Oyster Bar Review, Oyster Trips & ToursMarch 26, 2017

Los Angeles Oyster Crawl

After 5.5 hours of flight time, our pilot came over the intercom with a friendly weather update. 73 degrees, partly cloudy, great visibility. Welcome to Los Angeles! I was totally ready for a week of Southern Californian oyster bliss.

In the fall of 2015, I had the honor of hosting my first-ever West Coast Oyster Omakase at Blue Plate Oysterette and decided to make a work-slash-research-slash-reunion trip out of it. My best friend moved from NYC to Santa Monica earlier that year and we—along with a few other NY-transplanted buddies—were due for some hang out time.

Don’t have time to read it all? Get the oyster highlights: Los Angeles City Guide.

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Descending into LAX on a clear day was pretty cool, but walking through the palm trees in Palisades Park during sunset was even more magical. Anne’s apartment was literally across the street from a swaying outdoor palm court… lucky girl!

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It also happened to be a timely visit. The inaugural Downtown LA Oyster Festival, hosted by The Oyster Gourmet at Grand Central Market, would be happening. Oyster lovers and growers united under one roof to enjoy the fresh harvest. The lines for oysters were a bit long, but it was worth the wait.

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The Oyster Gourmet

For those of you who haven’t heard of The Oyster Gourmet, pay attention. Owner and operator Christophe Happillon is the only Master Ecailler in Los Angeles. Ecailler is an old term for oysters in French (they’re called huîtres today) and is used as the professional label of seafood specialists in charge of preparing seafood plates, skilled in manipulating and shucking oysters and other shellfish.

As a seasoned pro, Christophe understands the importance of presentation and showmanship when it comes to providing a best-in-class oyster experience. This first becomes immediately apparent when you first come upon the freestanding raw bar at Grand Central Market. The unique design is comprised of several interlocking panels that are operated by a hand crank. It is truly a work of art (see above). Secondly, you won’t find a flawed shuck. You just won’t.

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I returned to the scene a day after the DTLA Oyster Festival to enjoy a much more relaxed experience. I sat down with Christophe to try half a dozen West Coast oysters and a chilled glass of Piquepoul, a variety of grape grown primarily in the Rhône Valley and Languedoc regions of France. That was the first time that I had tried this pairing and I’m a fan!

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Blue Plate Oysterette

The next day, I started my Oyster Omakase tasting sessions at Blue Plate Oysterette on West 3rd. There are a few concepts under the Blue Plate Restaurant Group, but this one was perfect for the occasion. It’s an East Coast seafood spot with a beachy and chic West Coast vibe.

My first session included local Foodstagrammers such as Corey of @missfoodieproblems, June of @stirandstyle, and Liz of @sushicravings. I had them (and everyone) taste an eclectic variety featuring Blue Pools from Hood Canal, WA, Olympias and Kumamotos from Washington, and Shooting Point from Eastern Shore of VA.

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Blue Plate had an excellent roster of West Coast varietals—a few that are hardly ever seen out East. This combined with their “I want to eat everything” menu made me want to set up camp in the back corner booth. Can I live here, please??

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Connie & Ted’s

Another establishment that several friends encouraged me to try out was Connie & Ted’s. I met up with my new colleague Mark, who leads biz dev for Australis on the west coast. There was an explosive oyster menu of both East and West Coast varieties. They had basically everything, including Damariscotta Flats from Maine!

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Unfortunately, a few of the oysters were a bit tired and were starting to go funky. The shucking also left a bit to be desired…hence just showing the photo of the shells vs the meats. I wasn’t sure if this was the norm (couldn’t be, right?) or if the staff just wasn’t feeling it that day. Fortunately, the rest of the meal was salvaged by the one of the most delicious Oyster Po’Boy I’ve ever had. I’ll have to give them a second chance.

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L&E Oyster Bar

While Anne resides next to the ocean, our friend Stefi is tucked away in the uber-hip hills of Silverlake. Stefi’s apartment is a stone’s throw away from L&E Oyster Bar, which has a great happy hour special. The upstairs bar offers a mix of East and West Coast oysters on the menu and some of them even carried the grower’s name! We ordered a dozen Pacific oysters and I tried the clam chowder. Yum… if I lived here, I’d probably live here.

EMC Seafood & Raw Bar

EMC Seafood & Raw Bar

Weekend brunch rolled around. Stefi and I peeled off from our other girlfriends (Anne wanted vegan, gluten-free, blah blah blah) to dine at EMC Seafood & Raw Bar in Koreatown. Truth be told, I had heard mixed reviews about this place but I just had a feeling they wouldn’t disappoint. Our risk paid off! I ended up having a life-changing uni experience at EMC without a life-shattering bill. Big hunking lobes of Santa Barbara uni arrived at our table along with a platter of fresh, respectably shucked oysters and mouthwatering lobster fried rice. For great value and a great brunch, go.

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When you’re staying in Santa Monica, it’s probably a good idea to check out Santa Monica Seafood Market & Cafe, the retail branch of the seafood wholesale company. This fish market and restaurant cafe serve up a bounty of delicious fish and shellfish from around the world every day.

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Santa Monica Seafood Market & Cafe

I perched myself at the raw bar counter. My suggestion: if the shucker appears to have the best service area in the house, make sure that you sit squarely in front of them. You’re more likely to get good service, shucked oysters, and an interesting conversation. Although I was engaged in conversation with my companion, I still watched my shucker like a hawk… not sure if he noticed, but the oysters came out alright!

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The Jolly Oyster

At this point in my adventure, I was craving for a different kind of oyster excursion. So I got into my car and drove up to Malibu and ended up in a parking lot of a small shopping center. Great ocean views, but no oyster bar here. But that’s ok. I was rendezvousing with Mark Reynolds the co-founder of The Jolly Oyster, half way between his Ventura location and LA.

