Our Ultimate Guide to Oysters
Everything You Wanted To Know About Hampton Roads’ Beloved Bivalve
Image provided by Lynnhaven River NOW
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The history of oysters in America is forever and indelibly linked to the history of Virginia.
On April 26, 1607, Captain Christopher Newport and the Virginia Company colonists, including 104 men and boys, had been crammed in three small ships for almost five months, sailing from England and landing at present day Cape Henry in Virginia Beach.
Their charter from King James I instructed them to find a water route to Asia, gold and other riches.
There wasn’t a shortcut to Shanghai, nor any precious metals, but what they did find and wrote about is one of the longest, most enduring and most satisfying riches of all: an abundance of seafood.
“The main river [James] abounds with sturgeon, very large and excellent good, having also at the mouth of every brook and in every creek both store and exceedingly good fish of divers kinds. In the large sounds near the sea are multitudes of fish, banks of oysters ...”
The day after landing at Cape Henry, a group, which included diarist George Percy, began to explore, marching “eight miles up into the land,” probably around the present site of Lynnhaven Bay.
“We came to a place where they (the Native Americans) had made a great fire, and had been newly roasting Oysters. When they perceived our coming, they fled away to the mountains (large sand dunes), and left many of the Oysters in the fire. We eat some of the Oysters, which were very large and delicate in taste.”
That’s the first written record of prepared food in what would become English-speaking America; the first food review, if you will, and it seems the roasted Lynnhaven oysters were a critics’ choice. More than 400 years later, they still are.
Other Uses for Oysters
The 18th century started with oysters still making an impact.
“The abundance of oysters is incredible. There are whole banks of them so that ships must avoid them ... They surpass those of England by far in size ... they are four times as large. I often cut them in two, before I could put them in my mouth.”
It was also about this time that tongs came into use, which allowed harvesting oysters from deeper waters.
Fresh or roasted oysters weren’t the only ones enjoyed at this time; in an era before refrigeration or safe canning methods, folks pickled oysters to preserve them for later enjoyment.
Oysters—or rather their shells—also took on a new importance during this time too.
Colonial Williamsburg says oyster shells are one of the most common artifacts recovered from 18th-century excavation sites along the Chesapeake Bay not just because they were a popular food item—on their own or in recipes—but also for household applications.
Shells were scattered, whole and crushed across drives and yards in a time before pavement to act as a buffer against mud. They were also burned, which produced lime for use in plaster, and crushed to mix with lime, sand and water to make tabby, a building material.
Within 100 years, the oyster was entering its Golden Age.
Oyster Bars and Oyster Wars
The 1800s ushered in a new era for the oyster.
A find of a massive reef near Tangier Island and new methods like dredging increased production. This also fueled a new taste for them culinarily, and new applications for the shells, including agricultural lime and grit for chicken feed.
Production increased: some 13 million bushels were taken from the Chesapeake Bay in 1865. In 1875 some 17 million bushels were harvested, and a decade later it was more than 20 million bushels.
With an increase in oyster production, more oystermen took to the water, and during this time women and African-Americans found work in oyster houses shucking the bivalve and, with improved technology, at canneries sending the oysters off around the world.
Oysters were sold in city/municipal markets as well as at docks. Enterprising vendors sold them in carts on the street, both raw and roasted. Oyster bars opened, serving them in the same fashion along with imbibes.
But an ugly side of the oyster manifested itself in the mid 19th century, too.
From about 1865 to about 1959 the Oyster Wars took place, a conflict that included oyster pirates and (sometimes bloody) disputes between oystermen in Virginia and Maryland against themselves and each other over water harvesting rights in the Chesapeake Bay.
As the new century dawned, the oyster was king, and fit for a king, or at least a president. In 1909, President William Howard Taft visited O’Keefe’s Casino at Cape Henry and dined on Virginia ham and Virginia (Lynnhaven) oysters—raw and roasted—reportedly more than 10 dozen total.
It would not be long, however, until the heyday came to an end.