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Oyster ToursSeptember 25, 2018

Exploring Maine’s Easternmost Oyster Farm in Corea

According to Mainers, Corea is the real Down East deal. It is one of those best-kept secret destinations that people are kind of reluctant to rave about, fearing that the publicity will inevitably spoil its charm. But since the New York Times beat me to it, here goes nothing. But please, only share this with your very best friends. 😉

Having explored Portland, Casco Bay, the Midcoast, and Acadia National Park numerous times, we wanted to experience a different side of Maine. For our 7th Mainecation in eight years, the hubs, Donut, and I trekked farther Down East than we had ever ventured before.

During our leisurely lobster-filled stay on Beals Island in this uber-charming Airbnb, I couldn’t resist squeezing in a little oyster adventuring. So on a sunny midweek morning, I left my sleepy boys in bed and drove down Maine’s scenic Coastal Route 1 to the Schoodic Peninsula to visit Joe Young’s oyster farm in Corea.

Joe Young Corea Oyster Farm

A few minutes past 10AM, I pulled into Joe’s driveway. A wall of lobster cages and shellfish gear hugged the property like a fortress. I stepped out of my car and was greeted by Joe, who was already outfitted in hip waders. He looked down at my city gal footwear disapprovingly. (Cute sandals were not going to cut it here. Obviously.) Thankfully, I was about the same size as Joe’s wife. After putting on the borrowed boots, we headed towards the oyster pond…

Refresher Course on How to Dress Appropriately to an Oyster Farm

Don’t be like me and keep making the same dumb attire mistakes. Here are some guidelines of how to dress for an oyster farm tour:

  • A quick drying t-shirt or long-sleeve shirt that you don’t mind getting dirty or wet.
  • A jacket or hoodie in case it gets chilly on the water. (It usually does.)
  • Sunglasses, sunscreen, and hat.
  • Hiking shorts or pants that are water resistant. Avoid jeans and dress pants.
  • If you’re going in the water, wear water shoes at a minimum. Scuba booties if you have them.
  • If you’re walking around a muddy lease: Rain boots or work boots.
  • An extra pair of socks wouldn’t hurt.
  • No open toed shoes or sandals.
  • No sun dresses, heels, anything fancy.
  • Show up in waders, however, and they might put you to work. 😂

On the way over I learned that Joe worked as a lobster fisherman in Corea for most of his professional career, like many of his neighbors. Now in his mid-60’s, he is “semi-retired” and divides his time across multiple endeavors: tending to his oyster farm, experimenting with seaweed (more on that later), and maintaining the seasonal Wharf Gallery & Grill in Corea Harbor.

Corea Maine Schoodic Peninsula

From Lobster Fishing to Oyster Farming

In 2013, Joe came across the Maine Sea Grant’s Aquaculture in Shared Waters program, a federally-funded training initiative that empowers fishermen to start their own aquaculture ventures farming oysters, mussels, clams, and/or seaweed. The idea of aquaculture piqued Joe’s curiosity, and the opportunity to diversify his income sources certainly didn’t hurt either. So the sixth-generation Corean—the Youngs were one of two founding families of Corea—became a first-generation oyster farmer and began raising Maine’s easternmost oyster in their family-owned salt pond.

Corea Maine Schoodic Peninsula Joe Young Oyster Farm

We arrived to the edge of the pond and I took a moment to soak in the beautiful scenery. It looks just like how photographer Damon Winter captured it for the New York Times story, but much sunnier. “When we were kids, this [pond] was our playground.” There was no adult supervision, no guardrails, no electronics, and the only rule was to be back to the house for supper. I could relate to this scenario as I also recall having similar unsupervised, unstructured days while growing up in Indiana. Except instead of a salt pond with periwinkles, I played in a babbling creek with crawdads.

Green Virginica Oyster from Corea MaineJoe Young Corea Oyster FarmJoe Young Corea Oyster Farm

Lean, Green, Very Clean

Taking care not to step on any live shellfish, we waded slowly through the cool, shallow water. The bottom glistened with oyster shells, mussel shells, periwinkles, crabs, and tufts of seaweed. Joe’s oysters have been so popular with the locals that he’s pretty much run out of market-sized product for this year. He warned me that we probably wouldn’t find many big ones today. His oysters currently don’t have a name, nor are they sold anywhere else but at his restaurant, the Wharf Gallery & Grill. They’re just listed as Joe’s Homegrown Oysters on the menu. Despite this, Joe’s oysters are remarkably distinctive in color and cleanliness.

His farming process is pretty straightforward. Joe grows juvenile seed oysters in mesh bags that are stacked three bags high and held together by metal structures aka “oyster condos.” Once they’re big enough to fend for themselves, Joe broadcasts them across the pond floor. He doesn’t use a tumbler at all, making the cups a touch shallower than what the premium market sort of pines for nowadays. They’re still just as pretty as any boutique oyster though! My favorite part about Joe’s oyster plot is its resident clean-up crew. Periwinkles help keep the oyster shells sparkling clean by grazing the algae growth.