Mark had brought a small blue cooler of his goods on ice. Outside a small coffee shop, we began to shuck Kumamotos and his signature product “Jolly Oyster,” which is a hybrid that is mostly the Pacific oyster gene but experiences some of the Kumamoto’s sweetness. They were all delicious! Super fresh and perfectly sweet.

Mark’s story is pretty unique. He’s a Brit who discovered a passion for aquaculture and sustainable food systems while studying in Scotland. He met another guy named Mark [Venus] there who shared the same interest. After doing extensive market research, they decided to set up shop in Baja California / Mexico. Today, The Jolly Oyster operates a shellfish hatchery, a couple oyster farms, an online store, retail market, and the premier “Go shuck yourself” experience in Southern California.

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I have been known to travel in a manner that may seem somewhat irrational to the normal person. Like that time when I went from NYC to Hong Kong (16-hour non-stop flight) to spend just three days there for the Rugby Sevens. Or that time when I pulled an all-nighter to wait in line at 4AM for the bluefin tuna auction at Tsukiji Market in Tokyo. Some experiences are worth the distance and time, and my last stop on my Los Angeles Oyster Crawl was no different.

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Ironside Fish & Oyster

Anne and I drove three hours from Santa Monica to San Diego to check out Ironside Fish & Oyster Bar for lunch. The place was starting to fill up for brunch but we managed to grab a high top booth facing the bar. When we passed by the infamous roadsign bulletin board, I had to stop and admire. It is a hallmark of Ironside’s charisma and cheekiness. Alongside the daily oyster selection, there’s usually some kind of a punny play on a popular hip-hop song. There are too many good ones to count. (“Shuck It Like Its Hot” and “You Used to Call Me On My Shellphone” are probably my two front runners.)

The oysters lured me into Ironside, but the food sealed the deal. Two words: Chowder Fries. It’s kind of like poutine, but way better. I’m tempted to try and recreate this at home, but btw: don’t try to eat this whole dish on your own. You’ll fall into an eternal food coma. The steamed mussels with uni butter toast was also insanity.

Seven oyster bars in seven days… not bad! I shall be back for more, LA, I shall be back. 🙂

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Are there any other fabulous oyster places that should be on my radar? Leave a comment below!

Get the highlights: Los Angeles Oyster City Guide.

Oyster Trips & ToursDecember 10, 2016

Ebb, Flow, and Cape May Salts

There’s no greater constant than change. That has been generally true of life and of oysters. Throughout the years, I’ve come across the Cape May Salt oyster from the southern tip of New Jersey many, many, many, many times. While some of its attributes never really change (like how pleasantly plump the meats are), the salinity and sweetness have always kept me guessing.

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A New Perspective

In 2009-ish, I had set out on a personal quest to capture and catalog the world of oyster flavors. It started as a basic 1-5 rating scale of salinity, sweetness, complexity, plus a healthy dose of fanciful froufrou descriptors. I even recorded the place and time of the tasting, but that was the extent the “scientificness.” For me, it was about doing fun and tasty scavenger hunt—an epicurean equivalent to Pokémon Go (is that still a thing??).

Today, the world has become inundated with books, websites, apps, and articles that insist on cataloging different oyster varietals to specific flavor descriptions. I’m guilty of this practice via my Oyster Concierge (soon to completely change), but I’ve come to realize that this an over-simplified and limited approach.

I should’ve seen the obvious truth.

Just sneak a peek at a fellow raw bar patron who just enjoyed their first oyster out of the dozen. They’re probably grinning from ear to ear. It’s not because their taste buds agreed with a description they found on somewhere on the web. They’re on a hunt for the unexpected. I’m not saying that it’s pointless to capture, trade or publish notes. What I am saying is: don’t assume that one experience or a single description can summarize an oyster’s entire expression. Because it doesn’t. It’s far from it. It fluctuates week to week, month to month, year to year. Hyper vintages, if you will.

I’m not saying that it’s pointless to capture, trade or publish notes. What I am saying is: let’s not kid ourselves and assume that one experience or a single description can summarize an oyster’s entire expression. Because it doesn’t. (It’s far from it.) It fluctuates week to week, month to month, year to year. The oyster world revolves around hyper vintages, if you will.

And that leads me to Cape May Salts. It is one of the few varieties that I have build a respectable collection of tasting notes on. They’re so easy to write about because they always seem to be around (but seriously guys, NJ oysters need a lot more love). Cape May Salts have surprised me more often than any other oyster. One year, they’re beautifully crisp with pointed salinity and sweet like ripe plums. The next year, they are earthy and mushroomy and mellow. Have you ever experienced that before?

Here are a handful of times when I’ve described this oyster on the blog:

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Billion Oyster Party — June 3, 2015 (image of a 33 Oyster tasting journal excerpt above)

Whiskey Washback — October 11, 2015
Cape May Salts (naked) paired with Port Charlotte Scottish Barley. I visited the Cape May Oyster farm a few months ago and was very impressed with their oysters from this year. The plump, buttery meats are a delight to savor. While the Scottish Barley is beautiful on its own, I didn’t love the pairing in this case. The strong peatiness of this scotch overpowered the subtleties of the Cape May Salt. Had the oyster been somehow cold smoked with a liquid smoke version of this scotch, I think it would’ve done well. Or maybe if you cut the scotch with oyster liquor?

The Dressler — May 9, 2012
First course was a simple and tasty Shooter featuring a plump Cape May Salt Oyster from the Cape Shore of Delaware Bay, NJ and a small glass of tomato water, bloody mary, and mezcal. The combination was potent and refreshing. The Cape May Salt was simultaneously succulent and firm. Also you can’t go wrong with starting with a little booze.

Saxon & Parole — February 16, 2012
The deeper we get into the meal, the heavier the courses become. At this point, the oysters begin to take a backseat to the creation… Same with the grilled and chilled tuna with baby romaine, green beans, olives and a Cape May Caesar dressing. It was delicious but didn’t showcase the oyster as well as the earlier courses.

