America’s Love Of Oysters

by Dana Kester-McCabe

We'll hear from Charlie Pertocci, an historian and former game warden, who lectures about our seafood heritage and has organized a local seafood festival or two. I asked him to tell me about our seafood heritage here on Delmarva and America's love affair with the oyster.

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Chesapeake Oyster Harvest Chesapeake Oyster Harvest Oystermen on the Wicomico River

The oyster has a played very important part in Delmarva's heritage. There are quite a few stories we could tell about the tasty bivalve. We will save for another time the story of the oyster wars between local watermen, or the story of those the stalwarts who preserve our beloved fleet of oyster dredging Skipjacks and their way of life.

Tourism, and its relationship to seafood here on Delmarva, has its roots at the end of the Civil War. This came out of the loss and misery following the conflict. Cities became over crowded. Alcoholism was on the rise to becoming a way of life. Illnesses like tuberculosis were on the rise. So people wanted out - and escape which led to the development of places like Atlantic City, New Jersey and Ocean City, Maryland. More and more vacationers began to come to the beaches.

The men who fought in the Civil War missed the camaraderie of their war service. They began to form hunt clubs. This was not just about hunting but reflected their nostalgia for the friendships and bonding they experienced while they were in the Army. This was another reason that tourism began to increase.

Whether travelers visited Wallops Island, Wachapreague, or Ocean City and Fenwick, you can see old photographs of vacationers holding up stringers of fish that they caught. Fishing was a big part of their trip. This was before people spent their time working on tan lines.

Fishing heritage has its roots going back 150 years. It developed slowly. In the 1920's you start to see sport fishing grow as an attractions. Delmarva cities start to grow in population. More ethnic groups began to emigrate here bring their own culinary desires. They were looking for fish similar to what they were used to, to prepare their favorite dishes. So commercial and sport fishing had an important impact on our cultural and economic development.

Well it had become a sign of wealth and status to eat oysters. At the same time it was the food of the common man. Just like hot dog stands in New York people would belly up to a street stand where you they were roasting or shucking oysters and selling them for a penny or two a piece with nickel beers. We could not satiate the desire for oysters, which led to its decline. New York City for example had over a thousand oyster houses. Today there is only one left it is called the Oyster House, which is in Grand Central Station which is still there and it was founded in maybe 1886.

The oyster has been an iconic seafood product for Americans for a long time. There are folks who can taste the difference between Pacific or Olympia oysters form the American west coast or Maine Pemaquid. Charlie says it is all about the water.

Here on the Eastern Shore our claim to fame is the salt oyster. The salinity of the water where oysters are harvested determines how salty they are. As a species they will tolerate wide swings in salinity, so you find them not only on our coastal bay regions but throughout the Chesapeake all the way up to places like Rock Hall. So the quality of the water has an effect on the taste of the oyster: the more salty - the higher the price. Chincoteague salts became famous at one time.

Though they were harvested up and down the coast they were sold as Chincoteague Salts. The famous Blue Points of Long Island are another oyster. They are all the same animal: virginicus. But because of either where they came from or how they were marketed they commanded a higher price. Of course now they can be salted: placed in a salt bath for several days and then sold - theoretically - as a salt oyster.

The commercial oyster harvest season this year began in October and ends at the end of April. It is closely regulated because of declining populations of the tasty mollusk due to over harvesting, and the fluctuating health of the bays where they live.

Writer Jonathan Swift is quoted as musing: "He was a bold man that first ate an oyster." Charlie Petrocci says that he can think of up to fifteen ways to eat oysters: with variations on raw, steamed, roasted, fried, or stewed. Until next fall, oyster lovers like you and me, will just have to make do with clams.

Find out more about seafood heritage: