Whats So Special About Oysters?!?! (From The Mud To Our Tables).

How much do you know about oysters?  Up until a few months ago…I knew nothing.  Literally I knew they clustered together, somewhere out in the marshlands and you can order them at your fav restaurant either cooked (steamed, grilled, baked, fried) or raw on the half shell.  Yep, that about sums up my previous knowledge.  I feel like these last few weeks, have really been enlightening and I have really enjoyed talking with the oyster pros.  It is fascinating stuff.  It’s an art form, a science….but its also back-breaking, arthritis causing, hard-hard-hard work.  I had no idea how much time, skill and devotion goes into delivering those little bivalves from the muddy banks their grown in, till they get to our tables. So, here’s my interruption from what I have learned while on my water excursions with the oyster pros about what the life cycle of an oyster looks like.  My lessons have come from several oyster experts (however for this particular article I drew the information from my time on the water with: (the famous) Clammer Dave (who harvests and locally supplies: Capers Blades), Robert Barber (owner of Bowen’s Island restaurant), Jaime White (independent oyster harvester, who works with Mr. Barber), DNR (dnr.sc.gov) and (saltwater fishing.gov.sc).  A BIG thanks to Clammer Dave for spending an entire afternoon with me and taking me out to his harvesting area, this guy is a legend and I felt really honored to get the chance to hang out with him.  Another BIG thanks to Robert Barber for sharing his stories of nearly 70 years of family heritage in the oyster business and arranging for me to go out in his fields with one of the harvesters he works with, Jamie White.  Jamie, I really appreciate you letting me get in the fields with you and get my hands dirty while learning about this amazing process.

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HERES THE CYCLE:

Oyster clusters produce the breeding beds for the oyster sperm and egg to join together and produce a fertilized egg. That egg then spends about 2 weeks freely swimming (larvae stage) and looks for the proper surface to attach to (usually neighboring oyster clusters) once it finds something (not just any surface, but a very particular kind) it secretes a sticky liquid and attaches to the surface, this process is about 2 weeks.  The egg (spat) then attaches and spends roughly the next 2-3 years maturing.  The individual oysters need to breathe and sometimes they get overcrowded and the most mature oysters (usually the center ones) sometimes die from the inability to breathe (that’s why its important for the oyster pros) to tend their banks and help bust up the clusters (to allow the more mature ones to continue living-or when they are ready, harvest them).  This allows the smaller and medium ones to be separated and given the time and space to mature. The longer the oyster is fully submerged in water the larger it will become, (this is why the tides are so important) the deeper the oysters are located on the bank, the larger they will be, because they have had more time to grow then the ones higher on the beds.  The tides are also extremely important because you can’t get to the beds until the tides are almost dropped to low tide (the banks are under water the majority of the time).  Once the oyster pro decides which oysters are to be harvested, they may choose to harvest in a variety of ways, grabbing clusters (possibly breaking them up significantly or partially, much of this depends on where the oysters are going and what their purpose is, also the style and art of each oyster harvester is very individualized and different).

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(the little circular area on the oyster is the spat).

Once the oysters are chosen and put into the baskets (the timer begins) oysters once taken from the water are allowed a very specific time frame until they have to be put in refrigerated coolers kept between 35-40 degrees f.  Once taken out of the water, they are taken to a processing area to be; 1. cleaned, 2. bagged and tagged, 3. placed in the coolers.

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^(Clammar Dave at work, the pics above are a basket of his famous singles known as: Capers Blades).

I asked several professional harvesters what their average “good work day” looked like.  Most of them had very similar time frames they worked out in the fields (all organized around the tides, which change daily).  Once you get to the boat and head out to the oyster banks (where you can and can’t harvest is a whole process of its own), there are several different kind of oyster grounds that are allowed to be harvested: private grounds, state grounds and public grounds (for specific permitting laws and allowances visit: dnr.gov.sc).  Once you get to the banks (usually an hour or two before low tide hits) you then break apart the clusters, harvest and continue.  This process will continue for several hours, until the tide rolls back in.  The average time working in the banks is usually around 3-5 hours.  Each professional I spoke with, I asked the same question to: “on a good day, how many bushels will you bring back in?”  The response was drastically different.  The variance was between 3-18 bushels.  Like I mentioned, it depends on where they are going and who you’re selling them to.  If you are collecting for an oyster roast (13-18$ a bucket) your cluster harvesting isn’t taking as much time per bushel as it would if you are specifically looking for mature singles that will be used in preparation for making oysters on the half shell (estimated average 2-3$ a piece).  Those are some big differences, as in any trade, everyone has their own process and way they work and goals they are trying to achieve.

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^(In this photo) Jamie White has just finished breaking apart a larger cluster and this smaller one allows for the oyster to have more space to grow and breathe).

Once the oysters get back to the processing area, they need to be excessively rinsed to remove as much mud and dirt as possible, this can take about an hour or more depending on the size of your harvest.  They then need to be bagged, tagged (with times, and location of where the harvest occurred along with other pertinent info) then loaded up and transferred to the refrigerated coolers.

The oysters are then sold (either directly or through a distributor).  They get to your restaurant or grocery store and then we (the people who love eating oysters) dive in and get to it!!! Once that heavenly meal is consumed, (if enjoying at home or at a private oyster roast) the shells should be recycled at a proper distribution site (DNR has several locations listed on their website)  Each county has several drop off centers.  A few tips about shell recycling:

  • the shells need to be separated from garbage
  • they should be rinsed
  • they should then be dropped off at a DNR approved site (because they need to be contained separately from living oyster banks for about 6 months) before being transported to an oyster reef (there are numerous volunteers groups that arrange oyster reef relocations in the area: check out the Charleston Waterkeeper website to see when upcoming volunteer opportunities are happening).
  • There is a science to oyster shells being relocated back in the water to suitable grounds for the spat to attach and grow (you can not just go and dump them in the marshland…just because they are in the water, doesn’t mean the spat can access them or that the water is suitable enough conditions for them to grow).

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^ (This is a photo at Bowens Island, they do their own oyster shell relocation (reefing) with leftover shells after their oyster roasts).

And then we are back to the beginning.  The spat attach to a suitable surface and it starts all over again.  From spat to consumer consumption ~>shells properly recycled back to the banks~>2-3 years! So, the next time you eat an oyster, think about all that.  I asked Mr. Barber, who owns Bowen’s Island restaurant what was the 1 thing he hopes that someone reading this article will take away….his response;

“The average person has no idea how much time or work goes into delivering an oyster.  They are a delicacy and need to be appreciated and respected.”

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I couldn’t agree more!