Trap of Invasive European Green Crabs Corea Maine

Space Invaders: Green Crabs

Unfortunately, not all of the pond’s inhabitants are beneficial to Joe’s operation. The pond is currently under attack by the invasive European Green Crab, a super hard-to-kill nuisance and ecological terror that plagues Maine’s coastline and its citizens. They devour oysters and clams like there’s no tomorrow. According to Live Science:

Green crabs probably arrived in North America in the 1800s in the ballast water of ships from Europe. In the past decade, Maine’s green crab population has exploded, a cycle probably linked to rising ocean temperatures, according to the marine resources department. A similar pattern occurred during a warm period in the 1950s.

These crabs are so resilient that even stranding them 100 yards from the water won’t squelch their survival! “I tried dumping them into the woods, but they find their way back to the water somehow,” Joe said, clearly frustrated by the death-resistant pests. He’s resorted to capturing them in cages (see above) and dealing with them in an unconventional, but effective manner. I won’t get into the gory details, but it involves a wood chipper.

I wonder if they’re tasty and could be turned into a marketable product?

Corea Oysters GrowthGreen Oyster Corea MaineGreen Oyster Corea MaineSugar Kelp Farming Corea Maine Joe Young

Seaweed Gardening & Product Development

Just when I thought I had seen everything, Joe saved the big surprise for last. “Wait ashore,” he instructed as he waddled into deeper water. Joe lifted up a thick blanket of frilly dark green seaweed. It was one of the many lines of sugar kelp that he also farms!

Seaweed farming is a booming business in Maine, as well as other coastal states. Being Chinese, I grew up eating seaweed in soups, as snacks, and with congee. Mainstream Americans are finally beginning to embrace its diverse culinary uses and great health benefits. There are number of edible seaweeds available for purchase today. Joe produces dulse, sugar kelp and digitata (aka horsetail kelp). The easy part is growing the plant. The harder part is figuring out how to turn it into a usable form. That’s where the experimentation comes in.

Drying Sugar Kelp Joe Young Corea Maine

We stepped inside Joe’s self-constructed seaweed workshop/dehydrator room. On the left wall hung a line of dried kelp ready to be shredded. On the right sat a sleeping furnace. The room was already pretty toasty, but apparently it could get much, much hotter with the furnace on. Joe’s main focus was on his new toy, a custom-built seaweed mulcher that transforms large pieces of material into small flakes. Like a vegetarian meat grinder, I suppose? I got to see it in action, but Joe wasn’t 100% satisfied with the output. It’s still very much a work in progress for him, and the other part of the work will be to figure out how to market it.

Seaweed MulcherSeaweed Flakes

Corea Oyster Tasting at the Wharf Gallery & Grill

Touring the farm worked up an appetite, so we headed to the Wharf Gallery & Grill for an oyster tasting and lunch. Although the seasonal eatery has become a foodie destination, Joe never intended on owning a restaurant. Selling food was just a (great) way to lure people into the gallery—a showcase for Joe’s aunt Louise Young‘s photography from the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s of Corea. The walls are neatly decorated with black and white photos of the town, the working waterfront, and its people (including a portrait of the famous American painter/poet Marsden Hartley).

Joe Young Wharf Gallery & Grill Corea MaineJoe Young Wharf Gallery & Grill Corea MaineJoe Young Wharf Gallery & Grill Corea Maine

There’s also a curiosity worth investigating right outside of the gallery. A large rusty kettle, semi-protected by a wooden frame, sits beneath a sign that reads:

When Corea was first settled in the early 1800s, cod was king. The fish were brought in, split, dried in the sun, then salted into barrels. The livers were put into this kettle with a fire under it and rendered down for cod liver oil. This was put into small kegs which along with the barrels were placed aboard sailing vessels for trade.

Joe Young Wharf Gallery & Grill Corea MaineJoe Young Wharf Gallery & Grill Corea Maine

After getting a chance to try Joe’s beautiful chartreuse-tinted oysters, I helped the crew out by opening a few dozen for hungry customers including Catherine Schmitt, Communications Director for Maine Sea Grant. Then I finished my meal and day in Corea with an ooey-gooey lobster grilled cheese sandwich that totally hit the spot.

The restaurant is just about to close up shop for the 2018 season (last day is Columbus Day) so you better hurry in! Joe’s oysters may not be available, however. Part of the coastline, which includes Joe’s lease, has been temporarily closed to shellfish harvest due to the presence of naturally-occurring biotoxins in the water.

Corea Maine Oysters Joe Young

If you’re curious about what thought of Joe’s oysters, check out the flavor notes on my Instagram post!

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by Julie Qiu, Oyster Somm (@inahalfshellblog) on

Planning a trip to Maine?