Hank’s Oyster Bar — December 5, 2009
Cape May Salt: A small petite (1 inch) oyster that tasted very clean and crisp. The meat was very light, plump, and the liquid was moderately salty.

 

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Visiting the Farm

To truly appreciate why an oyster tastes the way it does, I always want to go to the source. I want to shake hands with the people who handle the oyster for three seasons or more. Last summer I had a chance to do just that. Cape May Salts are raised and marketed by Atlantic Cape Fisheries, a well-established Northeastern shellfish & seafood company that deals a lot with scallops, squid, and other tasty treats of the sea.

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Brian Harman, farm manager for Atlantic Cape Fisheries can usually be found either in the mud or on the phone. He started his career as a hatchery specialist at Rutgers University and eventually took over the production of Cape May Salts, the largest oyster farm in NJ at the moment. I learned that the relationship between Rutgers University and commercial oyster cultivation along the New Jersey coastline is deeply intertwined. Had it not been for the ongoing shellfisheries research program at Rutgers, which first began with Julius Nelson in 1888 and eventually led to Harold Haley Haskin’s oyster-saving work in the 1950’s, there would not be nearly as much oyster farming along the Atlantic coast.

The Haskin Shellfish Research Laboratory can still be seen from the oyster farm (tucked away on the right in the image below). It serves as an apt reminder of the work that has come before and the work that still has yet to be done.

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What About New Jersey, You Guys?

Can we back up a second and talk about New Jersey’s oyster scene? In full honesty, I was really skeptical about eating oysters from New Jersey at the beginning. But one trip to the original Forty North Oyster Farm location with my friends from the New York Oyster Meetup changed my mind. My visit to Cape May and learning about the The Oyster Farmers documentary further fueled my enthusiasm. NJ oystermen and women have survived some tough shit and their hard work deserves more credit at the raw bar. (So ahem, restauranteurs & chefs: please stop changing the origin of NJ oysters to “Delaware” or something else ridiculous. Own it. Be proud.)

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Back to the farm. The low tide exposed a few hundred yards of densely packed sand. Although the tides here aren’t terribly large (~5ft), the gradual incline of the beach can play a visual trick on you. The water averages around 25ppt salinity, and Brian noted that it’s never lower than 23ppt.

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Brian handed me a pair of hip waders and we waddled — or at least I waddled — out to the farm crew. As we approached the workbench, I could hear the croquet-esque clunking of the shells on the table. The guys were sorting through the bags, putting like sizes together. For the most part Cape May Salts are grown out using off-bottom rack and bag gear. This method works quite well for this kind of environment. Brian would come out here every day to conduct quality checks, which I also suspect is code for “breakfast of champions.” 😉

Of course, no farm tour is complete without a taste test. My favorite part, obviously. It wasn’t terribly hot out that day, but to be safe Brian brought along a small cooler of ice-packed Cape May Salts that were recently harvested to try. It still amazes me that every Cape May Salt that I’ve had in my life came from this exact spot. Unless if you belong to a CSA, when else do you have that certainty about where your food comes from?

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Brian popped one open in a snap. Just look at that plumpness. Now that’s what I call a premium meat-to-shell ratio.

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The Future

Fast forward to a couple of months ago. I received a package containing a brand new oyster that Brian has been working on at the farm. Same site, different method. Always happy to play the guinea pig for friends, I was immediately excited by the look of these. As of right now, it’s a nameless product. But for the oyster nerds who are reading this (and see the photos below), you probably can guess just how they’re grown.

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One of the newest innovations in oyster grow out technique/technology is the tide-powered “flip bag” method, which was first developed at Chelsea Farms by John Lentz and Tom Bloomfield. The idea of using the tides to literally do the heavy lifting for growers has spread pretty widely across the Pacific Northwest, but this is the first time that I’ve heard of an East Coast farm attempting to do it (unless if I’m having a total brain fart and can’t think of any others). Anyone want to correct me here?

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Anyway, these little nuggets are beauties and ridiculously cute. I immediately fell in love with the petite size, walnut shape, and uber plumpness. They’re super easy to shuck because the shells are thick and sturdy. There wasn’t much chipping at all, which made for a great slurping experience.

For good measure, Brian included a bag of Cape May Salts in the box as well for comparison’s sake. The flavor of the “Oyster X” was fairly similar to the original, but perhaps a smidge less saline. The texture was really what set them apart. Tender yet firm, meaty yet light, and juicy. Atlantic Cape Fisheries just needs to acquire Arby’s and steal their tagline. #WEHAVETHEMEATS

 

Many thanks to Brian Harman for your support and patience while I overcome a serious case of blogging-procrastination. 🙂

Oyster Trips & ToursApril 13, 2016

Bluepoint Oysters: Then and Now

The Blue Point Oyster, or Bluepoint for short, is an iconic American oyster. Trying your first Bluepoint is like trying on your first pair of jeans. It’s classic, timeless, and (for better or worse) commonplace. Bluepoints weren’t that special to me, and for a long time, I have written and talked about them as such. It wasn’t until fairly recently — from a very cool field trip last July and a serendipitous meeting yesterday — that I started to look at the humble Bluepoint a little bit differently.
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Bluepoints? Mmmeh.

For a long time, when people asked for my opinion about the Bluepoint, I’d offer a tepid response. I conscientiously acknowledged its widespread popularity, prevalence, and affordable price (btw: if you’re buying Bluepoints in NYC at the raw bar for more than $2.75 a piece, you’re overpaying). But today, “Bluepoints” have become a generic name used to sell any Virginica oyster from the Long Island Sound in the New York and Connecticut harvest regions, or from as far away as New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia (nonsensical, but true). As a result, there is a great deal of variability in the quality and taste. The “genuine Blue Point Oyster” was all but lost in time.. or at least, that’s what I had read and been told in my early oyster exploration days.

