Going Deep Into Oyster Country
From coastal Virginia to New York and New Orleans, a writer delves into the history and lore surrounding the shellfish, with a focus on the role African Americans have played over the years.,
On the marsh-bound causeway to Chincoteague Island on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, cars and their drivers seemed to float across the still waters of Queens Sound. As I made my way across, I thought of how, in centuries past, skiffs drifted through the region’s bays, channels and coves in search of shellfish. Back then, before fish-farming became popular, the land itself functioned as a sort of natural pier for its residents who wrangled clams and oysters and terrapin, as thick as treasure, from beds in the brackish water.
My visit to Chincoteague last September was part of an exploration of an American tradition rich in history and lore. A few weeks after that trip, I would head to the opposite side of the Chesapeake, to Leonardtown, Md. — home of the St. Mary’s County Oyster Festival and National Shucking Competition. On my journey through the region, I wanted to delve into something that had been a part of my childhood: the culture surrounding oysters. I was curious about the difference between the tradition, here, along the eastern Virginia coast, and in places like New York City and New Orleans, where I’m from. As an African-American and native Southerner, I also wanted to explore how Black culture figured in — to see if the world of oysters reflected something larger about the American experience across racial lines.
Years ago, growing up on Louisiana’s Gulf Coast, I’d watch oyster shuckers, usually Black men, popping open shell after shell, joking with guests on the opposite side of the bar while they worked. They reminded me of my uncles at our family seafood boil, who shared stories as they stood around an 80-quart pot. In New York and other cities to the north, the lifestyle surrounding oysters seemed altogether different, from the well-attired shuckers at fancy restaurants, down to the serving plates and wine pairings. I wanted to know more about this difference in attitude toward the shellfish and the kinds of experiences they conjured.
A Black oysterman from coastal Virginia
Chincoteague was quiet on this clear blue day in September, but between the succession of seafood shacks and ice-cream parlors I felt the pulse of a town aware of its history. The regional boom in oysters that began in the mid-19th-century still hangs over the place whose nearness to waters that were once rich with oyster reefs allowed the industry to thrive.
I stopped at the town’s museum, where I found rustic oyster tools and shells, and exhibits in the front room on the boats that were used for various maritime activities, such as duck hunting and shellfish dredging. Past the “Misty” exhibition (about a beloved wild pony), I fiddled with a pair of traditional oyster tongs, which are rarely used these days and resemble a pair of rakes slanted across one another and bolted together, and tried my hand at raking loose shells from beneath a mound of boxed-in sand.
In one corner, there was an area dedicated to the African-American experience on Chincoteague Island. I read through the text on the wall and then examined a photo of Black men shucking oysters in an adjacent section. Strangely, I didn’t come across any mention of one of the area’s most famous Black oystermen — Thomas Downing, who would eventually become the acclaimed proprietor of Downing’s Oyster House, a 19th-century oyster cellar in New York City.
Downing was born on Virginia’s Eastern Shore in 1791 to a Black family whose freedom had been granted after a traveling preacher convinced the Downing’s slaveholder that it was bad faith to be both a member of the Methodist Church and hold enslaved people. Post-enslavement, the Downings stayed in Accomack County on the Virginia shore and eventually acquired a small plot of land. The family became a part of the Chincoteague community where they were said to have regularly hosted prominent whites of the county before and after church on Sundays — a relationship that at least appeared to approach being neighborly, though it still evoked a resemblance to antebellum culture, in which enslaved Black people cooked meals for white plantation families.
Historically, African-American neighborhoods were tucked away from the waterfront, so if you want to look for traces of the Downings’ life on Chincoteague, you might go farther inland to higher ground where the Union Baptist and Christ United Methodist churches are. A local podcast series called The Bivalve Trail further describes Thomas Downing’s story on Chincoteague, following his journey all the way to New York.
Years after Downing learned to tong oysters on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, the wider Chesapeake region became one of the largest producers of oysters in North America. That changed in the 1970s and ’80s when the annual harvest sharply declined from the more than 25 million pounds that Virginia and Maryland had been producing just a decade or so before. A combination of overharvesting as well as a surge of waterborne disease led to the depletion of the region’s oyster reefs, which, despite ongoing efforts to revitalize them, are still far from their peak. Both Maryland and Virginia, once titans of wild oyster production, now turn out less than 250,000 pounds a year.
So it’s not surprising that the region has pivoted to aquaculture. Oyster farmers have largely replaced oyster tongers, and while raising oysters doesn’t replace the wonder that comes with unearthing shells from a wild reef, the practice allows farmers to protect oyster seed from predators, disease and even the simple threat of soft mud, which, given the absence of a hardened reef, could bury and suffocate an oyster.
In New York, a storied 19th-century oyster cellar
When Downing moved to New York City in 1819, he quickly became acquainted with the Hudson River, where he fixated on finding the best of the best on the New Jersey side of the river. Downing knew that oysters were sought after in New York, and he made friends fast and patrons faster. Eventually he opened his own cellar, Downing’s Oyster House, on Broad Street in 1825, where he’d serve Charles Dickens and a whole world of white elites. Even Queen Victoria ate oysters sent to her by Downing.
The culture surrounding oysters started changing during the 19th century. There were the blue-collar oystermen that Downing left behind on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, but New York City had its own oystermen who would transform their homes into dining cellars for those wanting a no-frills meal fresh from the sea.