Be sure to check out my extensive Maine Oyster Trail Part 1 post for ideas about where to go for oysters. You can also check out my very first trip to Maine on my old Peek & Eat blog! I also share some goodies here.

Oyster EventsSeptember 8, 2018

Get Pumped About Landlocked 2018

Memories make the heart grow fonder! The Landlocked Oyster Fest & Benefit by Oyster South last October was an inaugural shellebration that I could not miss. When so many of the South’s top oyster farmers and chefs come together under one roof, you know good things are bound to happen.

The aroma of ocean brine, yeasty bubbles, and mouthwatering BBQ permeated Color Wheel Studios, a creative camp for kids that’s been temporarily remade into a foodie’s playground. We were just down the street from Kimball House, one of the top oyster bars in the country and based in Decatur, GA, a city just Northeast of Atlanta.

Landlocked Oyster Festival & Fundraiser is a signature event of Oyster South, a non-profit organization dedicated to encouraging oyster farming and consumption across the south. I flew down from NYC the day prior to partake in the festivities and support my friends.

In case you’re still on the fence about attending this year’s festival (which you really shouldn’t be), here’s a quick recap that might help tip the scale.

Oyster South wreath

Over 20 Oyster Varieties From Three Coasts

This was truly a kid in a candy store moment. I slowly circulated around the oyster room where over 20 different farms were setting up their shucking stations. I’ve encountered some of the names before, such as Murder Point, Cape Hatteras, and Cedar Island Selects, but many were surprisingly unfamiliar. It was a unique opportunity to discover new favorites. A few friends from the East Coast (Fishers Island, Island Creek) and West Coast (Hama Hama, Hog Island) also came into town to join the fun.

Attendees at Landlocked exploring oyster varietiesCedar Island Points at Landlocked Oyster FestivalJay Styron speaking with Dan LewisBryan Rackley MC'ing Landlocked Oyster Festival

Raw and Cooked Oysters, Something for Everyone

Generally speaking, I gravitate towards the raw oyster selection at such tasting events. However… I found myself drawn to the smokey, buttery, salty, and spicy aromas from the cooking area outside. Fact: southern chefs take shellfish cookery to a whole other level. These decadent bites—without the usual caviar, quail eggs, or wasabi in sight—really captured my tastebuds and heart. Fried oyster sliders, clam & shrimp chowder, and even oyster-topped nigiri. It all worked!

Speaking of deliciousness, I just received a copy of Irv Miller’s Gulf Coast Oysters in the mail. It’s a beautiful oyster cookbook that’s also loaded with information about the emergence of boutique Gulf oysters. Just flip through it at your own risk—you will feel hungry.

Landlocked Oyster Festival group photo outside Southern BBQ at Landlocked Oyster Festival Buxton Hall pulling apart suckling pig Fried oyster platter at Landlocked Oyster Festival Crispy fried oyster and biscuits at Landlocked Oyster Festival Shrimp and other seafood being grilled Gulf shrimp at Landlocked Oyster Festival Chef David Bancroft chatting with Lane Zirlott at Landlocked Oyster Fest

The Coolest Oyster Kids on the Block

Who wouldn’t want to hang out with some of the sweetest, funniest, and most amazing oyster lovers in the country? Landlocked draws in an amazing roster of oyster farmers, chefs, scientists, and oyster addicts like myself.

David Bancroft Rob McDaniel Landlocked Bill and Beth Walton at Landlocked Oyster Festival Landlocked Oyster Festival 2018

I’ve got my flight down to Atlanta booked. Who’s joining me?

Landlocked 2
October 21, 2018
3:00PM — 7:00PM
Buy tickets

Oyster BarsMay 26, 2018

Luck Be a Grey Lady Tonight

If you are ever at the intersection of Delancey and Allen in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, stop. Look for an old-school neon red sign that reads “OYSTER BAR” on the Southeast corner. Find the front door (on Allen). Proceed into Grey Lady with a good appetite.

A platter of oysters and cocktail at the Grey Lady NYC

You know what? I haven’t written about a good oyster bar in awhile. They are a dying breed in NYC, despite the explosion of oyster happy hours. So why visit Grey Lady?

Going Beyond the Average Oyster Bar

The appeal of Grey Lady, for me anyway, isn’t just about their tasty oysters, divine cocktails, satisfying food, and great location. Those are table stakes nowadays. Grey Lady has become a passionate facilitator of oyster culture of this city. I’ve found myself many times at Grey Lady for oyster-filled get togethers, oyster launch parties, oyster classes, oyster eating & shucking competitions, and even for my own inaugural New York New Year Oyster Crawl. Grey Lady is also one of the participating restaurants in Billion Oyster Project’s shell collection program for NY Harbor oyster reef restoration.

In short, they give a shuck.

