"They just taste of the essence of the sea and all of its wildness and romance and adventure. It startles me every time I taste a good oyster, just how rich and magnificent an experience it is." -- Mark Kurlansky, author of The Big Oyster, on NPR, 2006
A Gift from the Bay
For some, oysters mean a special-occasion evening served up with white tablecloths and champagne. Others are introduced at local oyster bars and buck-a-shuck nights. But behind those glistening slips of briny goodness resting on beds of ice is an industry that goes back centuries here on the Chesapeake Bay.
In the late 1800’s, shucking houses lined the shores of the Chesapeake to meet the booming demand for oysters. As supply decreased, watermen expanded to harvesting other fish and seafood and shucking houses closed. Today, eff orts to restore the rich oyster beds of the Chesapeake are having an impact, and a handful of shucking houses are again doing a brisk business.
Oystering is hard work, and while there is art and poetry in the harvesting and in the shucking, the days are long and the environment gritty – and about as far as you can get from sterling trays and wedges of lemon on dainty forks. But it is here that the marvel and mystery of the oyster can be best appreciated.
There is beauty in the cadence and rhythm of the watermen as they pull in ‘licks’ of oysters at first light. In the practiced preparations to meet buyers of the day’s haul. In the sorting of what gets shucked and what goes to market whole. And in the blur of shuckers’ hands as they work magic on the gnarly shells with skills – and tools – passed down for generations.
The heady taste and singular ‘merroir’ of a Chesapeake oyster is like no other. On these shores, photographer Jay Fleming celebrates the watermen, brokers, shuckers, and chefs who respect and revere this humble, ancient gift from the Bay.
Photo 1: Hand Tongers, harvesting wild oysters, work at the mouth of Broad Creek near its confluence to the Choptank River. Neavitt, Maryland
Photo 2: There is a different knife for every type of oyster. The structure of a shell determines what knife is best to use for shucking.
Photo 3: This wild oyster is also home to a pea crab.
Photo 4: Johnny Shockley of Hoopers Island Oyster Company empties the dredge full of oysters and shell while power dredging in Fishing Bay. Crocheron, Maryland
Photo 1: Hand Tongers, silhouetted at sunrise, work in Broad Creek. Neavitt, Maryland.
Photo 2: Justin Leondhardt, the hatchery manager at Hoopers Island Oyster Company, works in the nursery on the Honga River. Fishing Creek, Maryland
Photo 3: Oyster shuckers lined up in the shucking room at Harris Seafood, one of two full-time shucking houses in Maryland. They process oysters year-round and ship live oysters and shucked meats to markets throughout the United States. Grasonville, Maryland
Photo 4: Oyster Shucker Anna Rogers poses for a portrait outside of the shucking room at Harris Seafood. Anna uses empty bread bags to keep her clothing clean while working, a tradition that was handed down to her from her grandmother, who also shucked oysters at Queen Anne’s County Shucking houses throughout her career. Grasonville, Maryland
Photo 1: Nationally-ranked shucker Gardner Douglas serves up oysters harvested by hand tongers working in Broad Creek. Bozman,Maryland.
Photo 2: Oyster seed used in aquaculture at Harris Seafood. Grasonville, Maryland.