When Downing arrived in New York, oyster cellars — many of them Black-operated and supplied by Black oystermen — were already popular, but they were not considered respectable places for serious dining. Downing believed that he could distinguish himself by appealing to the businessmen in the Financial District. With savings from years of working as an oysterman in Philadelphia and New York, he decorated his restaurant with damask curtains, a chandelier and fine carpeting. In the evening, businessmen would even bring their wives to Downing’s, which was significant since oyster houses typically weren’t thought of as “proper.”
His restaurant flourished. The new dining haven signaled a shift in the way people perceived oysters, both as a food and social experience. It’s this complexity in the cultural interpretation of oysters and the way they’ve been represented over time that fascinates me.
Smoked oysters, raw oysters and everything in between
About a month after my visit to Chincoteague, on a windy October afternoon, I walked through the gates of the St. Mary’s County fairgrounds in Leonardtown, Md., to attend the county’s annual oyster festival and national shucking competition. There seemed to be more beers and ball caps than you’d see at a baseball game. Lines snaked in various directions from the vendor tents whose offerings ranged from kettle corn and ice cream to smoked oysters, raw oysters and skewered bacon.
I tried the day’s first pair of raw oysters in a tasting tent that featured craft beers alongside a bounty of regionally farmed oysters. The shuckers themselves worked as unpretentious ushers to the whole experience, prying open the oysters and revealing the glistening shellfish.
The feeling was homey, relaxed, a far cry from the patina of luxury apparent in many places in the Northeast, a connoisseurs’ arena, much like winemaking. Bluepoints (an oyster native to Long Island’s Great South Bay) are as much of a brand name as Bordeaux, each denoting a region as a way to signify value and authenticity.
At the festival in St. Mary’s County, there was little trace of those refined associations. On my second round, I picked up a half dozen oysters inside a barn where shuckers worked in a fluid line, and took my plate to the dining section, which consisted of standing tables constructed of thin plywood held up by sawhorses. Here, people leaned over their plates, dousing their oysters with hot sauce.
Back outside, I came across a man wearing a tall pair of waterproof, wide-mouthed shrimp boots. He looked like he’d just finished hauling oysters. With his shirt tucked into his jeans and his jeans tucked into his boots, he upturned a Bud Light can and sighed; I felt my own posture loosen as he quenched his thirst. To the right of him was a tailgate filled with empty shells.
Long before I’d ever tasted an oyster, I’d seen Black men shuck them behind bars in New Orleans, talking up a storm as they flitted their knives as quickly as their wrists could manage. They always seemed to be the dressed-down stars of the evening. The tourists (usually white) would laugh throughout the night, enjoying the service as much as what was on their plate. It was a part of the experience: to be in New Orleans was to be charmed by its locals, especially those who fit into neat caricatures — the street musician, the confectioner, the oyster shucker (all most likely Black).
The oysters themselves are somewhat blander than the Northeastern fare with their crisp brininess. Since the Gulf of Mexico stays warm throughout the year, Gulf Coast oysters are softer. And since the Mississippi River flushes its freshwater at the foot of the Gulf’s estuaries, the salinity of oysters is tame.
Chesapeake oysters are also considered mild on the spectrum of salinity, affected by the freshwater runoff from the James, Rapphannock, Potomac and Susquehanna rivers, which knocks the bay’s oysters down the choice list of many connoisseurs.
But such analysis wasn’t part of the scene at the St. Mary’s County Oyster festival. As I settled into the wooden bleachers for the shucking competition, it was clear that for many this was the main event. The bleachers filled up quickly and others straddled the short fence that separated the crowd from the stage, which was decorated with the flags representing each of the states that the competitors had come from. Participants and crowd members who brought their own chairs and blankets convened on the other side of the fence in a field, and a local bluegrass band played off to the right.
The competition spanned two days. The first day had been cut short by bad weather; on the second, I traded bits of conversation with a woman sitting beside me. She and her husband, she said, were from the county and attended the festival every year, which she said had stayed pretty much the same. Many of the people on the stage were familiar to her, including a woman named Deborah Pratt, who was introduced as a champ who’d won the national competition at least four times.
Ms. Pratt, older now and equipped with an oxygen tank, received a warm welcome from the crowd as she took her place among the other competitors in the women’s final. It was clear that she had become a fixture at the festival, which was celebrating its 55th year. As a Black woman from Jamaica, Va., farther south along the Chesapeake, in a mostly white crowd, she appeared to be something of a star. Before the final commenced, she gave a speech where she seemed to announce her retirement, calling out farewells to the crowd before thanking the people who had, in her words, thrown their arms around her in protection as the lone Black woman in competitions throughout the years. “Ain’t everybody bad,” she said. “There’s a lot of good people in this world.”
The moment was moving, but it did make me reflect on how much she’d likely endured or narrowly avoided in this part of Americana, something I could relate to as a Black man there from out of town. I stayed wary, but was comfortable that in this setting, most negative sentiments would be contained.
Part of the tradition of the competition was that after a round of shucking was completed, the competitors would bring their tray of half shells to the fence where spectators would grab them for eating. The husband of the woman I had been sharing conversation with mentioned that watching the crowd fumble up to the fence with extended hands was an added layer of entertainment. And, for them, it was the only time they really ate oysters, the woman told me. Otherwise, oysters were just a part of the novelty of their town and too expensive to enjoy regularly.
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