(Re)Consider the Oyster

Nikki Shaner-Bradford is a writer who recently moved to Providence, Rhode Island. In this original essay for Port, she plumbs the local oyster industry

Illustration ALEC DOHERTY

If you want the oyster gossip, start with the shucker. Over the raw bar at Gift Horse, Martín tells me seasonality is a marketing ploy, aquaculture is on the rise, M F K Fisher bests David Foster Wallace on both shellfish and style, and the latest pearl turned up on New Year’s Eve.

It’s January and I’m only at Gift Horse for the cocktails. Oysters, in New England, are summer fare. Most local jaunts hew rustic with waterfront tables and fall festival tents. In August, I moved to Rhode Island from Paris, a decision received with shock and confusion by long-time Rhody residents. The population of Paris is more than double that of the entire Ocean State, let alone its sleepy capital city.

In Rhode Island you are never far from the water. The dark expanse stretches just beyond the bounds of the highway. But it is easy to forget that those waters are populated with quahogs, the native hard-shell clam, and their quahoggers, a contingent of freelance fishermen who rake through the silt for molluscs year round. Stretches of coastline host oyster farmers and other aquaculturists hoping to strike big in shellfish. As the smallest state, resources are limited, but the growth of the “blue economy”, so termed for all aspects of the ocean industry, stokes fierce competition, necessary collaboration, and efforts on all sides to support local enterprise.

Shellfish is a territorial business. Fishermen hoard coordinates and clams. You need to know the weather, the season, the tides, the drift. Back in the quahog heyday, in the 80s, rumour has it you could rake in over a grand in a matter of hours. It was a gold rush on the open water: guys pulled guns, climbed aboard rival boats, threw enemies over, and met up on land to duke it out. Now the state has its own say in the turf wars. Zoning limits harvests and protects high-population areas from overfishing. Old-timers inherited their fishing licences, but newcomers enter through a strict licensing lottery, or special reserves for students and seniors. Those who left chose trades with a guarantee of gold, like plumbing or carpentry.

The fishermen still on the water are a special breed. Most quahoggers are older men who prefer year-round exposure to the elements to the torments of a landlocked job. Others are hobbyists looking to earn extra cash. All gamble in the house of mother nature. “No one owns the ocean,” the fisherman and -monger Davy Andrade tells me. “Deep down they all know that. But, at the same time, they’re just trying to make a day’s pay.” The guys who do make a living are often those who get up before dawn to catch at first light – legally, fishing begins at sunrise – arriving at Andrade’s family-run market, Andrade’s Catch, by late morning. Each cull is bagged by the bushel and tagged with a harvester license number, dig time, location, and type, as well as all other manner of data that the shop manages and relays to the state during quarterly inspections, and to the FDA annually.

When local fishing supply lags, restaurants are forced to import from Virginia, where overfishing and pollution have eroded the once-plentiful Chesapeake oyster reef. “When you find a spot, it’s like finding treasure,” Andrade says. But with shellfish, there is no one holy grail. In the eastern Atlantic the crop keeps growing, and there are many ways to cash in on a clam. Quahoggers use a bull rake – a large comb-like contraption turned through the soil by hand, lending its practitioners a triangle-shaped body, one also rife with back injuries. Rather than clearing a patch like a typical farm harvest, the rake loosens the seeds and young clams back into the water, churning nutrients into cash down the line. I’ll see you again, the quahogger thinks when he picks through his cull. Throw back the babies and they’ll make you money down the line; let someone else fish in your spot and they’ll take the food out of your mouth.

“It’s a primitive way of life,” Andrade says, with visible pride. Of the crowd of fishermen who roll through Andrade’s, about six or seven scuba dive off their boats to gather oysters, filtering through the muck by hand until silt clouds any visibility. The wild oyster lives a seasonal reproductive cycle, fattening up in the fall to hibernate through the winter, and spawning as temperatures warm. To survive, the oyster filters phytoplankton and algae from nearby waters, and forms shoreline-protecting reefs that once spanned the coastal Atlantic, but now dwindle after decades of poaching and pollution. Though the oyster lives a theoretically long and protandric (sex-changing) life, this journey is often cut short by human consumption, environmental destruction, and natural predators. Oysters can live for decades but are typically consumed at only a few years old.

When I lived in New York, I only ate oysters if somebody ordered them for a birthday, and even then, only when it was enforced out of novelty or ritualistic toast. Shortly after I moved to Paris, I got into the habit at le Marché Bastille, where a ragtag group followed a local barman on Sunday mornings to a family-run tent. There oysters come in plastic bins stacked on the sidewalk, each organised according to size, where they are thwacked onto colourful plastic platers and shucked open in a frenzy of saltwater and lemon. In Paris, I ate oysters for hangovers, for friendship, and for some fleeting joy in February. In the Ocean State, however, I have hesitated.

The last time I ate an oyster was on a rainy beach on Île-de-Bréhat, a walking-only island off the coast of Brittany. My host fetched a wild shell from the shoreline, split it open with a long knife, and passed it over without hesitation or accoutrement. It was sharp with grit and looked like a rock. Within a day I fell ill, unable to rise from the bed where I languished under looping “anti-nausea frequencies”. The French offered mysterious medications, urged ham croissants, and pushed me into the fresh coastal air, only to stand by as I vomited into the tall grass. In feverish afternoons, I imagined myself being airlifted off to the nearest hospital while the French looked on from the yard, their wet towels windblown against bushes and trees.