Close up of oysters and cocktail at Grey Lady NYC

A Focused and Thoughtful Oyster Program

From an oyster offering aspect, they’ve got a secret weapon as well. Grey Lady is still the only destination in NYC, that I know of, that features beautiful farm-raised oysters from Nantucket on their menu on a consistent basis. If you’ve never had Nantucket oysters, do yourself a favor and put it on your “to slurp” list. They source a conservative, but high-quality selection of East Coast varietals directly from growers and charge $3/ea. You’re not going to find a list of 12+ names here, because not just any oyster will do. In fact, Partner and Executive Chef Gavin McLaughlin lured me in years ago with the then-elusive Johns Rivers from Maine when no one else in the city carried them (pictured above with the Painkiller cocktail sans rum).

Moody lounge area at Grey Lady

My Ideal Grey Lady Outing

Dropping by during happy hour (Sun-Fri, 4-7PM $1 oysters, $6 beer, $8 wine, $9 wells) for two dozen Nantucket / Johns River oysters, paired a sparkling rosé, and then continuing on for a light first course dinner. Cannot go wrong with the bacon wrapped scallops or peekytoe crab toast, when in season!

 

Grey Lady
77 Delancey Street
New York, NY
(646) 580-5239

Oyster ToursMay 21, 2018

Salt Pond Hopping: Rhode Island Oyster Tour

At only 40 miles long and 30 miles wide, Rhode Island may be the smallest state in the US, but its oysters represent some of the finest in the business. For years, I’ve endeavored to visit an oyster farm in every coastal Northeastern state, and have saved Rhody as the last (but certainly not least) destination.

My First Rhode Island Oyster Memory

I remember my first Rhode Island oyster well. The occasion: Christmas Eve of 2009 at Grand Central Oyster Bar with my then bf, now husband. It was a Moonstone, one of the five Rhody oysters that Rowan Jacobsen highlights in his original oyster bible, A Geography of Oysters. I had the book with me and recall reading aloud his description, tasting the oyster, and then deciding to record my own account.

Moonstone (Rhode Island): As I consumed my first Moonstone, I experienced an elaborate flavor story. First, the saltiness hit. Then it turned subtly sweet and full of mineral flavors. It finished with a crisp cucumber aftertaste. In the book, Jacobsen beautifully describes the lush environment in which the Moonstones may have derived their full flavors from, and also ends with a fun fact about the origin of the name. Has anyone heard of Moonstone Beach, a famous nude beach in RI? 

Rhode Island Oyster Culture

By appearances alone, you might think that oyster farming is relatively new to Rhode Island. But you’d be dead wrong. Oyster cultivation in Rhode Island dates back for centuries! Their native oyster beds shared a similar fate to those of New York. Fortunately, the Ocean State’s passion for oyster aquaculture and appreciation is thriving once again, realizing itself across academic study and industry cooperation to oyster festivals and oyster-centric tourism. There’s even a Rhody oyster CSA from Walrus & Carpenter Oysters that delivers to NYC (read my post about that buying/pick up experience).

In the fall of 2015, I was invited to host an oyster tasting dinner for a landmark hotel in Newport, Rhode Island. True to my nerdy nature, I wanted to source all of the oysters fresh from local farms and earn the privilege to speak knowledgeably about each operation. Selecting the perfect oyster examples wasn’t easy though. Roughly 14% of Rhody’s total land area is made up by large bays and inlets, and I only had enough time to explore three farming locations. I’d like to return one day (hopefully someday soon?) to conduct a follow-up assessment. It would be nice to explore the distinctive Narragansett Bay.

In the meantime, here’s a behind-the-scenes look at three iconic Rhode Island oysters and their growers: Matunuck Oysters with Perry Raso, Quonnie Rocks with Jim Arnoux, and Watch Hills with Jeffrey Gardner.

Matunuck Oyster Bar & Farm

Serious oyster lovers should not pass through Rhode Island without stopping by Matunuck Oyster Bar. This charming “pond to plate” seafood haven is located in South Kingston, perched next to the Matunuck Oyster Farm on Potter Pond. Btw: Matunuck Oyster Farm is one of the few farms in Rhode Island that offers public tours. (401 Oyster Company is another.)

Perry Raso is the owner and operator of Matunuck Oyster Farm, Matunuck Oyster Bar, and Matunuck Organic Vegetable Farm (oh my!). Since childhood, Perry recognized untapped opportunities in the water. Whether its clam digging, eel trapping, or diving for steamers, Perry developed an expertise in harvesting wild shellfish. Yet after spending a lot of time doing this, he realized that the bigger opportunity is actually in aquaculture—so he turned to oyster farming.

