Chris Dollar: Eating oysters is a celebration of the simple joys of life | COMMENTARY
By Chris Dollar
Nov 22, 2020 at 6:00 AM
I took a slight detour from rockfishing recently to join my buddy to do some DIY oystering on the lower Bay. Masked up, I sat on the bow as he maneuvered his skiff out of the creek through fog-diffused first light toward an oyster bar he’d marked on his GPS. We idled past a marsh bank where we could hear voices —Youth Day waterfowlers perhaps? No way to tell if they were 50 or 500 yards away.
As I played out the anchor rode I could feel the vibrations from rattling over oysters. When it was my turn to man the 16-foot shaft tongs, they felt heavy and awkward at first. Against an outgoing tide, I could really feel the force of the water. It wasn’t embarrassingly long that I got a little rhythm, good enough for a rank amateur.
Together we hauled in 80 fine-looking bivalves; a dozen I ate from the shell, the rest I topped with smoked bacon and Manchego cheese and set under the broiler for five minutes. Then I proceeded to eat and drink myself into a most satisfying stupor.
Twenty-five years have passed since I first used shaft tongs. My tutor was the late Earl White, who was helping me to run a teacher’s trip on the Patuxent River. Years later he was named an “Admiral of the Chesapeake” for his decades-long career working bigeyes and skipjacks and then later as an authentically dynamic orator who shared his firsthand experiences of the Bay oyster fishery as an educator on the skipjack Stanley Norman.
On that day on Hawk’s Nest bar many years ago, a dozen educators and I were spellbound by his tales of endless oyster hauls and insanely ferocious storms. As he spoke he guided the tongs through the river’s swift current like a hot knife through butter. In an almost singular motion up came the shafts, with the tines loaded with oysters.
Native people simply plucked shoreline oysters as easily as you’d pick an apple, I assume, so abundant were Eastern oysters. Early European settlers mimicked them, and as following generations began to harvest more and more of these tasty and valuable shellfish, they developed more efficient tools and methods. Traditional Chesapeake shaft tongs are made of Southern longleaf yellow heart pine, which is what we were using.
The near eradication of wild Chesapeake oysters is yet another sad case of people loving something almost to death. (Paul Greenberg’s excellent book, “American Catch: The Fight for Our Local Seafood,” is a must-read on this general concept.) Long gone are the days when hundreds of reefs poked out of the Bay and its rivers at low water. Although restoration efforts continue and some success has been encouraging, it has been hard earned. Debates over the value and benefits of sanctuary reefs versus harvest reefs and ongoing disagreements about whether to invest more in aquaculture or continue to prop up a wild fishery complicates the future of this iconic shellfish.
As it has almost every aspect of our lives, coronavirus has hit hard those who make a living harvesting what’s left of the Bay’s wild oyster fishery or who grow oysters on leased bottom. To try and help ease the pain, oyster conservation groups have partnered with Bay oyster farmers to coordinate “pop up” stands where consumers can buy these holiday favorites in a responsible way.
Even individuals are stepping up — a friend is taking holiday orders from families and friends to purchase oysters from the Honga Oyster Company to be delivered in Annapolis area. Again, safety protocols are strictly in place. I’ll soon be ordering mine — one batch from a Maryland-based grower and later in December another from a Virginia grower. They’ll be eaten steamed, raw, and in stew and oyster pie.
I’m thankful that, compared to millions, my family and I have been spared the worst ravages of the pandemic. My heart aches for those who’ve suffered immeasurable loss. To me, eating oysters is, in a very small way, a celebration of the simple joys that make life worth living.
Wishing you a healthy and safe Thanksgiving. Keep your distance and mask up.
Maryland’s recreational oyster rules
The season began Oct. 1 and runs through March 31, 2021. It’s closed on all other dates. The daily catch limits are 100 oysters per person per day, and catching can take place Tuesday, Friday and Saturday from sunrise to noon.