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Sunday, November 9, 2014

This is Where I Belong

Ever since I read Shucked: Life on a New England Oyster Farm by Erin Byers Murray, I've daydreamed about running away to work on an oyster farm. Pushing myself physically and mentally surrounded by what I love - oysters and the water - it's my happy place.

So it's not surprising that when I watched Oyster Farming in a Changing World, a feature documentary about the 160-year-old oyster farming industry in Willapa Bay, Wash., I got taken to church. Halleluia. (I was also reminded how damn hard it is to get an oyster from babyhood to your restaurant plate.  Three bucks an oyster is a bargain. No complaints.)

Anyway, back to the movie. Keith A. Cox, a Los Angeles-based filmmaker, is the writer, director, cameraman, editor and marketing department for this incredible film that you simply have to see. I've watched other oyster documentaries, but what makes this one special is that Keith gets it. He gets the heart. He gets the grit. He gets the determination. Most importantly, he gets the pure joy of oyster farmers. He lets the oystermen and women tell their own stories:

"The work is hard. The hours are long. But the life it makes for you is unequaled," says one. Says another, "It's a life I chose."  How many of us can really say that?


Keith spent FOUR YEARS capturing the people, places and history in Willapa Bay, where Keith was born and raised. Keith tells us that this project was an opportunity to give back to the community that raised him. He comes from a newspaper family that spent their lives recording and preserving the area history. Oyster Farming in a Changing World is Keith's way to continue his family legacy and preserve Willapa Bay's history.

The official project description:
This documentary reveals the life cycle of the oyster and the labor needed to propagate, cultivate, harvest and process this shellfish, as well as focuses on the challenges and triumphs of the oyster industry. Driven by a passionate group of growers, devoted to keeping their industry sustainable, viable and protected, the series promotes the essential nature of a healthy and thriving environment and economy.

!!!!!!BIG NEWS: Keith just let us know that from now until the end of the year, you can watch the movie FOR FREE.  Here's the link:  Pop some corn, get comfy, and get inspired.!!!!!!!!


Because producing a beautiful feature length film wasn't enough, Keith also used the footage to create several shorter documentaries. "Importing Japanese Seed" is one of those films close to Keith's heart "because all the old films used in this doc, were old family films I tracked down and had transferred to video as a chance to preserve the history of the films, and to tell this historically significant story," he recalls. 

Starting in the late 1930s and continuing for decades, Pacific oyster spat were imported to Willipa Bay from Matshushima Bay, Japan, in old wooden crates previously used to store sake. The crates, packed to the brim with baby oysters, were stacked jenga style on cargo boats.  Twice a day, the baby oysters were sprayed with ocean water to keep them alive during the two-week journey across the Pacific. Here's their story:


Cox shows the Willipa Bay oyster industry from every angle, including underwater.  Here's raw footage of his underwater cam capturing the dredging process.  Super cool. (I'm such an oyster nerd.)

Oyster Dredging (UNDERWATER) from Stony Point Pictures on Vimeo.


I can't say enough about this movie. Treat yourself. The Willipa Bay Oysters Preservation Edition DVD includes the featured movie, a 7-episode series titled "Willapa Bay Oysters," more than five hours of extra footage, interviews with oystermen, and a 50-page book full of photographs.

As a special bonus to the readers of Oyster Stew, Keith Cox will autograph the DVD set box. In the comments field of Paypal, just tell him that Oyster Stew sent you and let him know who you would like the DVD set to be dedicated to.  Christmas present!!! Thanks Keith! 

"Preservation Edition" Blu-ray+DVD+Book from Stony Point Pictures on Vimeo.


The end of the movie is inspiring.  I promise you'll want to jump ship and run away to your own oyster farm.  It concludes with an original song called "This is Where I Belong," written and produced by Larry Marciano. It's lovely. I just added it to my iPod. Download the song at iTunes.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Season Three: Oyster State Stew

Wild oysters on the North Carolina Coast. Oct. 2014

Oyster season opens this week on the North Carolina Coast ... and so does Season Three of Oyster Stew.

Virginia announced plans for a
Virginia Oyster Trail.
Photo from
It was a big year for oysters: Oysters grown in Hawaii went to market for the first time in more than a generation. Former President Bill Clinton dropped by the Harbor School to see the Billion Oyster Project up close. Virginia unveiled plans for The Virginia Oyster Trail. Scientists are continuing to find new medical uses for oysters. And mainstream media is catching on to the connection between restoring oyster beds and mitigating storm damage.