“You will see Bluepoints on every oyster menu in Manhattan, and quite a few elsewhere, because many people believe they want Bluepoints and nothing but. The oysters themselves are seeded on the bottom of Long Island Sound, both the Oyster Bay area of Long Island and the Norwalk area of Connecticut, dredged up a few years later, and have an extremely mild taste. You can do better.” — Rowan Jacobsen, A Geography of Oysters

I guess my lack of enthusiasm for Bluepoints stemmed from the perception that they’re literally everywhere, and yet, from nowhere at the same time. Let’s be real here. It’s not that fun to eat naked, anonymous oysters. I’m very glad to say that there is more to the story of the Bluepoint than what is commonly told… because while there may not be a specific “somewhere,” there is a someone.

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8 out of 10 Bluepoints Come From Here

There are several companies who produce and market “Bluepoint” oysters, but one dominates the game. Enter Norm Bloom & Son, arguably the largest oyster producer of the Northeast, claiming that they supply 8 out of 10 Bluepoints on the market. They helped popularize the Bluepoint in its early days. This three-generation family business has been working the Connecticut waters since the 1940’s and have mastered growing oysters at scale. The image above isn’t of live oysters, but rather, old oyster (and clam and mussel) shells that are being prepped for shelling. Roughly 150-170 thousand bushels* of shells are collected for this vital part of the process. Using JP (see top image, bottom right) as a reference point… he’s about 6 feet tall… I estimated that this man-made midden is roughly 20 feet high and roughly 100 feet long. And this is just one of many. What’s the deal with shelling? I will talk more about this later.

My first point of contact with this rather discrete and recluse company was through Jean Paul (aka JP) Vellotti, Bloom & Son’s former sales & marketing director, professional photographer, and oyster enthusiast. Random story: in 2012 and unbeknownst to either of us at the time, I pledged support for JP’s Kickstarter project that would attempt to upcycle one of our country’s oldest working oyster boats (built in 1891), the Laurel, which once was a part of the Bloom fleet. Sadly the project never got fully funded, but some pieces of the Laurel will continue to live on in a form that will be officially made available next month! See teaser here. And here.

Now fast forward to one year ago. I got an email—excerpt pasted below—from JP inviting me out to learn more about Copps Island Oysters from Norm Bloom & Son. After some scheduling back and forth, we nailed down a date in early July when the crew would be shelling the oyster beds.

It might be a good chance to compare/contrast how traditional oyster growers like ourselves differ from seasonal aquaculture farms. For one thing, we are the only remaining “traditional” farm in the Northeast. Our bottom planted oysters start life as wild set which attaches to the dry shell we spread out during the summer. From there, it’s a three to four year period of natural cultivation until it reaches market size.

Copps Island Oysters vs Blue Point Oysters

Simply put, Bluepoints are a commodity** and Copps Island Oysters is a trademarked brand. The oyster is more or less the same, but at least with a Copp Island, you know that it’s coming from Bloom. With that, there is a certain level of consistency, quality control, and prestige. Copps Islands have been on the market for over two years now and I have seen them in place of “Bluepoints” now around 25% of the time in NYC. This move towards a “branded oyster” is one that many oyster growers and chefs have chosen to adopt over the last several years, but it isn’t without controversy. We’re probably living in an oyster brand bubble right now and I wouldn’t be surprised to see “peak oyster marketing” in the near future. But I’ll be the first to admit that a good name and storytelling does somehow influence my irrational sense of decision making. To take a page from the Most Interesting Man in the World: “I don’t always eat Bluepoints, but when I do, I prefer Copps Islands.” And this IS irrational because even if I just ordered some regular old Bluepoints, chances are that they would be from Bloom as well.

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Shelling the Great Connecticut Oyster Beds

On an early July morning, I took the Metro North up to New Haven, CT. I felt pretty relaxed, but JP was more anxious. The crew had been shelling the oyster beds since 6AM and he was concerned that I’d have nothing to see by the time we got there. JP picked me up in his behemoth tan Toyota FJ Cruiser, which resembled a tank more than a truck. As we drove west to a location where he knew that one of the shelling boat would pass by, JP schooled me on some oyster history.

This would be the first time that I’d really learn about the “traditional bottom planting” method. While I won’t get into the differences between extensive and intensive aquaculture here, you can learn more about it in my Louisiana oyster post. This old school way of oyster farming has been the way of life for many families and communities up and down the Atlantic coastline—most notably in Long Island Sound, the Chesapeake Bay, and the Gulf of Mexico.

We reached a scenic landing in Guilford, CT where the vista was as vast and flat as the serene wetlands of the Eastern Shore. We waited for a minute and then JP pointed out to the horizon of the open sea. “She’s on her way here,” my eagle-eyed friend announced. I had to squint super hard to spot the boat that he was talking about. Within minutes, the Catherine Wedmore (all of the boats had elegant names like that) passed by us, hauling a substantial pile of shell.

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Catherine Wedmore proceeded to unload the shells gradually into the water near where we were observing from, and then slipped away as quietly as she had arrived. Shelling the oyster beds is an annual routine that is akin to tilling the soil before planting the crops. At the time of shelling, the wild oysters in the area have already fully released their spawn into the water. So after awhile, the free swimming oyster larvae will settle down onto whatever they find at the bottom — and hopefully, that would be a shell or some other viable substrate. Easy right? Not quite. There’s the problem of when and where.

When? The timing of the spawning varies year by year, which the decision of when to lay the shell down a never-ending puzzle. Laying down the shell substrate too early or too late could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars-worth of product later on. So the crew must remain vigilant and jump on the right opportunity at full throttle.

Where? You also never know exactly where the water current might usher the larvae to, so the more acres of land you have to work with, the better. Fortunately, Norm Bloom & Son has plenty of that. Some of the land (or underwater acreage, I suppose in this case) that the Bloom family has exclusive leases to to are incredibly old — even older than the United States itself! The titles been passed down through generations and originated as the King’s grants.

When you don’t have such advantages of time and space, or a strong enough of a wild oyster spawn, growers must then rely on oyster hatcheries for their seed.

