A writer and avid outdoorsman muses on his oystering ways

Oysters In Your Backyard

by Nelson Bryant

Oysters In Your Backyard

Elizabeth Cecil

I became acquainted with Tisbury Great Pond’s oysters nearly seventy-five years ago, and they are high on the list of the edible wild foods—fish, deer, rabbits, ducks, geese, clams, mushrooms, Irish moss, cranberries, watercress, beach plums, blueberries, cattail sprouts—that I gather on the Vineyard or from the salt water that embraces it.

For a brief spell after returning home from World War II, I worked as a commercial oyster fisherman on the pond, dragging a dredge along the bottom behind an outboard-powered skiff, but since that time I’ve usually harvested them with a rake while wading. An ordinary potato fork will do the job, but an oyster rake with heavy curved teeth and a long handle is more efficient and works in deeper water. I use chest or waist waders, but you can get by with ordinary hip boots.

Tether a wire basket floated by a car inner tube to yourself with a short line and drop the oysters into it. Another approach that I sometimes used until I was in my late 60s was to harvest fall oysters whilst wearing mask, snorkel, flippers, and a wet suit jacket.

All of my oystering has been done on Tisbury Great Pond because I live nearby. A clear day with the sun high in the sky and little or no wind enables you to spot the oysters lying on the bottom, but it is possible to get a good mess of them by raking blind. When you have as many as you want or as many as are allowed—check the town regulations for household limits and don’t forget to get a permit—tow your basket ashore and cull your catch. Culling involves separating clusters of them and discarding those that are dead or too small. You also have to separate edible oysters from stones to which they are fastened. I carry a little wooden billy club in my basket for this purpose as well as a circular piece of plywood that I place on the beach as a worktable.

West Tisbury’s shellfish constable, Tom Osmers, gently suggests that it might be a good idea to return very large oysters to the water because they are the ones that produce the most spat, or young. Oysters have highly visible growth rings on their shells. Four-year-olds are usually quite large.

When your culling is done, return the too-small oysters to the water as well as the empty shells and stones. The last-named provide anchoring spots for the coming early summer’s spat. The time honored dictum that oysters should only be gathered in the months of ‘r’ derives from the timing of spawning. When oysters are spawning or emerging from the spawning cycle, their bodies are thin and watery and not worth eating.

Years ago I discovered that in southern New England, oysters can be kept alive for months in storage pits in the ground. I sink—after cutting a foot or two off their lower ends—plastic trash containers in the ground until their tops are flush with the earth, and put layers of oysters in them, always making sure that the oysters are lying flat with their deep sides down so that the life-sustaining liquid won’t drain out of them. I leave enough room for a tight-fitting circle of four-inch-thick foam rubber and place a circle of exterior plywood over the insulation. Then I weigh it down with a heavy log. I do the same thing with the potatoes that I grow, but that’s another story. In mid-March of this year, my partner Ruth Kirchmeier and I dined on oysters that went into one such pit a few days after Christmas. They were splendid. To date, none of the oysters I’ve prepared for the table have ever made anyone ill.

Winter pit storage has long been used by professionals to save seed oysters for planting in spring. They might, for example, harvest oysters in October from areas subject to six-foot tides—locations where winter ice and storms often dislodge oysters from their resting places and fling them up on the beach to die—and keep them in a pit through the winter, returning them to the water in March.

If you store oysters for eating, you must, to avoid food poisoning, be meticulous in examining and opening them. You shouldn’t—as do some who find wielding an oyster knife onerous—steam any oyster open, whether pit-stored, self-gathered, or store-bought. One bad one in the pot will contaminate the others and their liquor.

A few self-gathered oysters that are dead or dying will elude your aforementioned beach culling, and, pit-stored or not, you have to examine them again. Sometimes they gape open, a sure sign of death. Sometimes they remain closed after expiring, but their shells have a hollow sound when tapped with the handle of an oyster knife. And they almost always stink.

If you buy oysters from a professional, this initial scrutiny has been done for you, but, again, don’t steam them open. If you do, be prepared to feed them all to the crows. Prior to opening oysters, I scrub them with a stiff brush and rinse them in a bucket of water. When my knife has severed the oyster’s adductor muscle, the shells can be readily separated. Most of the time, a delightful morsel awash in clear liquid rests in the hollow of the bottom shell resting in my left hand, but every once in a while the meat will be dark and the juice will have a foul odor. This is why I open oysters on one part of a workbench and keep the good meats and liquid off to one side.

If all this seems too much for you, it probably is.