The biggest oyster story of the year was the battle all the way to the Supreme Court to save Drakes Bay Oyster Company. For fans of Drakes Bay oysters, it's been a heartbreaking end. In a recently announced settlement with the government, employees will receive relocation and reemployment assistance. It turns out the Lunny family isn't out of the oyster business - they've recently announced plans to stay in town and open Drakes Oyster House. Drakes Bay oysters will still be available through the end of 2014, so catch one if you can.


Laser Engraved Oyster Shells from the Gillardeau Oyster Farm
Photo from RFI, English

I'm following a story out of France that could have big implications for oyster farmers everywhere.  The world famous Gillardeau oyster farm is sick of distributors and restaurants ripping off their brand and selling fake Gillardeau oysters like a knockoff Kate Spade bag in Chinatown. The Gillardeau's have multi-million franc plans to engrave their logo on oyster shells.  Manifique! I wish everyone would do it.  It would surely cut down on all the counterfeits served, on purpose or not, in American restaurants. Stay tuned.


2015 Oyster Trailblazer Calendar

Here's a quick look at what's been happening in some coastal states.

Alabamians. Looking for a holiday gift for your favorite oyster eater? Consider purchasing the 2015 Oyster Trailblazer Calendar - all proceeds benefit the oyster gardening program and education.

Delawareans. I hope all sides can find a way to give aquaculture a shot. No one wants a factory in their backyard, but commercial farms do not have to be round-the-clock operations and a marine eyesore. In the right setting, oyster cages become part of the landscape - like sailboats and buoys.

Apalachicola Oysters
Floridians. What can I say? We're pulling for you. Hoping you find a viable solution for the oystermen and the environmentalists (aren't they one in the same?) as you work to find the right plan for the Apalachicola Bay.

Hawaiians.  So excited about the first oysters in a generation to be grown in Hawaii in ancient fish ponds. How do they taste? Word is that they have large notes of algae and seaweed.

Mainers. You Mainiacs have it going on ... and everyone is starting to notice. No state, in my opinion, has a more exciting oyster industry at the moment. With a high concentration of successful women-owned oyster farms, oyster bars that frequently make the Top 10 lists, and consistently outstanding oysters ... you have earned bragging rights for 2014.
Photo from

Marylanders. Two thumbs up for the 1,000 waterfront property owners who volunteer for the Marylanders Grow Oysters program, including the inmates who make the oyster cages. After all, isn't that what oysters teach us - that we're all in this together?

New Jerseyans. Bravo for growing your commercial oyster industry, but please make sure to keep plenty of room for your boutique oysters ... Cape Shore Salts in Cape May are a gift from the oyster gods.

North Carolinians.  It looks like years spent building up reefs and limiting the daily amount of oysters commercial and recreational oystermen can harvest is starting to pay off. Early reports from the inlets indicate a good crop despite less than ideal weather.

Photo from SCDNR
Oregonians & Washingtonians.  My sincere condolences for your baby oyster massacre. Ocean acidification is a real thing and you've got real issues on your hands. Fingers crossed for a rebound in native Olympia oysters, and some funding to help the current industry.

South Carolinians.  You know I love your oysters - from Brunswick down to Beaufort - but you really need to pick up the pace on recycling oyster shells. DNR says residents and business only recycle 50% of the oyster shells they need to make new beds and build new ones. Encourage your favorite SC eatery to recycle their shells. Here's more info about the SC DNR Oyster Recycling and Restoration Program.

Virginians. Nice work on the Virginia Oyster Trail, a formal network of oyster farms and restaurants. The trail is a clever effort to attract oyster tourists to the state. We'll be keeping an eye on your progress.

Now we're all caught up on what's been happening during the break. It's going to be a great oyster season. I'll see you here each week (more or less). As always, I love to hear from you at Cheers!

Thursday, June 5, 2014

An Oyster Stout Shout Out

Vintage Guinness Ad for Oysters and Beer

Have you noticed oyster stouts popping up on bar menus?  The oyster craze shows no signs of slowing … and oyster stouts are what's trending now.