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Once the oyster larvae settle onto the shells and take some time to eat and grow bigger, the whole lot is dredged up and transported to other grow out sites. Oyster nurseries might be healthy, safe places for juveniles to grow, but in order to get the best shapes and yield, they’ll need to be spaced out eventually. JP noted that most of these oysters will take at least three or four years to reach market size. Managing the shelling, dredging, culling, and replanting — all executed with a large fleet of boats — is a ton of work and logistics. It’s enough to make my head spin!

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This was an especially busy time for the crew, but Jimmy Bloom, oyster boat captain and Norm Bloom’s son took some time to say hello. Since the age of six, Jimmy has been groomed to take over the family business. His father instilled a sense of entrepreneurship and stewardship in his son early on by giving him a piece of land to plant his own oysters on. Today, Jimmy basically runs the show and is responsible for millions of oysters in the water. That’s pretty bad ass.

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And you know what else is bad ass? We made it to the loading dock just in time to hop aboard the S.W. Sheppard with Captain Lou and his crewmate Julio to get a first-hand look at just how “releasing the shells” is done. I climbed up a flight of stairs to the captain’s room and saw that the enormous pile of recycled shells stopped just short of obstructing the view. We left the dock and glided down the Quinnipiac River towards the Grand Avenue Swing Bridge, which gracefully swung open for allow us safe passage.

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After we had reached the proper “drop off” point, Captain Lou gave the go ahead to Julio to start offloading the goods. He took hold of a Kelly green hose and turned on the water. Bits and pieces of shell went flying. The scene and sounds were really quite something to behold. Thousands of oyster shells were hosed down along the starboard side of the boat and then spewed into the river through a slim gateway. The photos really don’t do it justice, so here’s a quick Instagram video of the action as well. Once the boat was washed clean, the S.W. Sheppard turned around and headed back to the dock for the next load.

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On Scale and Sustainability

Although the Bluepoint has become a staple of our oyster-loving society, are they sustainable? Coming out of the recent Chefs Collaborative Sustainable Food Summit in New York City, my sensitivity towards the damaging effects of industrial agriculture is sharper than ever. In a world that seems to be reverting to “artisanal,” and “small,” does this form of oyster farming belong in the past or part of the future?

Extensive aquaculture has been in existence since the late 19th century, and my hope is that it will continue to play a key role in our domestic seafood production. From my time here and in Gulf, as well as the six months that I’ve spent working at Australis Aquaculture (a leader of responsible fish farming, which is completely different from oyster farming, but there are still shared themes), I’ve come to appreciate an underrated insight in today’s food business: big doesn’t necessarily mean bad, and small doesn’t guarantee justice for all.

If we expect real, positive, scalable change to happen within our food system, we must evaluate “sustainable practices” with the same breadth and depth as we critique many “unsustainable practices.” To quote Barton Seaver, “Sustainability cannot be defined by the absence of negative impacts.” I think that industrial scale oyster farming produces a far more efficient and nutritious source of protein than other land-based animal farms and also provides meaningful jobs to hundreds (directly and indirectly). Additionally, it is making good, honest use of our coastline to supply our country with delicious, domestically produced seafood. I believe that oyster businesses, like Norm Bloom & Son, does more good than harm. And in some cases, they try to do even better — Taylor Shellfish Farms recently announced that they are the first farm in the US to receive ASC Certification.

Coincidentally, Norm Bloom & Son has an interesting connection to Taylor Shellfish Farms… and it is what really sparked me to finally write this post.

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A Glimpse Into the Past

On the last day of the Chefs Collaborative Summit, I was introduced to “Oyster Bill” Whitbeck, Seattle-based Restaurant Sales Manager for Taylor Shellfish Farms. Naturally, an oyster-packed conversation ensued.

It turns out that Bill is originally from Norwalk, CT and his family were close friends of The Blooms. After graduating Kent State University for photojournalism, he decided to open up a photography studio in the old Radel Oyster Company building in South Norwalk with the help of the Bloom brothers.

“While having the studio, I photographed all of the aspects of oystering in and around the Norwalk Islands, and as far as I know, I was the only photographer who documented this during that time period of the 1970’s and 80’s. I’ve kept all these original negatives for over 40 years, and have just recently begun scanning them, producing high resolution digital files of these very wonderful images!” — Bill Whitbeck

That’s when Bill took out his iPhone and showed me a series of this breathtaking black and white photos below. They are photographs of the Bloom oyster operations from the late 70’s, and I was surprised to see just how much of it has remained unchanged.

To see loads more from this collection, check out Bill’s SmugMug account, “Looking Back.”

Photo by Bill Whitbeck
Photo by Bill WhitbeckPhoto by Bill Whitbeck
Photo by Bill Whitbeck
Photo by Bill WhitbeckPhoto by Bill WhitbeckPhoto by Bill Whitbeck
Photo by Bill Whitbeck
All photos in this section are taken by, and are the property of Bill Whitbeck. Please ask for permission from the photographer before republishing.

Gratitude

This story was made possible by the hospitality of Bloom family and crew, and I would like to call out a special thanks to JP Vellotti for his hard work in organizing this trip. Also, thanks to Bill Whitbeck for allowing me to republish some of his amazing photographs (that haven’t been seen in 40 years), which acted as the final spark to get this thing posted in a way that I am beyond thrilled with.

*Fun fact: A “true honest bushel” comprised of 400 oysters back in the today. Today, it’s generally accepted to be 200. What??

**Clarification: There once was such a thing as a “genuine” Bluepoint, and Blue Island Shellfish (see comments below) has made attempts to bring back the Genuine Blue Point Oyster, but the marketplace today doesn’t call out this distinction… nor really care (at least that’s what I’ve observed.)

