Aw, shucks. July 10, 2014Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
Tags: Annapolis, history of oyster industry, oyster museum, oysterhouses, oysters, raw oysters
Silence Dogood here, presenting the highlights of my trip with our friend Ben down to Annapolis, Maryland, this past weekend. One of the most priceless things we did was visit the Annapolis Maritime Museum. Now mind you, when OFB and I think “maritime museum,” we envision a museum packed to the gills with sailing ships, shells, and seafaring lore, like the one we’ve been to in Beaufort, North Carolina (which, as the home of Blackbeard, is also full of pirate-related items). I insisted that we go to the Annapolis Maritime Museum ASAP.
As it turned out, this particular museum wasn’t a maritime museum at all. Instead, housed in the last operational oyster-packing plant in Annapolis, it was a museum of the oyster industry in Annapolis (and doubtless many other sites along the Atlantic seacoast). There was only one ship in the museum, and it had been cut into three parts so you could see what an oyster boat looked like both outside and in.
As our docent (museum guide) told us, this particular oyster plant had been in operation from 1919 to about 1989, when depletion of the oyster beds finally forced it to close its doors. (The harvest dwindled from 3 million to 100,000 a year.) She showed us the room where the oysters were dumped out from the boats, and the oystercatchers employees used to collect them (they looked like heavy-duty rakes facing each other, with long wooden poles attached).
She explained that boys raced to the shucking stations, where employees waited, with wheelbarrows full of freshly harvested oysters. Each shucker had his or her own personal shucking knife, typically short-handled, thin-bladed, and with a scoop-shaped end to scoop the oyster out of its shell once the knife had pried the shell open. She said the shucking style varied, from prying the shell open at the front to severing the muscle that held the shell closed at the back, but that all experienced shuckers had one trait in common: They worked at lightning speed.
Every shucker was supplied with buckets that held exactly a gallon of shucked oysters. The faster they could fill those buckets, the more money they made, since they were paid by the gallon. Once they delivered their gallon to the front, the oysters were poured out onto a slanted shute and counted, then agitated in a large barrel of fresh water to dislodge sand and silt. Finally, they were drained and packed, alive, in cans with clear tops so buyers could see them. The cans were sealed, and the oysters, still alive, were shipped on ice via, of all things, zeppelins, to their destinations in the Midwest and throughout the East. Once delivered, as long as they were packed on ice, they would live for about two weeks.
This was not exactly the “Stairway to Heaven” that I associate with zeppelins. The docent repeatedly emphasized that the oysters weren’t cooked, canned, or pasteurized in any sense that I was aware of. They were sealed in those cans and shipped off raw and alive. And she assured me that, if I’d ever eaten raw oysters, I’d still be getting them out of those same cans. All I wanted to do was scream “Thank God I’ve never eaten an oyster in my life!!!” But I thought that might come off as rude, so I tried to keep my mouth shut and my eyes from bulging completely out of my head.
The hilarious counterpoint to this adventure came when we thanked the docent and went out to the dock at the back of the museum so we could circle back to our car. We were met by a man charging at us with one of the long-poled oystercatchers, shouting “Get out of our way! Coming through!!!”
As OFB and I dove for the sides of the dock, the matriarch of the family explained that her grandson had dropped his cellphone into the water and her husband was trying to rescue it with the oystercatcher, conveniently located on the dock as a historical display. Her daughter, the mother of the kid who’d dropped his cellphone, added that, if they could fish it out of the water, they could put it in a bag of dry rice and see if they could revive it. (I’ve read that this actually works, but have never had to try it.)
Sadly, OFB and I managed to get in our car and depart before we found out if the family had succeeded in retrieving the cellphone. But using the oystercatcher to try to scoop it up was certainly a display of ingenuity worthy of the early oyster industry, and the men and women who provided America with an endless supply of oysters.
Today, Annapolis derives many of its raw oysters from carefully managed artisanal oyster farms. A restaurant I wrote about yesterday, Factors Row Restaurant & Bar, features at least a dozen of these family-farmed operations’ oysters on its menu. I’m so glad. But I’m still never, ever eating one.
‘Til next time,