Where craggy mounds of shells once sneaked up on ships like icebergs, it is now mainly mud. Oyster reefs in the Chesapeake Bay have diminished by an estimated 64 percent during the last century, with much of that decline occurring over the last few decades.
Bernie Herman chairs the Department of American Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill (where I worked with him as a graduate student in folklore) and grew up on the Eastern Shore. He recalls "big rocks of oysters"—a description that echoes John Smith's 1608 account of a bay where "oysters lay thick as stones." Thus, when Herman purchased a second home on the peninsula in 2002, he was "stunned about how few there seemed to be."
With his new property came the option for five acres of leasable underwater land. So Herman decided to use it to help right what years of pollution, oyster overharvesting and disease had undone. He set out to rebuild a reef on the banks of Westerhouse Creek.
"I thought, how hard can it be? It's an oyster," Herman recalls.
But it's not a simple thing. As Herman learned, the small mollusk is an incredibly complex creature capable of big things.
For one, it makes an excellent dish, whether raw, roasted, broiled, fried or baked. And according to folklore, now is the time to eat one—during the cooler months ending in 'r.' But there's more to the bivalve than its culinary appeal. One oyster filters approximately 50 gallons of water each day. "It's twice as efficient as a clam," Herman explains.
Herman rattles off scientific figures, which include terms such as spatfall (the attachment of an oyster to a surface) and culch (a bed for oysters). They're part of a specialized vocabulary he appreciates, saying, "As a folklorist, you just have to love a linguistic community, and this is a definite one."
Between semesters and grading papers, Herman puts into practice the terms and methods he learned from neighbors and books on mollusk zoology. As a result, he now oversees what's arguably the largest single private oyster restoration project in Virginia.
Herman's efforts to rebuild on the Eastern Shore don't end at his own oyster beds, which are intended for restorative rather than commercial use. He is also interested in the peninsula's larger community. There are fewer people living in this impoverished area, and to reverse the trend will require ambitious economic development projects.
"The typical way to think about that is, 'Let's import jobs. Let's import a chicken processing plant,'" Herman says. "I think there's a place for everything, but here in this area that's so environmentally sensitive and to which people feel so deeply attached, there's different possibility."
Herman found that potential in an old adage about home restoration: "What song does this house sing best?" Asking the same of the Eastern Shore, Herman answered, "It sings that song about water, about fish, about oysters, about agriculture—things like figs, Hayman sweet potatoes . . . pomegranates and all these other things that people have grown."
As a folklorist, Herman interviewed locals about their experiences with such foods, including black duck and dumplings, and what it's like to go out on an oyster boat. His idea, he says, was "if the narrative was good, and if the food was good, [I could] package those together and create jobs that are grounded in what people [on the Eastern Shore] have always done better than anyone else."
He kept his initial goals small: to "create one job for one person so one family didn't have to leave."
To raise awareness about the Eastern Shore and its offerings, Herman has written dozens of articles (including a recent piece in the November issue of Saveur) and given many talks. But his most successful endeavor is probably a trip he hosted with his wife, Becky, in the summer of 2010. Following a conversation with Dr. Marcie Cohen Ferris at UNC-Chapel Hill, Herman invited chefs, academics and food writers to his home on the shore for a two-day intensive food tour. Among the guests were Ferris; Molly O'Neill, author of One Big Table; John T. Edge of the Southern Foodways Alliance; Lolis Eric Elie, now of Treme fame; Bill Smith of Crook's Corner; and Andrea Reusing of Lantern.
Herman introduced the group to briny oysters and sugary white sweet potatoes, but more important, to the purveyors of such foods, including oysterman Tom Gallivan of Shooting Point Oyster Company.
"It was a totally unique opportunity for us to get in touch with small producers who we otherwise wouldn't have gotten to meet," Reusing says of the trip.
It's a tangible result of which Herman is proud. "Here we are in a place that, until we started down this road, the oysters you got came from the Gulf, when the oysters you could be getting come from less than 200 miles [away]."
It's a point The News & Observer made known in June when it reported that, like Virginia, North Carolina's oyster population has also significantly plummeted over the last century, resulting in restaurants with oysters primarily sourced from the Gulf Coast.
That's at least no longer the case on a section of West Franklin Street. Alongside Lantern, Smith says he's also "using soft-shell crabs and oysters [at Crook's Corner] from folks [he] met on that trip."
To taste one of those mollusks is to sample a part of the Eastern Shore. Due to salinity levels and other factors that shift even mile-to-mile in different waters—be it an ocean, creek or estuary—oysters reveal the place from which they've come. They tell a specific story of their home. And that, as Herman has demonstrated, can yield significant results that serve as a model worthy of study well beyond the sandy banks of the Chesapeake.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Behold the majestic oyster."