Oyster Trips & ToursApril 8, 2016

Sweet Home, Alabama Oyster

Over the last year, there’s been a lot of buzz around the rise of the Alabama oyster industry. It’s become the darling of the food media world, and for good reasons too. Last summer, I had the opportunity to witness first hand some of the exciting things that have been happening down south. Here’s a recount of some of my discoveries…

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Meeting the #OysterPowerCouple

After completing a solo* two-hour drive from New Orleans to somewhere just south of Mobile, I dropped off my rental keys and greeted Beth Walton in the parking lot. She was all smiles and positive energy, which accurately mirrored her bubbly social media personality. We hopped into Beth’s car and proceeded towards Dauphin Island, chatting about oysters and Instagram along the way. Before this point, we had never met in person. I only knew Beth (aka @GulfSeafoodGirl) and her partner in crime Bill Walton (aka @Doctor_Oyster) as the #OysterPowerCouple on Twitter. As soon as I learned that I would be visiting New Orleans to speak at the inaugural Sustainable Seafood Blog Conference, we started to plan our meetup.

Beth and Bill, along with their three hyperactive boys, are transplants from Cape Cod. They used to farm oysters on the Cape, but in 2009, an opportunity to pioneer a new oyster industry lured them down to the Gulf shore. Since then, they have made Alabama their new home sweet home — one that they graciously let me crash in for a night. After crossing over a rather intimidating camel hump-shaped bridge (see above), we arrived on Dauphin Island.

*Driving solo doesn’t sound like that big of a deal, but it’s actually quite nerve wracking for someone who hasn’t owned a car for 15 years! Anything for oysters though…

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Touring Auburn Shellfish Lab

The Auburn Shellfish Lab plays host to one of the most exciting “oyster incubators” in the country, but the front of the steely blue-paneled building gives no hint to the wondrous al fresco workshop out back. I stumbled across the AU Shellfish Lab Facebook Page ages ago, and have wondered about what could’ve happened if I had gone to school for aquaculture instead of for marketing and communication design… anyway, I was excited to get a glimpse into this alternative “School of Rock.”

While I associate Bill with the “Doctor Oyster” persona more than anything else, his official title is Associate Professor in the School of Fisheries, Aquaculture and Aquatic Sciences at Auburn University. Bill’s work focuses on applied science, and he enjoys digging into questions posed by the public through controlled field experiments and ample tinkering. You see, the majority of Gulf oysters are still harvested the old school way today. Meanwhile, the rest of the industry has shifted focus from extensive aquaculture to intensive aquaculture — a process that produces more of the beautiful, “boutique” oysters that can often go for top dollar. One of Bill’s first challenges was to determine whether or not this form of aquaculture could be successfully replicated in this region. He collaborated with Dr. John Supan from LSU, Steve Crockett, and many others to tackle this puzzle head on.

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Bill and I walked around the different hatchery stations and he took time to explain the role of each one. We started at the spawning bins, where individual broodstock oysters are kept in isolated compartments. Bill said that the intent of this hatchery is to encourage genetic diversity, rather than to create genetic lines (survival of the fittest, I suppose?). The first spawn typically occurs in May, which is triggered by sacrificing a male and then releasing its “spermescence” into the ladies’ chambers. But after that nudge, no one really knows who will go first, or when. “They always wait until 5:30PM — it never happens during the work day.” To make the most of the ambiguity, Bill and his crew engage in a little game known as “Spawning Table Bingo.” And yes, money is on the line.

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One of the most obvious differences between Bill’s hatchery and others that I’ve seen is the absence of large algae tanks. I asked him about what his oysters are eating and discovered that they are fed a diluted mix of pre-made phytoplankton concentrate that’s produced by Reed Mariculture. Being able to cut the phytoplankton culture component from the hatchery saves a lot of labor and resources.

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Up above, Bill explained that in each blue tank, 12 million oyster larvae are fed the equivalent of a Thanksgiving feast twice a day for about 10-14 days to help fatten them up…real fast. Once the free-swimming oyster larvae become eyed larvae, they are given about three days to settle down on the cultch — oyster shell that’s ground up to approx 250-300 microns — and about half of them will do so. It’s kind of like a massive game of cutthroat musical chairs. If you don’t settle after a certain period of time, then you’re just kind of SOL.

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Another way to set oyster larvae is by using the “spat on shell” or SOS method. Mesh bags of clean oyster shell clusters are put into tanks with free-swimming larvae. Once the eyed larvae emerge, several hundred will piggyback onto each shell. They’ll permanently affix themselves to the shell or grain of sand, and continue to grow from that spot. I believe that this setting method is also done for oyster restoration initiatives such as the one at the New York Urban Assembly Harbor School for the Billion Oyster Project.

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Once the oyster spat grow large enough, they’re moved out of the hatchery… in theory. I say in theory because this is where reality gets a bit more interest. Bill explained that a bottleneck occurs during this intermediary stage, where the baby oysters are doubling in size every few days, but they’re still too small to be put out into open ocean. The ones that DO make it out, and survive, tend to be the hardiest oysters. I suppose that’s a good thing if you’re trying to make the most out of your investment.

Another key question that Bill and his team are trying to answer is, “which oyster grow out method works the best for this environment?” Through my many oyster farm adventures, I’ve learned that to know which type of gear to use depends on several characteristics of your location (tide, current, predators, bottom make up), and what you want your oyster to grow up to look like. Some farms stick to one or two types, while others are all over the board… Auburn University has experimented with several different options, but the two frontrunners here are the Canadian floating cage system and Australian longline system (seen below).

I’ve seen the floating cage system being used quite a bit in the Northeast, but this was the first time that I had seen the longline system up close. The cool thing about the Australian longline system is that the wires are adjustable in height. The oyster baskets can be hoisted out of the water for a while to kill off biofouling, and the rocking of the cages also help to harden the oyster shells. Oyster farmers also look like badasses hoisting the lines up and down while chest deep in the water. The downside is that the gear can be quite expensive for an individual purchase. Fortunately, Auburn offers a “start up” kit to folks who are seriously committed to making oyster farming work as a business.

Thanks to the groundwork of Professor Walton and his collaborators, a handful of new oyster farms now occupy the area around Dauphin Island. The future is looking bright! If you want to get a closer look of the grow out gear, check out my post on Murder Point Oyster Farm.

