An acquired taste, many say. Hard to swallow, and often harder to shuck.
But low, the hallowed oyster, that briny succulent beauty—raw or roasted; dressed in frilly garlic, spinach, and bacon crumbles or stewed in heavy cream; battered ’n’ fried to crispy perfection or casseroled under layers of saltines and butter; slurped in a shooter or slurped straight out of the shell (with a hit of horseradish and hot sauce if you’re the sort who likes a little kick); Rockefellered up real fancy or humbly tucked into holiday stuffing—anyway you shuck it, the world is your oyster, at least if you’re talking Lowcountry seafood.
“A lusty bit of nourishment,” M. F. K. Fisher famously called her beloved mollusk and the subject of her 1941 culinary classic Consider the Oyster. Yes, consider indeed. Consider that long before Charleston boasted James Beard Award-winning chefs by the half dozen, and long before raw bars were popping up left and right, and probably even before oyster roasts became the de facto mode of fall and winter Southern socializing and, heck, even before rice and shrimp and grits, the oyster was the bedrock of what we know of as Charleston.
Consider the early settlers who sailed into Charlestowne Landing, most likely so starved they could pry open an oyster with their bare teeth, and eyed a promising location nestled strategically between two rivers. They called it “Oyster Point” (today known as White Point Gardens) due to the white mounds of oyster shells deposited there by the Kiawah Indians. Oysters were not only a staple of Native American and early colonial diets, but the crushed shells also became the tabby for the settlement’s protective walls and for Charleston’s earliest buildings. That gray blob of questionable consistency (“somewhere among raw chicken liver, Jell-O, beef tripe, and Dippity-do,” according to humorist Rick Bragg) cradled in its gnarled bivalve fortress was, quite literally, a fortifying food.
“He was a bold man that first ate an oyster,” opined Jonathan Swift. Yep, bold and smart and resourceful. Fast forward to 2017 and meet the bold, smart, and resourceful folks who are transforming the aquascape of South Carolina oystering.
“The Napa Valley of Oysters” – St. Jude Farms
“Oysters are like wine,” explains Tracy Doran, as the St. Jude Farms work boat winds through Fish Creek off the South Edisto River, her curly hair dancing in the wind. “They’re so sensitive to their environment. Like grape varieties, an oyster’s flavor profile matches its surrounding conditions, and our waters have such a distinct salinity. I’ve heard some people beginning
to refer to South Carolina as the Napa Valley of oysters, but I guess instead of terroir, it’d be mer-roir?” laughs Doran, who with her husband, Bob, founded St. Jude Farms in 2001, a sustainable aquaculture farm and fine seafood purveyor based in Green Pond, SC. But really, it’s a family farm: Daughters Annie and Rosie (ages twenty-seven and twenty-six) and son Patrick (twenty-three, at the moment captaining our boat), are all part of the St. Jude team.
Bob, whose family was in the shipping business, grew up amidst Charleston’s maritime industry, and Tracy hails from a dairy farm in the upstate. She understands the cyclical nature of farming, but instead of a morning and evening milking schedule, St. Jude farmers tend their crop—some one million oysters a year in seven hundred and fifty grow cages and wild oysters from St. Jude’s DNR-permitted leases in the ACE Basin—according to the tides.
“Every morning our crew goes out to check and turn the cages,” says Tracy. St. Jude’s cultivated oysters are sexless triploid oysters, grown from local seed stock (as opposed to wild diploid oysters that breed and spawn), and flipping and sorting the cages on a rotating schedule results in clean oysters that have a uniform size and shape. “Our Charleston Salts grow cuppier, with this nice deep cup that chefs really like,” says Tracy. As for that mer-roir, “it’s like tasting the ocean—that salinity! I mean the ocean is right there, you just can’t get any more pristine,” she adds, pointing just one hundred yards beyond the last cages where Fish Creek flows into the Atlantic.
Thanks in large part to Bob Doran’s doggedness (a five-year fight for summer permits), this past summer was the first season that DHEC allowed summer harvest and sales of mariculture (triploid) oysters in South Carolina. To guard against bacterial concerns due to summer’s warmer waters, the regulatory agency maintains strict rules for how quickly oysters have to be cooled immediately after harvest, which St. Jude and similarly sophisticated operations monitor carefully. St. Jude’s refrigeration and delivery facilities are based at their Bennetts Point headquarters in Colleton County. “With today’s technologies, there’s really no reason not to allow summer harvesting,” says St. Jude operations manager and oyster aficionado Mike Calista. “We’re taking things in a whole new direction—by cultivating more oysters, we’re also improving the water quality and the sustainability of our oceans, and adding to economic opportunity through a working waterfront.”
