It’s true. I confess. As a native northeastern North Carolinian, raised close to all those fresh and saltwater byways, I cain’t do raw oysters. Even though my grandpa was a commercial fisherman and from the time I was a little kid, he had me on his fishing boat helping him catch all kinds of seafood. After taking in our haul, we’d drive around all the little local towns and crossroads selling our fresh goods out of the back of his beaten up green Ford truck. He’d drive really slowly though the neighborhoods and I’d stand in the back of the truck loudly beating together two metal pans, yelling out, “Fresh FISH! Fresh FISH!” Little kids would trail behind the truck yelling, “The fish man is here! The fish man is here!” Women would come out of their kitchens with pans or even sometimes in aprons (they would lift them up to let grandpa weigh out the fish into the apron to carry in their purchase).
We had an old peeling sign posted on the back of the truck: “We Accept Foodstamps.” I kept the books – which consisted of me using a dull pencil and a stained little top-flip notebook to mark down what we sold, the weight, and and for how much money. We’d make the rounds all the while snacking on nabs, hoop cheese, potted meat, and Vienna sausage (he pronounced it as “VI-eeeena sausages.” And we’d drink lukewarm Diet Dr. Pepper or Mountain Dew.
Needless to say, we always had plenty of wonderful seafood to eat – fresh flounder, puppy drum, croaker, spot, catfish, eel, snapping turtle, blue crabs, and yes, oysters. I can see grandpa right now, pulling out his pocket knife and then opening up a cooler in the back of the truck. He’d grab an oyster he’d just caught, pop it open with ease, hold it up to his mouth, and slurp it down with pure joy and satisfaction.
But, here’s the thing, try as I might, from then until now, I can’t get into the texture of raw oysters. I know there must be joy and ecstasy in it – I watch with envy when dining companions enjoy an order of Beau Sels or Sea Monsters and follow the bites with saltine crackers and hoop cheese. I WANT to love raw oysters.
So when I recently read an older article from Garden & Gun magazine about Ryan Bethea, an oyster farmer and oyster evangelist in New Bern, NC, I was reminded of my um, er, oyster problem. Ryan owns and operates the successful Oysters Carolina. He harvests his oysters from a 5.25-acre farm in Westmouth Bay off of Harker’s Island. And he has amassed a loyal following of professional and home chefs by delivering fresh oysters, harvested that day, free of charge harvested fresh that day to anywhere in North Carolinas. He says that he’ll sometimes travel 400 miles for mountain deliveries. The way Ryan describes the bivalves and the passion he demonstrates for them makes me want to give them another try.
How did Ryan get so into oysters? According to the article:
“Fortuitous find: “One night after a bartending shift, I noticed a North Carolina Farm Bureau magazine on my parents’ coffee table. It happened to be flipped open to an article about the untapped potential of growing oysters in the state. It hit me like a calling. I could hardly sleep that night.”
His oyster path: “For the first three years, I taught middle school science in Franklin County all week and farmed oysters all weekend. I loved my students, but I love oysters more. Now I’m educating people about elite North Carolina oysters.”
Alrighty then, I gotta make my grandpa proud. I’ll give raw oysters another go. Hmmmm…which restaurant should I start with…?