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Bon Secour Fisheries

Beth and I left the Auburn Shellfish Lab and drove up to the Bon Secour Fisheries processing and distribution facility for a quick look around. Few companies in Alabama have withstood the test of time like this 120 year-old family-owned and operated oyster (and shrimp) business. It was established in 1896 by Danish immigrant Frank Nelson, and now, his great grandson and great-great grandsons manage the company.

Family businesses are fascinating entities, and I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to spend time with different oyster dynasties from around the world (read my post about the 430-year old oyster farm in Hiroshima, Japan). Coincidentally, Adam and Lissa James from Hama Hama Oyster Company, a fifth-generation family-run shellfish farm in Washington, were also in town and decided to join us on this tour. This was my first time meeting them in person, but it felt like we had known each other for years. I suppose via emails and social media, that’s true. Lissa provided me with some great insights about oysters when I was but just a newb, as well as some wonderful Hama Hama oysters for my 30th birthday.

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As we walked into Bon Secour, a whoosh of chilly, salt-marshy air greeted us. I thought I’d find crates of oysters piled high, but none were to be seen. In fact, the warehouse was immaculate. Spotless. Had I been taken here blindfolded, I would’ve never guessed that I was standing in a massive oyster terminal. Since we arrived late in the afternoon, we missed all of the action. The day’s work had already been completed.

Nonetheless, we still managed to find some oysters to taste. Chris Nelson, the great-great grandson of the founder and Vice President of the company made sure of that. Two kind gentlemen at Bon Secour presented us with three varieties: farm-raised Alabama oysters, traditional “Gulf” (Louisiana, I presume) oysters, and a special Live Band oyster. All were shucked in the signature southern fashion — meats on the top shell.

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The farm-raised Alabama oysters were slightly brighter and sweeter than the wild-harvested oysters. The meats weren’t as large, but perfectly plump in their own rite. They felt a little more precious and put together, and probably better suited for the raw bar. I’d still opt to use the large, wild oysters in an oyster stew or fried oyster po’boy over the itty bitty ones any day.

But you’re probably wondering about the Live Band oyster. First of all, they’re not to be confused with “Gold Band” oysters, which are pre-shucked, frozen oysters in the half shell that have been “pasteurized” by a patented high pressure processing technology. Live Band oysters are delivered un-shucked and very much alive, but they’re still safe to eat raw without the worry of vibrio—a boon to Gulf oyster lovers everywhere. So, they’re safe (awesome), but are they tasty?

To be honest, they lacked that pleasant, familiar oystery essence that the others had. The Live Band oyster is like a clean slate— it makes for a very versatile raw, meaty ingredient. But would I be excited to eat it solo on the half shell? I even tried two to be sure… I concluded that it was just too safe, in every which way describable. Doesn’t that take some of the thrill out of it all?

Anyway, I still very much appreciated the opportunity to try something new and would like to say thanks to the folks at Bon Secour for giving us a tour and taste of their wonderful goods.

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#3Oysters3Coasts Tasting at Fisher’s

The last leg of my Alabama adventure was celebrated with the full cast of characters (and then some) at Fisher’s at Orange Beach Marina. Fisher’s is a chic, nautically-inspired two-level restaurant that offers modern elegance upstairs and laid-back chill pad downstairs. Leggy, lush palm trees lined the perimeter, creating an oasis-like cocoon, while the interior decor popped with cheeky detail. The whole place is insanely charismatic, and it’s hard not to be smitten at first sight.

When Beth first asked me about doing an oyster tasting at Fisher’s, I imagined that we would sit down with some oyster friends, relax, and enjoy a private dinner together. I enthusiastically agreed. It didn’t dawn upon me that she was actually putting me to work until much later. The tasting wasn’t for us—it would be a ticketed event for the paying public. I didn’t mind the plot twist though. In fact, I was quite excited to speak alongside Bill, Lissa and Adam James, and Lane Zirlott from Murder Point Oyster Farm about our favorite bivalve and how to appreciate them. With this group, it was only appropriate to make the theme: #3Oysters3Coasts.

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We were greeted inside by Johnny Fisher, the owner of Fisher’s and OysterSouth member. Johnny opened his namesake restaurant in the spring of 2013 with Bill Briand, the Executive Chef of Fisher’s and recent James Beard Award Nominee. Together, they’ve created a reputation for Fisher’s as one of the best restaurants of the Alabama Gulf Coast.

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Each person received a platter of four oysters on a bed of rock salt. As each set of oysters arrived to the table, the respective grower or representative talked about its environment, history, and taste. Meanwhile, I contributed my “Six S’s of Oyster Tasting” and encouraged everyone to try at least one naked! 😉

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Shucking all of the oysters for the tasting fell into the capable hands of Bill and Brent Zirlott.

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From the Atlantic Coast, Bill and Beth presented a briny, mineral-forward Virginica from East Dennis, on Cape Cod.

From the West Coast, Adam and Lissa presented some of their farm’s meaty, oceanic, melon rind-hinted Hama Hama’s from Washington.

From the Gulf Coast, Lane preached the gospel of the mighty southern Murder Point Oyster from nearby Portersville Bay, Alabama. Despite the menacing-sounding name, it was all #butterlove.

After the official shindig was over, we all stayed out for a special oyster-themed dinner prepared by Chef Briand. Being able to hang out with this eclectic, passionate group of oyster folks was a rare treat. I couldn’t have done it without the hospitality and support of Beth and Bill Walton. Many, many thanks to you both!