First things first: I didn't know that oyster stouts were actually brewed with oysters. I thought it was a clever name, piggybacking on the resurgence of oysters. Nope. As it turns out, most oyster stouts are either brewed with oyster shells or steeped with an oyster meat teabag. (In my defense, a few beers call themselves oyster stouts [Marston's] but aren't made with oysters. They just taste good WITH oysters.)

So back to oyster stouts. Why in the hell would someone brew beer with oysters? 

It started like the old Reese's Peanut Butter Cups commercials: "Your chocolate got in my peanut butter. No, your peanut butter got in my chocolate." (Please stop and watch this classic commercial. You may pee your pants a little.)

Back, back in the day, shucked oysters were served in every tavern like a bowl of peanuts and stout was the beer of choice. Pop in an oyster. Sip stout. Repeat. They just seemed to work.

The first formal oyster stout is believed to have been brewed in New Zealand in 1929, though I can't find any real evidence of it. (Kids, if you are writing a research paper on oyster stouts, do not use this post as a resource.) A few breweries in Australia, Ireland and the UK rolled out their own oyster stout. Then, as trends go, stout was replaced with pale ales and oysters found themselves out of favor. Bye, bye oyster stout.

Thank goodness trends come back around (watch the Reese's '80s video again). Oyster stouts are baaaaacccccck. Microbrewers are teaming up with the biggest names in the oyster business (Hama Hama, Hog Island, John Dory) to create new award-winning stouts. Here's a few to try:

  • The folks at Flying Dog Brewery in Frederick, MD, aren't messing around with their oyster brew. They toss in whole Rappahannock River Oysters into their Pearl Necklace Oyster Stout near the end of the boil, according to head brewer, Ben Clark. As if the lure of brewed Rapps aren't enough, a portion of the proceeds from the sale of Pearl Necklace benefits the Oyster Recovery Partnership, which helps restore oysters in the Chesapeake Bay. 
  • Upright Brewery in Portland, OR, tries to do one better, using both oyster liquor and whole oysters from Hama Hama Oyster Company. Oyster Stout (no marketing gimmicks at this brewery) was a 2012 World Beer Cup Bronze medal winner. Special bonus: On the last Friday of each month, Oyster Social, a mobile oyster raw bar, sets up shop in the tasting room at the brewery. 
  • HenHouse Brewing Company in Petaluma, CA, brews its stout with oyster shells from our friends at Hog Island Oyster Co. The shells are bagged, thrown into a vat, and boiled for a half hour to leach out the minerals. Brewers then fish out the shells. For now, HenHouse Oyster Stout is only a West Coast thing. (Psst.: Sources say that retired Marooned on Hog Island from 21st Amendment Brewery in San Fran may show up again in a year or two.)
  • John Dory Oyster Stout from Sixpoint Brewery in Brooklyn is made exclusively for The John Dory Oyster Bar in NYC. Yep, there's only one spot to enjoy the brew. 
  • A microbrewer from Charleston, SC, is getting props for brewing a stellar oyster stout. Coast Brewing Company brews a seasonal Bulls Bay Oyster Stout using local oysters from Jeff and Carrie Spahr at Charleston Oyster Co. The stout is available at the brewery as well as at Charleston-area bars and restaurants.
  • Ireland has jumped on the oyster stout bandwagon as well. Notably, the Porterhouse Brewing Company in Dublin, Ireland, gets rave reviews. Fresh oysters are shucked directly into the conditioning tanks. Surely, someone fishes them out …??

Absent from this list is Island Creek Oyster Stout from Boston's Harpoon Brewery & Beer Hall, an early marquis entrant into the oyster stout market. The beer has been retired and there are no current plans to bring it back.

BTW, if you find an oyster-like substance in your beer, it could be a "beer oyster," which isn't an oyster at all … and really gross. The kids at TYWKIWDBI blog write a first hand, really *explicit* account of a beer oyster. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Photo from Upright Brewing
Cheers to a dozen oysters on the half shell and a cold oyster stout!

You foam within our glasses, you lusty golden brew,
Whoever imbibes takes fire from you.
The young and the old sing your praises,
Here's to beer,
Here's to cheer,
Here's to beer!

"The Bartered Bride"

Monday, April 28, 2014

Fresh, Funky, and Foolhardy Oyster Recipes

I like my oysters straight from the sea. But I've noticed a bounty of unusual recipes lately starring oysters in some surprising dishes. Heck, Oysters Rockefeller was a shot in the dark … maybe one of these will someday be a classic. 