I took the train from Penn Station, NY to Kingston, but amateurishly overestimated Amtrak’s ability to get me there on time. 25 minutes late, ugh. This was not how I imagined my first meeting with Perry to go (my track record with trains is officially awful). Nevertheless, Perry was patiently waiting at the station for me with his monster-sized pickup truck. On the way to his restaurant, we talked about his journey from digging for littleneck clams as a kid, to studying aquaculture & fisheries technology at the University of Rhode Island, to opening an oyster bar without any restaurant know-how. Although the details of his story have faded in my memory, it is undeniably clear that Perry is an incredibly focused and productive individual. He gets stuff done.

Matunuck Oyster Farm began as a one-acre operation in 2002 and has since grown to seven acres. To get a closer look, we  boarded a small workboat and quietly drifted into the mid-morning mist across Potter Pond. Once we approached the floating lines of bags, Perry hopped into the water and towed the boat himself. We examined a few bags of juvenile oysters no larger than poker chips. Future Matunuck oysters! They will require at least another growing season or two, but were well on their way.

For the oysters that are ready to harvest, a good number of them are sold at the raw bar several hundred meters away. You really can’t get any more local than that!

Quonnie Rocks of Quonochontaug Pond

Think fast: how do you pronounce Quonochontaug? (I believe it’s “KWON-uh-kuh-tawg.”) Quonochontaug is a small beach community nestled between Ninigret Pond and Quonochontaug Pond, and their respective barrier beaches. Quonochontaug Pond is the deepest and most saline of southern Rhode Island’s salt ponds, and this is where Quonnie Rock Oysters, the first commercially grown and harvested oyster in that pond, are matured.

Haven’t heard of Quonnie Rocks? You may know Jim’s other oyster brand, the East Beach Blonde from neighboring Ninigret Pond. Although the two ponds are physically close to each other, they are quite different as oyster growing environments. As Jim puts it, Quonochontaug exchanges a lot of its water during every tide, while Ninigret does not. This results in Quonnie Rocks being exposed to more consistent ocean-like conditions, while Ninigret goes through phases.

As a teenager, Jim used to earn money clamming in the Great South Bay, a longstanding family tradition that he would continue into his collegiate years at the University of Rhode Island. Today, like Perry, Jim is fully committed to oyster farming and supporting Rhode Island aquaculture in his role as president of the Ocean State Aquaculture Association. (Not to mention that he’s already showing his young daughter the ropes!) The organization recently relaunched the Rhode Island Oyster Trail (RIOT) website and is a beneficiary of this weekend’s Newport Oyster Festival.

When we (myself plus oyster buddies Paul & Matt Hagan) met up with Jim in 2015, his lease in Quonochontaug was still relatively new and experimental. Since then, he has added a few more acres to his lease and aims to produce more bottom-cultured Quonnies. To get a closer look, Jim towed the three of us—plus his super cute daughter—out to the nursery and grow out site. Is hand towing a thing here? He pulled up a market-ready tray containing some very handsome green-tinged Quonnie Rocks. We shucked a bunch and each one was a knock out 10 out of 10.

Frankly, I had never seen such big, beautiful and meaty oysters from Rhode Island before. (It also didn’t hurt that we had a pro shucker on deck.) In NYC, the Rhody’s that I usually encounter at the raw bars are typically petite, and frankly, a little wimpy. Perhaps Ocean State oyster lovers are just keeping the good stuff for themselves. I wouldn’t blame them.

Watch Hill Oyster Farm

“What do oysters and bears have in common?” Jeff Gardner, grower of Watch Hill Oysters quizzed the three of us as we pushed off from his dock. I knew where he was going with this, but before I could get to the punchline, Jeff schooled us on the shared metabolic behavior of these two creatures.

For over 25 years, Jeff and his family have been growing Watch Hill Oysters in Winnaupaug Pond in Westerly, RI—another one of Rhode Island’s famous salt ponds. A stroll down the shell-laden driveway will paint a vivid picture of the investment that Jeff has made. A good swath of his gear is custom-made (read: DIY), as the farming gear wasn’t quite as abundant—nor affordable—back then as it is now.

We approached the Watch Hill lease at low tide. A dozen rows of tidy oyster trays slowly revealed themselves to us in the distance and I admired how perfect they looked against the colorful assortment of beachfront homes. The hum of ocean waves rumbled just beyond, about 100 yards away. As I peered down, I could clearly see the green and brown speckled pond bottom. We were floating by in no more than a couple feet of water and the chances of getting stuck were fairly high. Fortunately (for me), Paul and Matt were there to assist as Jeff’s unofficial boat crew that afternoon.

The market size oysters that we sampled right out of the water had a mollusc-y sweet and earthy taste, the same kind that you find in a good clam. We slurped silently and listened intently as Jeff told us stories of his past life as a record store owner, and his transition into the world of aquaculture. I could’ve stayed on the water for the rest of the afternoon, but the winds were starting to pick up and we were not prepared to get caught in the rain. Although we opted to take shelter that day, the Watch Hill farming crew would not get such opportunities. Rain or shine, sleet or snow, they are working the farm and harvesting year round.

