Published March 3, 2007
For the love of oysters
They're tasty and help clean the bay
Napoleon reportedly ate them before going into battle. French revolutionaries slurped them to keep their spirits up. For ages, lovers have sworn they are an aphrodisiac.
They were once so prized that watermen literally battled one another during the "oyster wars" on the Chesapeake generations ago.
The slippery oyster has been beloved through the ages. Something about the slimy, slightly salty shellfish causes people to swear by oysters as a dinner dish - in turn, keeping scores of watermen, wholesalers and restaurateurs in business.
And more recently, folks have become more aware of the oyster's environmental properties, how they filter nasty things out of the water and clear it up.
In these parts, it's the Eastern oyster, Crassostrea virginica, that has devoted followers.
The oyster is the subject of intense attention from people who want to restore the declining population - not only for diner at seafood restaurants, but for the watermen who harvest them and for the rest of us who rely on them to help cleanse waters of the Chesapeake Bay.
Though many Marylanders today haven't jumped on the oyster bandwagon, there are plenty of people who are hopelessly devoted to the bivalve. It doesn't take long to find them.
With the sun dropping down over the Kent Narrows, painting the sky shades of red and orange, Nino Martini is seated before a plate piled high with oysters on the half shell and a bowl of oyster stew.
Before the night is out, the Crofton man calculates he'll eat more than 100 oysters during the weekly oyster buffet at Harris Crab House. Mr. Martini and his wife Lois have been coming to the oyster nights "just about every Friday" in the winter for half-a-dozen years.
And while Mr. Martini loads up on the oysters Mrs. Martini instead opts for the carved beef and vegetables. She's not quite the oyster fan her husband is.
Ironically, it was Mrs. Martini who introduced her husband to the joys of Chesapeake seafood.
"It took awhile to get adjusted to it. It takes awhile," says Mr. Martini, a native of the non-oyster town of Naples, Italy. "It's an acquired taste over time. You don't just get into it."
On Friday nights at the crab house, oysters are served up countless ways - even scalloped or with peppers and sausages.
Mr. Martini opts for some of the traditional ways of dining on the shellfish.
"I eat about maybe four or five dozen raw, then some stew and then some steamed. I also like fried oysters," he says. "But my favorite is on the half shell."
Karen Oertel oversees a small family business empire on the Kent Narrows that's built largely around the Eastern oyster.
The cornerstone of the business is W.H. Harris Seafood, the last oyster packing company for miles and miles around. In fact, it's the only full-fledged, full-time oyster packing house in Maryland, Ms. Oertel says.
The packing house does brisk business, as does the Harris Crab House next door. But it hasn't always been easy.
First overharvesting, then disease and pollution, have led to a massive decline in oysters in the bay.
But Ms. Oertel isn't one to give up without a fight.
She attends endless meetings and serves on committees aimed at restoring the oyster and properly managing the population.
Her ideas aren't always popular, such as making baby oysters available to people who own leases on oyster bars, or allowing more dredging for oysters. But she always speaks her mind - not only for the sake of her business, but for the sake of future generations who will want to enjoy a clean, bountiful Chesapeake Bay.
"I'm old enough to retire. Why do I still work 70-hour weeks?" Ms. Oertel asks. "Because this family believes in what it takes to make this happen."
"I will continue to work with the watermen and the partners that we have until we get this right. I hope it's in my lifetime," she adds. "It's going to be awhile."
Stephanie Reynolds is a fisheries scientist, but many people know her by a different title: "oyster wrangler."
The spunky redhead isn't shy about hauling heavy bags of oyster shells, giving tips to volunteer "oyster gardeners" or donning a hard hat and lending a hand on the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Patricia Campbell for restoration projects.
"I feel lucky because I have a job that allows me a lot of time out in the field in spring, summer and fall," Ms. Reynolds says.
And in the winter, she's often pacing the marble corridors in the State House, convincing politicians to put money and resources into oyster restoration.
Ms. Reynolds wasn't always an oyster wrangler.
She grew up sailing and spending time outdoors and after college, she served as captain or crew on a variety of educational boats - a skipjack, a bayboat, a deadrise workboat and the Pride of Baltimore II.
Invariably, those educational trips involved teaching participants about oysters and their environmental, economic and cultural value in the Chesapeake region. Eventually, she gravitated to working primarily on oyster projects for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, based in Bay Ridge outside Annapolis.
Ms. Reynolds says she enjoys telling people about the successes that have been achieved in restoring oysters. But she acknowledges there's a long way to go.
"It certainly takes an optimist to pursue this because the oysters have been so decimated over the years," she says. "But I do genuinely believe what we're doing will be fruitful and I get to see it."
House of Delegates Speaker Michael E. Busch is a busy man with a lot of worthy issues vying for his attention: school construction, voting laws, balancing the state budget and the like.
But this year he picked oysters as one of his top priorities for the current General Assembly session.
Mr. Busch, D-Annapolis, works in oyster talk whenever he gets the chance, even when discussing issues such as taxes or gambling.
He's pushing a bill that he says will improve restoration and crack down on poachers. He's also supporting more money for the University of Maryland lab that creates baby oysters, called spat.
"I've tried to convince every legislator here," he says.
Mr. Busch's sudden passion for oysters has its root in the annual Blessing of the Fleet event at Discovery Village in Shady Side.
While there, he stopped by a Chesapeake Bay Foundation oyster demonstration.
In the demo, CBF staffers fill aquaria with bay water, then add oysters into the tanks at different points. One tank usually remains oyster-less.
The difference in water clarity is usually startling to observers.
The demonstration was enough to sell Mr. Busch on the environmental benefits of oysters.
"I'm convinced one of the keys to cleaning up the bay is to restore the natural filter," he says.
Since the Blessing of the Fleet, Mr. Busch says he's talked with scientists and watermen to learn more about oysters.
And he appreciates the serendipity that got him interested in oysters in the first place.
"In life, sometimes it's incidental encounters that can change your opinion of things," he says.
(Revised March 2007)