Oyster Nachos and Oysters Supreme, Ouzts' Too Oyster Bar
Photo: Florida Sportman

I tweeted (@OysterBuzz) about these oyster nachos awhile back. It's so outrageous it has to be tasted at least once. Ouzts' Too Oyster Bar in Crawfordville, Florida, is known locally for fresh shucked oysters. In addition to oyster shooters, they have two other oyster dishes on the menu: Oyster Nachos and Oysters Supreme. Here's the recipe as Tommy Thompson 
at Florida Sportsman wrote:

Oysters Supreme/Oysters Nachos
Arrange a dozen or so small or medium shucked oysters (save the large ones to eat raw!) on a microwaveable plate or platter. Take care to free the oyster from the bottom shell when you’re shucking as that makes eating easier. Put about a half-teaspoon of butter on each oyster, and then add either a teaspoon of chopped cooked bacon or a slice of pickled jalapeño pepper. Top with some shredded cheddar cheese and microwave on high power for 2 to 4 minutes, depending on how well done you like your oysters. Serve with cold beer—of course!


In the late 1800s, oysters were everywhere. Rich or poor, everyone ate them. The 1887 White House Cookbook has dozens of recipes for oyster stews, casseroles, and more. Oyster catsup always stuck out at me for its originality. Here's the recipe exactly as it appears in the cookbook:

One pint of oyster meats, one teacupful of sherry, a tablespoonful of salt, a teaspoonful of cayenne pepper, the same of powdered mace, a gill of cider vinegar.

Procure the oysters very fresh and open sufficient to fill a pint measure; save the liquor and scald the oysters in it with the sherry; strain the oysters and chop them fine with the salt, cayenne and mace, until reduced to a pulp; then add it to the liquor in which they were scalded; boil it again five minutes and skim well; rub the whole through a sieve, and, when cold, bottle and cork closely. The corks should be sealed.

Find more White House oyster recipes from 1887 at


Fruit Juice Caviar
Photo: Lexie's Kitchen

We've talked about flavor pairings before (kiwi and oysters were a delicious treat). Paste Magazine took it one step further and suggests oysters topped with passion fruit caviar. The inventive food blogger, Lexie, from Lexie's Kitchen gives us the 4-1-1 to make passion fruit "caviar."

1/2 c vegetable oil
1/3 c passion fruit juice puree
1/4 t agar agar powder

Chill the vegetable oil in a tall glass. Mix passion fruit juice and agar agar in saucepan and bring to boil. Simmer for 2 minutes or until agar dissolves. Let agar/juice mixture cool for 5 minutes. Fill a straw with the cooled mixture and let droplets of it fall from the straw, one at a time, into the cold oil. The caviar pearls will form on contact with the oil. Strain the caviar out of the glass and rinse with water. Until you’re ready to use them, store them in water. When you’re ready to top your oysters with the caviar, simply take them out of the water and place them on a paper towel. Pat them dry and top your oysters. Note: Agar agar powder is available at and in Asian grocery stores.


Move over blue crabs … oyster cakes are in the house. I found this recipe by chef Peter Woods in The New York Times:


Oyster Stuffing Cake
Photo: Jay Paul for The New York Times
1 pint freshly shucked Eastern (virginica) oysters and their liquor, finely chopped. 
12 oz stale bread cut into 1/2 inch cubes
3 oz (1/3 c) freshly grated Parmesan
1 stick unsalted butter
3 slices bacon, chopped
4 stalks celery, chopped
1 onion, chopped
1 1/2 cups chicken stock, plus extra for binding
2T fresh oregano, chopped fine
2T fresh thyme, chopped fine
6 fresh sage leaves, minced
2t ground coriander
course salt
black pepper
canola oil

1. In a large bowl, combine oysters and their liquor, bread and cheese. Set aside.
2. In a heavy skillet, melt butter over medium heat. Add bacon and let cook 3-5 min., until fat has rendered and bacon is cooked through but not crisp.
3. Add celery and onion, stir to coat, then add stock and bring to a simmer. Let simmer until vegetables have softened, 10 min. Add herbs and coriander, mix well and turn off heat.
4. Add vegetable mixture to bread mixture in bowls. Toss well, season to taste with salt and pepper, then refrigerate until chilled, about 2 hours, or overnight.
5. When ready to cook, form chilled mixture into 3 1/2 oz patties, about the size of a clementine. Let patties come to cool room temp. Heat oil in a skillet and working in batches pan-fry patties, turning once, until browned on both sides and hot all the way through. Serve hot. 