Discover Other Northeast Oyster Farms

Rhode IslandOyster Trail

Maine & New HampshirePart 1, Part 2 (Coming soon…), Oyster Wedding, Oyster Trail

MassachusettsPart 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

ConnecticutPart 1, Part 2 (Coming soon…)

New YorkPart 1, 2, 3

New JerseyPart 1, 2

Oyster Know-HowFebruary 14, 2018

Rowan Jacobsen’s New Rules of Oyster Eating

Nearly ten years ago, I fell in love with a book that sparked a creative act—this blog—that has since changed my life. Although there are many books about oysters out there, Rowan Jacobsen’s A Geography of Oysters will still be the true oyster nerd’s oyster book. I am very honored and excited to have the opportunity to share this repost with you. The New Rules of Oyster Eating is a brilliant mini manifesto about oysters that Rowan first wrote for Lucky Peach, a very popular food magazine that has sadly gone under. I asked Rowan if I could republish it on In A Half Shell because it captures all of the modern ostreaphilic values that I believe in. He said yes. So here it is, accompanied by some of photos that I’ve taken over the years on my personal oyster escapades.

Platter of Oysters at Belga Queen

The New Rules of Oyster Eating

A Minor Manifesto

By Rowan Jacobsen

A decade ago, I wrote a book called A Geography of Oysters that celebrated the romance of oysters, the primal rush of slurping a raw denizen of the sea, and the mysteries of molluscan terroir. The book struck a chord, and American oyster culture has been on a gravity-defying trajectory ever since. Great. But since then, the oyster scene has transformed, while oyster know-how hasn’t kept up. There used to be a few dozen places in the country from which you could get great oysters, and a few dozen in which you could eat them. Now there are hundreds. Yet with every bored banker throwing a few oyster cages off his dock, and every dive bistro reinventing itself as an oyster bar, I’ve never seen so many scrawny, mangled oysters going down so many clueless gullets in my life. Time for a primer. Here are 20 rules for choosing—and dispatching—oysters. Use them, set your friends straight, and for god’s sake tell your servers. Viva la revolución.

#1 Know Your Oceans

The Atlantic and Pacific Oceans taste different. Nobody talks about this, but it’s key to understanding oysters, which draw most of their flavor from the waters they live in. The Atlantic is a pure, sharp brine, while the Pacific is sweeter and more kelpy, like miso soup. Keeping that in mind can help steer you toward your oysters of preference, especially if you also:

#2 Know Your Species

Most of the oysters consumed in North America are either the Eastern oyster or the Pacific oyster. The Eastern grows from the Eastern Seaboard to the Gulf of Mexico. The Pacific grows (yes, you guessed it) on the Pacific coast, from BC to Baja. The Eastern tastes like brine and broth with a sweet-corn finish. The Pacific tastes like cucumber or watermelon rind. Hugely different. Most people strongly prefer one or the other. A classic example of an Eastern oyster would be an Island Creek, from Duxbury Bay, Massachusetts. A classic Pacific would be a Hama Hama from Washington’s Hood Canal. There are also four other minor species of oysters you might encounter. Kumamotos are like baby Pacifics and have even more of that green melon flavor. European Flats, also known as Belons, are the native oyster of Europe and taste like a battery terminal covered in iodine. Olympias, the only oyster native to the west coast, are tiny and taste like a Bloody Mary. New Zealand Flats, the native oyster of New Zealand, are closely related to the European Flat and are equally ferocious. They are only now becoming available in the United States. Try one if you dare.

Array of Oysters in Sheraton Hong Kong

#3 Salty Places Make Salty Oysters

All day long, oysters pump seawater through their bodies, filtering out the plankton. They become just as salty as their environment—which can vary a lot. The upper section of Chesapeake Bay has only one third the salinity of the ocean. Estuaries like Puget Sound and the Gulf of St Lawrence are in between. If you’re a full-on brine hound, look for oysters grown in pure ocean water, like Chathams or Hog Island Sweetwaters. If you prefer an oyster with a fresh mineral bite, look for oysters tucked near river mouths, like Goose Points. If you prefer balance, split the difference. Oysterater maps all the world’s oysters, so you can make a pretty good guess about salinity and water temp, which will help you to:

#4 Follow the Frost Line

Oysters are strongly seasonal. They eat algae, which generally has a big bloom in the spring as soon as water temperatures begin to warm, proliferates through the summer when sunlight is abundant, tails off in the fall, and goes dormant in winter. Oysters go into hibernation in the winter when their food supply disappears, just like a bear. To survive the winter dormancy, they stuff themselves in late fall. They get plump and sweet, then live off their reserves. By early spring, they are emaciated. So: Most oysters I know are best from November through January. Far northern oysters, which have to survive the longest dormancy, can be crazy sweet around Thanksgiving or Christmas. They also suck in March and April, when southern and Pacific oysters have already been feeding and fattening for a month or two. Following these trends will lead you directly to Rule #5:

