A Transformative Moment in the History of Southern Oysters

From a recent article in Saveur Magazine highlighting a new breed of Southern oysters - locally produced premium single selects:

In 2012, Sean O'Connell walked into the bar at Fig, chef Mike Lata's award-winning restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina, carrying a lunch box. O'Connell had never met Lata, but the oysterman had brought 30 raw oysters on ice, and he wanted Lata to taste them. O'Connell, who is 30, bearded, and built like a linebacker, started working for theLady's Island Oyster company in 2011. The founder, Frank Roberts, a retired Marine, raises oysters near Seabrook, South Carolina, at the convergence of tidal creeks and rivers that, due to a near constant replenishment of high-salinity ocean water, create conditions particularly conducive to prize-worthy oysters. Roberts had started selling an oyster variety he calls Single Lady oysters in farmers' markets in the late 2000s and discovered something: “If we could get someone to eat one,” he said, “it would all be over. Our oysters are our advertising.”

This was O'Connell's thinking the day he paid a visit to Lata. “He just started sucking them down,” O'Connell recalled. “He said, ‘Can I get 1,000 for tomorrow?’”

As recently as a few years ago, oysters of such uniform elegance were virtually unheard of in the American South. These oysters at The Ordinary were practically a different species from the cluster oysters I know from Bowens Island Restaurant, a defiantly gritty riverside joint 8 miles, and several worlds, from downtown Charleston. At Bowens Island, first established in 1946, jagged, ungainly clusters of oysters are steamed in a “kitchen” that resembles a hobo's canteen and served in metal buckets encrusted with dried pluff mud. South Carolinians are accustomed to cooking and eating local oysters in the Bowens Island manner: prying them apart with a worn knife and rag, washing it back with beer.

Unlike at Northeast and West Coast oyster restaurants, where the selections are presented and discussed like wine, traditional Southern bars, particularly those along the Gulf coast, are closer kin to beer-and-a-shot saloons. The oyster quality varies throughout the season, but the lack of predictability is more than offset by the price (order six and you'll probably get seven, more if you tip well), the application of cocktail sauce, and the banter of the shuckers, who tend to consider their work a kind of live performance.

The Bowens Island oysters are wonderful, like mussels with muscle, but the local oysters at The Ordinary are the kinds of things God intended to be enjoyed alongside a glass of sancerre or champagne. “Look at the difference between these oysters,” Lata began telling his customers, drawing their attention to the clean, delicate shells and sweet finish of the local specimens he served alongside more heralded oysters from the Mid-Atlantic, Northeast, and Northwest. “This is what's interesting about our city.” Over time, Lata found, “You could put all of these oysters side by side, and with informed service, a diner could have an experience that might be enlightening. People believe this is one of the best oysters they've ever eaten in their lives.”

The Ordinary has been at the forefront of a new breed of Southern restaurants: cheffy, seafood-focused places, with raw bars featuring premium local oysters. “It is a very big cultural shift,” said Bryan Rackley, the oyster-bar manager of Kimball House, in Decatur, Georgia. The restaurant, which opened in the fall of 2013, features as many as 20 different varieties at its raw bar. “We've been selling oysters from the Northeast and Northwest since day one, but it's always been a goal for me to feature Southern oysters. And recently, that's become a lot easier.”

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While the volume of cultivated oysters in the South is spiking...the supply still falls below demand. “We get calls from all over the country,” said Roberts, of Lady's Island. “But Charleston takes them all.”

The disparity in supply and demand may only get worse. A wave of new oyster bar openings has recently hit the major urban centers of Houston and Atlanta. Charleston saw four new openings in the first few months of 2016 alone, with Rappahannock Oyster Company, out of Virginia, planning to open another there later this year.

The expansion of Southern oyster bars with regional allegiances will inevitably underscore the distinctiveness of the South's sundry culinary capitals. This will be particularly true in the short term, as it's still next to impossible to find the great cultivated oysters of the Southeast far beyond the waters where they're harvested. Interstate competition, already a firmly established Southern impulse, is sure to develop.

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 The Murder Point oyster hatchery in Sandy Bay, Alabama, is producing a new Southern oyster, one that can compete with the pure, raw flavor of prized Atlantic and Pacific varieties.

The Murder Point oyster hatchery in Sandy Bay, Alabama, is producing a new Southern oyster, one that can compete with the pure, raw flavor of prized Atlantic and Pacific varieties.