Indeed, year-round sales are a game-changer for oyster farmers, raw bar owners and customers, chefs, and those of us who haven’t quite mastered the only-eat-oysters-in-the-R-months thing. It means operations like St. Jude Farms and their cohorts in Beaufort County and elsewhere don’t have to shut down for 40 percent of the year, or source product from out of state to keep up with summer demand. “Charleston has a reputation for our unique culinary scene, and local oysters are part of that,” says Mike Lata, executive chef of The Ordinary.
A Win-Win, Win-Win-Win-Win – Seaborn Oyster Co.
“It’s an exciting time in South Carolina—the number of oyster farmers seems to be exploding,” notes Cyrus Buffum, who counts himself and his Sullivan’s Island-based Seaborn Oyster Co. among that growing number. Conditions here are unique, he points out, because our oysters don’t hibernate as long as those in colder waters. “It takes eighteen plus months to bring an oyster to market in colder waters; we can do it in twelve—that’s a huge advantage.” That fact coupled with Charleston’s culinary explosion, “with raw bars on every corner, it’s an incredibly ripe time for our blossoming oyster industry,” he adds.
Buffum grew up on Cape Cod; his connection to the water runs deep, both ancestrally (his great-times-five uncle was born at sea, named Seaborn, and hence the inspiration behind Seaborn Oyster Co.), philosophically, and vocationally. A former competitive sailor and College of Charleston graduate, he founded Charleston Waterkeepers in 2008 and led the nonprofit water quality education and advocacy organization until 2015. Watchdogging the health of Carolina waterways gave Buffum a deeper appreciation for oysters and oyster reefs as ecological powerhouses: mega-filterers that improve water quality and, in the wild, clusters that help protect eroding shorelines and nurture marine habitat. But for Buffum, being a commercial oysterman is as much about connecting people to their environment and making that environment healthier, as it is about pleasing their palate. “As I see it, it’s a win-win, win-win-win-win,” he says.
And though Buffum has permits for grow cages and is appreciative that St. Jude Farms and others successfully lobbied for summer sales, for the time being he’s focusing his operation on the wild oyster. “I believe we have a real opportunity to champion our native, Southern oyster. South Carolina has one of the last remaining wild oyster populations, and that’s something to celebrate,” he says. While harvesting cultivated (triploid) oysters alleviates the pressure on wild stock and doesn’t disturb nature’s rhythms, the process also, in Buffum’s view, has a potential shortfall. The flavor of a cultivated oyster is slightly masked, he says, though admittedly that distinction is highly nuanced.
“What’s more authentically Charleston, what’s more Southern than a wild native South Carolina oyster?” Buffum asks. When he brought six hundred of Seaborn’s “wild, gnarly, irregular” Ol’ Dangers and their more refined, hand-selected Seaborn Selects to the Billion Oyster Project’s gala in Manhattan recently, “chefs from across the country were asking us if we shipped. They could tell the difference,” he says. Whether or not it’s a sustainable business model to be a boutique, heirloom purveyor remains to be seen for Buffum and his Seaborn crew. He’s considering other methods of oyster cultivation to better organize his crops, and possibly expanding to become a more commercially scaled producer in the vein of St. Jude.
Yet what is clear for both Buffum and the Doran family, and for many other oyster farmers and shell fishermen feeding the minions of mollusk fans out there, is that the power of the oyster goes far beyond being a mysterious aphrodisiac. The scrappy oyster is a small bite (or gulp) that packs a big wallop; it satisfies without satiating; it’s nutritious, sensuous, and sweetly salty. As an ecological marvel, the left-footed wonder works hard, offers much, and demands little. And as an economic opportunity, well, perhaps we should heed the wisdom of Zora Neale Hurston: “I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.”
“Our family is so proud of St. Jude Farms, of working hard to provide the best service and product to restaurants while staying true to our mission of sustainable farming,” says Tracy Doran. Ultimately, she and Buffum agree, their efforts are creating a healthy ecosystem, a healthier environment, and a more economically viable working waterfront. “It’s good for restaurants, for people who need jobs, and ultimately for South Carolina,” Doran says. So indeed, as M. F. K. Fisher invites us to do, consider the oyster, year-round. — S.H.