Shirley W. Mayhew

Shirley W. Mayhew

Courtesy of Shirley Mayhew

When I met Johnny Mayhew, my future husband, in 1946, he had just returned to Brown University to finish his education after three years as a WW2 Navy fighter pilot in the Pacific. He was a handsome 26-year-old veteran, and I was a 20-year-old naive college sophomore, with no clue as to what my future might hold. After growing up all over the Orient and then fighting in a war, Johnny was eager to settle down to a more peaceful existence on the Island where nine generations of his forebears had lived. As an English major, he had no specific business skills, but his cousins, Everett and John Whiting, along with their friend, Willie Huntington, decided to start up an oyster company on Tisbury Great Pond. They called it Quansoo Shellfish Farm and hired Johnny to do the actual work, gathering and marketing the oysters.

Johnny and I spent the first 12 years of our married life with Quansoo Shellfish Farm from 1947-1950, and then with Vineyard Shellfish Company, a small corporation we formed in 1950, trying to support ourselves by growing oysters while we produced three children and dreamed about a house of our own. Farming oysters is a hard way to make a living. Johnny says we lived on “oysters and air.”

After some initial opposition from fishermen in West Tisbury, we were able to lease 100 acres of Tisbury Great Pond bottom. Then we leased a parcel of land on the pond belonging to Mildred Purdom, and built a shucking shed. In 1951 we had a specialized boat made by Luther Blount of Rhode Island. It was designed to fit the needs of dredging oysters in a pond, and we named it Deborah June after our daughter, born that April. Johnny hired several young men to help run the boat and dredge the oysters. Kib Bramhall, Tommy Flynn, George King, Albie Scott, Kent Healy, and Roland Authier were among some of the young men who spent their first working days dredging oysters from the Deborah June almost 60 years ago.

Until I married, and in ’47 settled on the Vineyard, I’d never tasted a lobster, let alone an oyster. My mother, born and raised in the Midwest and the cook of the home, was not a fish eater. Growing up in Westchester County, New York, we ate a lot of chicken and pot roast and meat loaf when I was young, and I hadn’t learned how to cook. For years when Johnny introduced me, he liked to say, “She didn’t know how to boil water when I married her.” Well, I did know how to boil water, but I was nonplussed when, on our first morning home after our honeymoon, he wanted scrambled eggs for breakfast. I’d never ever scrambled an egg. And I certainly had no idea I would be slurping down live oysters—ever….

For many years I would never serve an oyster dish to company. I thought of oysters as food for the poor, as we were then. It wasn’t until the early ’70s that I served an oyster stew to a few friends who dropped in on Christmas afternoon. When they were enthusiastic about it, I realized I had a good thing going. The stew was just the start—I learned how to make a delicious oyster casserole; Johnny perfected his broiled oysters on the half shell and his oysters Rockefeller.

Oyster stew on Christmas afternoon became a tradition that we carried on for almost thirty years. Our elders died, babies were born, and some years we had three generations attending our party. Johnny would dredge a bushel or two of oysters in December, when they are at their best, and then stand at the kitchen sink opening them. On the morning of Christmas Eve, I would turn eight pints of oysters into two gallons of stew, flavored with a little sherry. Over the next 24 hours, the flavor of the oysters and their oyster liquor would mingle with the milk, cream, butter, and paprika to produce a tasty wintertime treat for the palate. The dry sherry was the crowning touch.

As the years went by and we approached our eighties, I continued to make the stew, but the effort of getting the oysters and opening them became too much for Johnny. Our party moved around the corner to daughter Deborah’s house, and the tradition goes on. About fifty adults and kids (now teenagers) congregate each year to renew love and friendship. It is a fitting way to end the Vineyard holiday season. The main difference is that we have to buy the oysters now; but, on the other hand, when we are tired, we can go home to our house off Music Street, where it all began, and go to bed.