Oyster Sorting at Fishers Island

#5 Don’t Settle for Skinny Oysters

More often than not, the oysters served in raw bars look like this. Shrunken gray ghosts in a pool of seawater. Those oysters are running on fumes. No fat, no glycogen, no reserves, no sweetness. They’re just going to taste like saltwater. An oyster should be plump and opaque, completely filling the shell, like these Beauregard Islands here. That photo was taken in April, when Gulf Coast oysters have been feeding heavily for months, but Northern oysters are still sleepy and starved. Among other things, this means:

#6 Don’t Diss the South

I’m so bored with northern chefs telling me they don’t serve southern oysters because southern oysters aren’t salty, firm, or safe. These chefs haven’t kept up with the times. It used to be that the last great wild oyster harvests came from Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, so these were the only southern oysters most people had ever tasted. And true, wild oysters are dredged by the ton and sold by the sack; they get none of the pampering of farmed oysters and tend to be gnarled and muddy. They also tend to be less salty, because wild oysters thrive in brackish waters—like Chesapeake Bay and the Louisiana coast—where their many saltwater-loving predators can’t go. That’s how the South got a reputation for bland, skanky oysters. But in the past few years, growers in the Southeast and Gulf Coast have been using state-of-the-art gear to farm oysters in super salty waters, and they are cranking out some of the briniest—and best—oysters in the country, such as Virginia’s Sewansecotts and Alabama’s Murder Points. You probably already realized this also means:

Lane Zirlott holding Murder Point Oysters

#7 Don’t Diss the Farm

Almost all oysters are farmed these days, and that’s a good thing. The debacle of salmon and shrimp farming has conditioned everybody to think aquaculture is automatically bad, but shellfish aquaculture is actually the greenest form of protein production on the planet, because shellfish get all their food by filtering algae out of the water. You just put baby oysters in the water and take out market-size oysters two years later, leaving the water cleaner than you found it. Win, win. Also, oysters don’t move, so there’s no such thing as a free-range oyster. A farmed oyster gets much better (i.e., roomier) living conditions than its wild kin. Choose the farmed ones. Support the farmer. And forget the R rule (which suggests eating oysters only during months that have an R in them, i.e., September–April); that applied only to wild oysters.

#8 Don’t Settle for Scrambled Oysters

Most of the oysters served in restaurants have been butchered in ways that serious oyster people find completely unacceptable. And most of the people eating oysters have no clue. The web is littered with horror shots of oysters that were apparently opened by Hannibal Lecter. Here’s a beaut from the Village Voice. What the hell happened to those things? If you get served oysters that look like this, don’t go back. The muscles have been hacked and the bellies have been shredded, causing the juices to spill out into the shell. Pretty much every shot in this article on “Cool NYC Oyster Bars” is a crime scene. A proper oyster should fill its shell with meat, its liquor still safely running through its veins, waiting to burst when you bite. Here’s a lovely Grand Cru from Washington. Note the smoothly severed muscle and the unmolested belly. The mantle looks perfect. Want more oysters like this? Then:

Chef Ryan Prewitt of Peche New Orleans Shucking an Oyster

#9 Get as Close to the Shucker as Possible

What do you do when you walk into a sushi bar? Huddle in a distant corner with your nose buried in a copy of The Tale of Genji? No, you belly up to the bar and try to mind-meld with the chef. You want his knowledge, her approval, and their best shit. Same goes for oyster bars. Sit at the counter where you can see the oysters and the shuckers. Ask them questions. Suck up. They know what’s good better than anyone else in the building. Pretty soon, they’ll be sliding you treats.

#10 Avoid Dilettante Restaurants

The corollary to Rule #9 is that the oysters served at places that don’t have a designated shucker—even very famous, high-end ones—are often laughably bad. These may be great chefs, but they aren’t on the front lines, chatting with the oyster growers every day, and they haven’t put in thousands of hours at the shucking station. If the restaurant doesn’t have a full-time shucker, don’t go there for the oysters. Just take another look at the victims in that Cool NYC Oyster Bars article. These are the kinds of places to avoid. (Except for Grand Banks, which didn’t get an oyster photo—ironically, since they actually know how to shuck.)

