oysters cultivated closer to the Atlantic Ocean are saltier, and those further north and deeper up into the bay, closer to freshwater rivers, are sweeter. Similarly, oysters cultivated near moving waters tend to be somewhat cleaner tasting than those in beds where water moves more slowly.
Flavor differences, it turns out, are readily discernible, even in oysters that live a few miles apart. Historically, the oysters from Chesapeake Bay were known for being some of the finest in the world.
According to John R. Wennersten, in his highly entertaining The Oyster Wars of Chesapeake Bay, there was a time in the late nineteenth century when Chesapeake Bay provided 40 percent of the world’s oysters!
Throughout the past century or so, the oyster industry in Chesapeake Bay, much like that in the Gulf Coast, has waxed and waned, building up and then slipping down due to a variety of causes.
By the late twentieth century, the glory days of Chesapeake Bay oyster production had faded, due in part to fertilizer run-off that caused vast algal blooms that made life difficult for oysters. A little algae is just fine; oysters like it; too much algae crowds out the tasty creatures. Given the chance to increase and multiply, relieved of the burden of trying to live in heavily polluted water, oysters actually filter the water and make it cleaner.
Today, with regulations in place to reduce run-off, farmers are moving back into the Chesapeake area in a continuing effort to satisfy the perennial taste for oysters. Oysters are amazingly resilient creatures, and even though their numbers in Chesapeake Bay have dwindled over the years, the industry is undergoing a rebirth, with new oyster farms cropping up all over the bay.
Pleasure House oysters: Bringing Back the Old Ways
I had my first Pleasure House oysters at a restaurant called Terrapin in Virginia Beach. The oysters were much bigger than I’d usually prefer an oyster to be, but each was stunningly delicious, with briny, balanced flavors and beautifully firm flesh. Terrapin is one of only three restaurants that serve Pleasure House oysters; production at this oyster farm is understandably low.
Pleasure House oysters is one of many farms that have reclaimed their place around Chesapeake Bay. In response to the increasing demand for oysters, companies that had previously gone under are coming back to life, and new companies are starting up; some are doing their best to bring back the old ways of oyster farming.
At the Pleasure House oyster farm, cages are pulled up and the oysters sorted and tumbled by hand. This totally manual approach might seem like a gimmick, but Pleasure House oysters were perhaps the finest oysters I’ve ever eaten.
We went out on a Pleasure House oyster boat with Chris Ludford, whose regular job is serving as the area’s fireboat captain. When he’s not keeping the bay area from going up in smoke, he works his oyster beds on the Lynnhaven River, cultivating and harvesting oysters by hand. We pulled up next to a patch of marsh grass where Ludford had his cages.
The fresh-from-the-water oysters were glistening jewels of deliciousness, brimming with briny liquor and dense with layers of flavor. Somewhat fleshy, their texture was excellent.
“We’re in a perfect location here,” said Ludford, “a few miles from the ocean, so we get a lot of fresh salt water washing through.”
The Lynnhaven River has been yielding oysters for centuries. Local legend has it that shortly after landing in the New World, the first European settlers sat down with the indigenous residents to enjoy fire-roasted oysters.
Shoot Photos, Not Guns
In The Oyster Wars of Chesapeake Bay, Wennersten relates many tales of pirates—some local, others coming down from Maryland—who raided oyster beds all over this area. To combat such pilferage, an Oyster Navy launched in the late nineteenth century. There were frequent pitched gun battles between this local law enforcement agency and oyster pirates. Much blood was shed. Many poachers were shot by the guns of the Oyster Navy.
Finally in 1959, a colorful local character named Berkeley Muse was out pilfering oysters with some good ole boys when he was shot and killed by the Oyster Navy. Beloved by the community, he was immortalized (more or less) in a song (I found it on iTunes) by Calico Jack & Janie Meneely:
Potomac was as good a place as any man could choose
Till the Oyster Navy came and shot down Berkeley Muse
With the death of Muse, and ensuing public outrage, the Oyster Navy was throttled back.
Predictably, the pirating of oysters continues.
“Every Fourth of July,” Ludford told me, “we have people coming in and trying to poach our oysters. It’s traditional for people to have some oysters and beer, and I guess some folks just can’t afford them. Last year on the Fourth, I got a call from a buddy who told me there were pirates in my oyster beds. I jumped in my boat and went out there. They took off, but I shot a picture of the license on their boat with my brand new iPhone.”
Police eventually caught the malefactors and their loot: a passel of Pleasure House oysters. No blood was shed.
Slurping unbelievably fresh Lynnhaven River oysters in the sun, with the wind blowing off the nearby Atlantic, it was easy to see why the oyster was one powerful food. Indigenous people, English settlers, red-blooded American boys, for all of them, oysters hold an enduring allure.