Makes 12 patties.


Vodka oyster shooters. Snooze. Watermelon Margartia Oyster Shooters? Hello! Chef Ben Pollinger at Oceana Restaurant in NYC creates oyster shooters that make you want to dance. Thanks to Food Republic for the recipes.

Place freshly shucked oysters in the bottom of a tall shot glass. You choose how many.
Watermelon Margarita:
  • 1 oz. fresh watermelon juice, or muddled chunks of watermelon
  • 3/4 oz. tequila
  • 1/4 oz. Cointreau
  • 1/2 oz. lime juice
  • garnished with pickled watermelon rind
  • 3/4 oz. white peach purée
  • 1/4 oz. lemon juice
  • 1/4 oz. Thai chili simple syrup
  • 1/4 oz. white rum
  • Float of sparkling wine


The Cooking Channel has become a dumping ground for weird cooking shows that would never make it in the Big Leagues, but has the draw of watching a bad car wreck in slow motion. As a result, it's also a mecca for unusual recipes made with just about anything. This recipe from Graham Quayle looks good enough to actually eat.

Oyster and Mushroom Tapas
Photo: Cooking Channel
4 oysters
4 pieces thinly sliced shiitake mushrooms
1 green onion, thinly sliced
1t peanut oil
2 oz soy sauce

Place oysters on grill until shell opens. Remove top shell and place a piece of shiitake mushroom and green onion on oysters. Heat the peanut oil, then add soy sauce. Pour oil/soy sauce liquid over oysters for a sizzling effect.


Crispy Oysters on Yucca Root Chips
Photo: Food Network
I am not a fan of fried oysters. I've eaten famous fried oysters across the South, and I just can't warm up to them. But, yet, these fried oysters on yucca root chips with harbanero honey aioli sound intriguing. Chef Alma Alcocer-Thomas from Jeffrey's Restaurant in Austin, Tex., may just change my mind. 

Habanero Honey Aioli
2T Dijon Mustard
2T honey
1/2 c washed and chopped cilantro leaves
1 habanero chile, seeded and chopped
1T lemon juice
4 egg yolks
1c salad oil
1/2t salt

Yucca Root Chips
1 large yucca root, peeled and thinly sliced
soybean oil
1/2c fine sea salt
4 lemons, zested

Crispy Oysters
1c buttermilk
1c all purpose flour
20 fresh plump oysters
1/2c pico de gallo

In a blender, blend together mustard, honey, cilantro, habanero and lemon juice. Puree this into a smooth paste. Add egg yolks and blend briefly to incorporate. Remove the clear plastic piece from the center of the blender lid. With the blender running, gradually add the oil in a thin stream until the mixture thickens into a light emulsified mayonnaise. Season with salt and set aside.
Soak the thinly sliced yucca root in hot water. Add 3 inches of soybean oil to a deep-fryer or deep skillet and preheat to 375 degrees F. Evenly mix the fine sea salt and the lemon zest and set aside. Remove the yucca root slices from the hot water and pat dry to remove any excess moisture. Place the dried yucca slices in the hot oil and fry for 1 to 2 minutes until lightly brown. Shake them gently when removing them from the fryer so that they don't stick together. Place chips on absorbent paper and dust with the lemon salt while they are still hot. Set aside.
Maintain the 375 degree F of the frying soybean oil. Pour buttermilk into a shallow bowl; in separate shallow bowl add flour. First drop oysters into buttermilk and then transfer to the bowl containing the flour. Toss oysters in flour just enough to lightly coat them. Transfer oysters to a frying basket and lower into the hot oil. Fry oysters for 2 to 3 minutes, or until light brown. Transfer oysters to a paper towel or absorbent paper. 

To assemble, place a yucca root chip on plate, place crispy oyster on top of chip, spoon a dollop of aioli onto the oyster and then sprinkle with pico de gallo.


What's going to be the new umami flavor this year? Oyster liquor. From our friends in New Zealand at The Great Food Race comes a heightened appreciation for oyster juice. (The recipe calls for using oyster liquor, cream and lemon to moistened the crumb and oyster stuffing.) Hoping to see more recipes starring oyster liquor. Click here for the full recipe. 