#11 Get as Close to the Grower as Possible

It used to be hard to find great, knowledgeable shuckers, but the bar got raised a few years ago when some of the best oyster growers began opening their own eateries, with Hog Island, Rappahannock River, and Island Creek leading the charge. These growers cared deeply about the things that give oysters character, and they trained their staffs accordingly. Suddenly, we’re seeing oysters that are more perfect than anything we’ve seen before, presented by shuckers and servers who are incredibly knowledgeable. We’re even seeing things like species, provenance, and cultivation technique listed right on menus. Now a new wave of growers has opened places, like Matunuck Oyster Bar and Hama Hama Oyster Saloon, and more are on the way. This kind of vertical integration significantly shortens the supply chain, which is key, because:

Oyster Farmer Looking at Crop in Wellfleet at Sunrise

#12 Freshness Is All

An oyster carries the still-living sea within it. And even though an oyster is alive until the moment it’s shucked, that marine spark diminishes with every moment it’s separated from La Mer. Unfortunately, oysters can survive weeks out of the water, and many you find in restaurants (especially ones that don’t specialize in oysters) are that old. Find places that get oysters straight out of the water and serve them within a day or two. (Or, see Rule #19.) When you get these sparkly ones, you’ll instantly understand why it only makes sense to:

#13 Eat Them Naked

A great oyster is masked by accouterments of any kind, even snazzy ones. Lemon, mignonette, et al. are fine, they just completely cover the flavor of the oyster. All a great oyster needs is a good chaser (Rule #15). On the other hand:

#14 Know When to Ignore Rule #13

Not all oysters are great. Plenty could use a little help. Honestly, sometimes it’s more fun to eat oysters you don’t have to feel guilty for dishonoring. Standing at a bar in New Orleans, eating big, sloppy, dredged oysters right off the counter, is not the time for nude gustation. More horseradish, please!

Garnished Oysters

#15 The Thrill of the Chase

The drink that chases your oyster is almost as important as the oyster itself. Most oysters are quite salty and have a sea finish that goes on forever. It’s the job of the booze to stop that finish in its tracks. Lots of things work well (my general rule is that wine, sake, and martinis go better with Pacific oysters; beer and Bloody Marys with Eastern oysters; but exceptions abound), just make sure you have something at the ready. Bonus: It gets you drunk.

#16 Ice Is Nice, and Will Suffice

Americans consume lots of things too cold. Hard cider, cheese, potato salad. Oysters are not one of them. Cold firms up an oyster and makes it crisp and refreshing. A good oyster bar knows this and serves its oysters nestled deep into a frosty bed of shaved ice. (Cube ice melts too fast.) If your oysters arrive lukewarm, that’s a red flag.

#17 Nothing Beats a Firm Bottom

Now we’re on to the advanced rules. It used to be that all oysters were “farmed” on a bay bottom or an intertidal beach, as they would grow in the wild. But as growing techniques have evolved, and more and more oysters are grown in off-bottom trays and cages, where life is easier and predators nonexistent, it’s become clear that there’s no substitute for planting an oyster on the bottom and allowing it to grow naturally for its last year or two before harvest. In submerged cages, oysters can grow very quickly and easily; they get long, brittle shells and softer meats. Thrown down in the sand or gravel, they’re forced to toughen up. They grow more slowly and develop rounder, deeper, stronger shells. They get bigger bellies, firmer muscles, and richer flavor. Some of my favorite bottom-planted oysters are Colville Bays, Moonstones, Mystics, Cotuits, Pemaquids, Glidden Points, Totten Inlet Virginicas, and Kumamotos from Chapman Cove.

Bottom Raised Pacific Oysters at Taylor Shellfish Farms

#18 If Nature Didn’t Give You a Firm Bottom, Try Tumbling

Of course, bottom-planting works only when you have a firm and easily accessible bottom. In most places, the bottom is too muddy or too deep. Years ago, an innovative Vancouver Islander named Keith Reid discovered that if he periodically tumbled his tray-farmed oysters in a mechanical tumbler (kind of like a portable cement mixer), it would chip off their soft growing edge and force them to “cup up.” They had to clamp shut every time they got tumbled, which gave their muscles a workout. They wound up the molluscan equivalent of elfin Olympic gymnasts with six-pack abs. As a bonus, they had beautifully polished shells. Those oysters were Kusshis, and everybody fell for the little cuties. Now many growers tumble. Some use mechanical tumblers, others let the tides do it for them. Look for Chelsea Gem, Shigoku, Blue Pool, and Chunu.

#19 Go Shuck Yourself

The surest way to ensure ultra-fresh oysters is to skip all the middle men and have them shipped directly to you from the grower. You will save a ton of money. And you will have epic parties. Julie keeps an list of recommended suppliers who (A) grow great oysters, and (B) have the shipping part under control. Obviously, this only works if you can shuck them when you get them. But this is something every fully functional bon vivant should be able to do. You can learn in about ten minutes. Important: Get a good knife with a strong, thin blade. After a hundred oysters, you’ll be good. Here is an excellent video guide by Canadian shucking champ Patrick McMurray.

#20 Get Religion

You are slurping down dozens of quivering animals who have given their all for this moment. You lucky bastard. No need to fall to your knees, but a silent nod to the fates might be in order. Some days you’re the windshield, some days you’re the bug.

 

 

James Beard Award-winner Rowan Jacobsen is the author of A Geography of Oysters and The Essential Oyster and the founder of the websites Oysterguide (for his opinions) and Oysterater (for everyone else’s).