UNC folklorist Bernie Herman rebuilds a key Eastern Shore oyster habitat | Food Feature | Indy Week
Pin It

UNC folklorist Bernie Herman rebuilds a key Eastern Shore oyster habitat 

One oyster filters approximately 50 gallons of water each day.

Photo by Rebecca Herman

One oyster filters approximately 50 gallons of water each day.

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.

Now Reusing almost exclusively features Sewansecott and Shooting Point oysters on the Lantern's menu, along with Hayman sweet potatoes, puffer fish and soft-shell crabs from the Eastern Shore.

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."

Related Locations

More by Emily Wallace


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

INDY Week publishes all kinds of comments, but we don't publish everything.

  • Comments that are not contributing to the conversation will be removed.
  • Comments that include ad hominem attacks will also be removed.
  • Please do not copy and paste the full text of a press release.

Permitted HTML:
  • To create paragraphs in your comment, type <p> at the start of a paragraph and </p> at the end of each paragraph.
  • To create bold text, type <b>bolded text</b> (please note the closing tag, </b>).
  • To create italicized text, type <i>italicized text</i> (please note the closing tag, </i>).
  • Proper web addresses will automatically become links.

Latest in Food Feature

Twitter Activity


A great little family Italian restaurant. Good menu. Quiet setting. Good service. …

by Anthony Dean Morgan on Pulcinella's Italian Restaurant (Durham County)

The Refectory is no longer on the Duke Campus. Their new, permanent location is on Chapel Hill Blvd, and yes …

by Beth Owl's Daughter on The Refectory Cafe (Durham County)

Most Read

Most Recent Comments

This is what community is FOR! Many thanks to Ms. Miel.

by Anne Havisham on A Durham Crowdfunding Campaign Still Needs $50,000 to Pay Down Student Lunch Debt (Food Feature)

@irene_krys We apologize for not catching that. The link is now in the story.


by victoria_foodeditor on A Durham Crowdfunding Campaign Still Needs $50,000 to Pay Down Student Lunch Debt (Food Feature)

Why in the world would you post something like this, with that headline, and NOT give the link for contributions?

by irene_krys on A Durham Crowdfunding Campaign Still Needs $50,000 to Pay Down Student Lunch Debt (Food Feature)

Sad to see the lie repeated that U.S. citizens won't do the work. Yes they will if the employer pays …

by citizenshame on The Immigrants Packing Your Butterball Turkey Are under Threat (Food Feature)

In a state where minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, there is always a waiting list for jobs at Butterball. …

by easternnc on The Immigrants Packing Your Butterball Turkey Are under Threat (Food Feature)

© 2017 Indy Week • 320 E. Chapel Hill St., Suite 200, Durham, NC 27701 • phone 919-286-1972 • fax 919-286-4274
RSS Feeds | Powered by Foundation