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On the Note of Alabama Oyster Love

Do you know about Oyster Obsession yet? It started out as a passion project (gone viral) for Jason Burnett, founding editor of MyRecipes.com and long-time oyster fan. Jason is based in Birmingham, AL and has guest judged the Hangout Oyster Cookoff for several years. Today, the Facebook Fan Group has over 16k members and they just started creating snazzy “shucktail” videos. Below is a new one that I simply must try…

Further Reading…

How Alabama is Farming its Way to an Oyster Revolution – Civil Eats

How a Group of Alabama Farmers are Redefining Gulf Oysters – Eater

Oysters, Alabama Style – The Bitter Southerner

Alabama Oyster Social

OysterSouth

Oyster Trips & ToursOctober 31, 2015

6 Things That Make Murder Point Oysters Scary Good

Murder Point. I can’t think of a better oyster to write about for Halloween, can you? If you’ve never heard of them, well, you’re in for a treat. Murder Points are hand-raised off the coast of Alabama. They are plump, buttery, and totally unexpected for a Gulf-originating oyster. The Zirlott family is fairly new to this particular shell game, but oystering has always been in their blood. This past summer, I had a chance to visit MPO’s original grow-out site with team #butterlove Lane Zirlott, Jason Lee and Beth Walton. Here are six things that makes them so scary good to me…

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#1 Murder Point ACTUALLY Exists

Murder Point Oysters are grown near a location that was once known as Myrtle Point. The wild oyster industry was booming at the time, and people made their homes and livelihood on the water. Then in 1927, a heated dispute about an oyster lease erupted between two families. One guy went up to the other and shot him dead with a shotgun… right on his front porch! Ever since the incident, Myrtle Point was known as Murder Point.

As you can imagine that those were probably some pretty damn good oysters. In fact, Murder Point’s slogan is, “Oysters worth killing for.” Very fitting indeed!

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2. Despite the menacing oyster name, the Zirlotts are the sweetest

The Zirlotts have been in the commercial shrimping business for generations, but oystering runs in their blood. Brent told me about his great grandfather’s oyster license dated back to 1892 (I found a copy of it on their website, which I also posted to show you below). As a way to diversify and sustain the family business, they approached oyster farming with an open mind and open heart. I met nearly the entire immediate family at the Boston Seafood Expo earlier this year, and their passion for the work was immediately obvious.

Oyster farming, unlike shrimping, sparked a very deep sense of stewardship in the Zirlotts. They loved the fact that growing oysters was so hands on. “What you put in shows in what you get out,” was one of Lane’s favorite notions.

Murder Point Oyster Company - Oyster Lease

3. This style of oyster farming is brand new around here

Oysters aren’t new to Alabama, but off-bottom, intensive aquaculture is. Alabama historically processes more oysters in the Gulf than any other state and they’re mostly traditional bottom-planted, dredged oysters from all over. While there’s nothing inherently problematic with that, the challenges of delivering a consistent quality and quantity created an opportunity for folks to do things differently. The notion of raising and marketing an artisanal “branded” oyster from the Gulf was pretty much unheard of until the last couple of years.

In 2012, the Zirlotts were among one of the first families to enroll in a brand new aquaculture training course led by Dr. Bill Walton, head of the Auburn Shellfish Lab.On the first day of Bill’s class, Rosa was the only one who showed up. After months of immersing themselves in this new kind of oyster culture, they were given a “final exam” that was comprised of growing 25,000 oysters. After that point, the Zirlott family was hooked. They decided to raise an additional 500,000 oysters on their own. The arrival of The Waltons to Alabama from Cape Cod is rather pivotal this story, but I’ll have to talk more about my favorite “Oyster Power Couple” and the Auburn Shellfish Lab in the next post…

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4. Oyster hazing comes with the experience

When we were out on the oyster lease in June, it was 80-something degrees. On a typical oyster lease in the Gulf, you would just see a few tall PVC pipes sticking out of the water. Here, it looks more like a vineyard without any vines. Lane pulled up next to one of the long lines (Murder Point Oysters are raised in an Australian longline system by SEAPA) and lifted a basket of oysters out of the hazy, mossy green water. He proceeded to shuck a couple oysters to hand off for a mini photo shoot.

Here is where it got interesting, because for a moment (JUST A MOMENT), my instincts and sense of propriety got the better of me. I know, like any savvy oyster aficionado should know, that the “R-month rule” is defunct. However, the idea of eating a live animal that came out of a balmy body of water in mid-summer still feels risky. I looked at the freshly shucked Murder Point and then to the water it came from. Could I eat it? Should I eat it? I wanted to try it for sure, but nobody was offering. No one said, “Want to try it?” So I proceeded with caution.

While I hesitated, Lane nonchalantly mentioned that Adam and Lissa from Hama Hama had tried his oysters the day before. Well now I definitely knew that it would be OK. And that was the exact moment when I discovered that Lane, bless his heart, was testing me…he made a secret bet with Beth predicting that I would react the way that I did, and that I had succumbed to peer pressure in the end.

But just to show them that #NOPEERPRESSURE was involved, I ate three. The oysters were lukewarm, mildly salty, sublimely buttery, and as relaxed as an afternoon on the beach. An excellent experience by any measure.

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5. The size, shape, color, and taste defy everything you thought you knew about Gulf oysters

Instead of a super large, hunkin’ glob of meat, Murder Point Oysters are petite and newbie-friendly. They’re about 2.5-2.75 inches long and deeply cupped. They remind me a lot of what a Kusshi looks like. Very pruned and pretty.

Because these oysters never touch the floor, their shells also glisten with pearly white tones. They’re fast growing, but aren’t brittle. I’ve used Murder Point Oysters in my first Oyster Omakase and they were one of the easiest oysters to shuck and serve.

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6. Their signature oyster knife is known as “The Shank” (How badass is that?)

Enough said. I’ve got one in my collection and whenever I use it at events, my guests are mesmerized… and maybe just a tad scared.

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Many thanks to The Zirlotts and The Waltons for your amazing southern hospitality! Hope to see y’all again soon. Finally, I’ll leave you with this lovely gem of a video that just came out by Bone & Seed:

Additional reading about the new Alabama Oyster Culture

The Gospel of the Alabama Oyster by Southern Foodways Alliance

Oysters, Alabama Style by Jennifer Stewart Kornegay & Fernando Decillisfor for The Bitter Southerner