Though the “R months” rule came from the days before refrigeration, rising water temperatures and news of vibrio – a potentially fatal bacteria that grows in warm coastal spots – have maligned the oyster this past summer. But unless you are eating straight from the tidal pool, oysters are so strictly monitored that illness remains a rarity. Even so, when pressed, any oyster insider will tell you oyster season is winter – no question. Fatty reserves lend the winter oyster a better meat fill and richer flavour. The summer oyster is watery, its energy reserves depleted from months of hibernation.

These days most Rhode Island oysters are farmed rather than wild. Oyster seed, or “spat”, is purchased from a hatchery and frequently monitored. Individual cultivation methods are vast: some farmers mimic natural conditions by cultivating shallow seabeds, while others use large cages or mesh plastic bags that are regularly flipped and rotated to prevent the molluscs from attaching or accumulating algae. A small operation might have a quarter- to a half-million oysters growing on leased land at any given time, graduating scoops of baby molluscs into larger bag weaves over days and weeks to optimise for increased nutrient flow as they grow.

There is no easy money in shell-fishing or farming, no matter which way you shuck it. While commercial fishing and quahogging are often generational ventures, oyster farmers are a newer contingent, made up of aquaculture graduates, beachfront retirees, and other enterprising folk with enough money to invest in a game that might not bring cashflow for years. Though a spat can go for four to five cents – compared to dollars for a full-grown oyster at sale – the overhead and risk is enormous. Equipment and licensing will run into the thousands well before an oyster is edible, and an investment could be gone in a single storm.

The oyster farmer knows climate change intimately; like watching an old friend age poorly. “I’ve seen that shoreline disappear in nine years,” the founder of Bluff Hill Cove Oyster Company, Harvey Cataldo, tells me. Because Cataldo is outside with his oysters every day, he has not only watched the shoreline recede, but water temperatures rise, storms worsen, and new species blossom in an evolving ecosystem. Since the farm’s official founding in 2014, the work has changed with the climate: more algae grow on the cages in warmer temperatures, requiring additional maintenance and turnover to ensure flow through the slats. Violent, unpredictable storms have destroyed bags, tossed material into the trees or out to sea, and lost oysters into the ocean or up onto the sand. All of this means money, but it also means death. When Cataldo catches sight of a live oyster stranded to shore, he throws it back with his babies, out of principle more than profit. There is easier money to be made elsewhere; for all the reasons to farm – financial, ecological, culinary, lifestyle – deep down he just likes watching them grow.

On my visit to Bluff Hill Cove, which sits on Point Judith Pond, in Narragansett, I suit up in waders – an inelegant operation for anyone, I am told – and follow Cataldo down to the shore. We picked the warmest day of the week but it’s February and after an hour or so in the water my feet start to go numb. Bluff Hill Cove is best known for its Winter Pearl, a tide-tumbled oyster that holds the coveted top spot on Oysterater, an online repository and community rating site. Winter Pearls are grown in a specialty flip bag that moves with the water, causing the oysters inside to clatter together. Though a wild oyster will grow about an inch out per year, farmers speed development by encouraging depth over length. When the oysters collide in a flip bag, their outermost edge breaks off, forcing the shell to grow round over long, and creating room for more meat and flavour. This makes the Winter Pearl small enough to sit in my palm, but with a deep cup, almost the shape of a madeleine, and nearly as smooth. When Cataldo shucks one open, the inside is cream-coloured. It goes down easy.

An oyster wears its whole life on its shell. As it grows it accumulates ridges, pushing outward like a fingernail and sealing silt and other intruders into new layers of shell. From the exterior ridges you can get a sense of the oyster’s outer life – its run-ins with predators, its diet, the rumble of the tides – but the inside, too, is revealing. Knee-deep in the water, Cataldo scrapes a shucking knife over a vein of purple that shoots through the white inner shell, revealing a deposit trapped beneath. An oyster is a hearty soul; this one subsumed an intruder into its many layers, protecting its innermost meat from harm – until now. I eat four more, tucking their emptied shells into the pocket of my waders.

Following Cataldo’s path through the water, I have to step carefully through the sand he stirs, unable to see the bottom. There are cages to wade through, ropes reaching out, loose and overgrown oysters underfoot. As the sun starts to fade, I ask Cataldo whether he is ever afraid out here, alone, when it gets dark. I can imagine a million and one ways to die for an oyster, possible vibrio aside. Cataldo has gotten hypothermia a few times, and one winter night his foot slipped under a cage at the outermost edge of the farm. Alone in the ocean, he had to swim himself upright, untrap his boots, and wade through freezing water to shore. That day, he said, he showered for at least half an hour. Yet even by the time I am yearning for the dry warmth of my own shoes, Cataldo’s two employees, Tyler Vaughn and Ben Towne, still seem happy fixing up the trawl line. There is a special joy out on the water, where every day offers proof of new growth. It’s another reason to oyster in winter – to remember there is life yet to come.