Photo: Taiwan Duck
Got the late night munchies in Taiwan? Oyster omelets are on every street corner. These omelets aren't new, but to my American's senses, it is funky. Ingredients include ketchup, peanut butter, plum powder, eggs, sweet potato flour, fish sauce - and oysters. 

Bravo chefs! Keep the innovation going. I truly believe that everyone can like oysters and adding new flavors can only help widen the appeal. Have a recipe for a weird or unusual oyster dish? Please let me know at kim[at]harborislandoyster[dot]com.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

All the Oyster Ladies Please Stand Up

I don't know why the oyster industry is dominated by men. Perhaps it's the manual labor, the mud, the "ick" factor  … whatever it is, it's time the oyster chicas had their say. March is Women's History Month and as we say goodbye to the worst month of weather ever, there's no better time to celebrate a few of the women who are making their mark on oyster culture.  

Author, Shucked: Life on a New England Oyster Farm
Journalist & Editor

I've written before that I have a girl crush on Erin Byers Murray, author of Shucked: Life on a New England Oyster FarmA few years ago, Erin took a giant leap of faith, quit her fabulous job at Daily Candy, and froze her way through a year at Island Creek Oyster Farm in Duxbury, MA. Shucked is an in-depth, first-hand account of what it's like to slog it out on the oyster fields, in the mud, in the cold. Her book is raw, funny … and she isn't afraid to let it all hang out. Dozens of women work everyday on oyster farms across America. Shucked gives those women (and men) the credit they deserve. 

When I reached out to Erin for this post, she wrote back (like all cool chicks do) and said she'd be glad to help. Here's an excerpt from my interview:

What was your favorite part of oyster farming?
During the summers, I was in charge of the oyster seed, which in and of itself was a grueling job since it meant lifting 50-pound boxes of seed out of the water, dumping the seed into various containers and cleaning it by hand, then grading it by size. But, the task of grading itself was so satisfying - watching the oyster seed progress from week to week gave me an appreciation for just how much energy goes into creating consistent oysters. The task also helped me slow down, put my hands in the water and focus on the work at hand. Now that I'm back behind a desk, I would give anything to spend a day grading oyster seed. Another favorite activity was hand-picking oysters out on the lease on a low, low tide. This usually happened at dawn or dusk and I loved being out in the middle of the bay in the early hours, watching the world wake up around us. 
Reading your book, I could feel how hard the work was. I think MY muscles hurt at times. While men, in general, may be more suited to some of the most physical parts of oyster farming, in what ways are women more suited for the work?
I think, in most instances, I found that the women on the farm worked very efficiently. The men did, too, but often, the women would remain focused on the task and on keeping the workflow of the farm on pace. The women I worked with took a lot of pride in how they sorted the oysters, how efficiently they could cull, and how their work reflected on the greater team. I think Island Creek Oyster that farmer/founder Skip Bennett intentionally hired women for that reason -- we were great motivators for some of the guys on the team. 

Erin is currently the managing editor of Nashville Lifestyles and is a freelance writer for several national publications. She is also writing a cookbook with chef Jeremy Sewall (Island Creek Oyster Bar). Look for it in October 2014. You can purchase Shucked now.

Founder, SCAPE
Assistant Professor, Columbia University

Kate Orff may be the most notable oyster person you may have never heard of. Orff, founder of SCAPEproposes using the innate properties of oysters to solve some tough problems. SCAPE, an environmental landscape architecture firm based in NYC, pioneered the idea of oystertecture - using oysters to protect shore lines AND clean the water. In its simplest interpretation, she wants to build artificial oyster reefs in the New York Harbor to clean the water, lessen the wave action during severe storms, protect the coastline, and, in a long term plan, re-create the oyster bounty that once proliferated New York City. Worldwide, coastal countries are taking note of her progress. Leave it to oysters, and girl power, to someday save NYC. 

Check out her talk about oystertecture at the TED Conference

Mollusk Researcher, Southern Cross University
Vice President, Australasian Malacological Society

Dr. Kirsten Benkendorff
Researcher, Southern Cross University
Dr. Kirsten Benkendorff thinks oysters can one day save human lives. Her ground-breaking research includes developing ways to reduce disease in oyster aquaculture, using oysters to predict the effect of global climate change, and most exciting to me, extracting anti-cancer agents from mollusks. Dr. Benkendorff's research has found that the oysters produce chemical compounds as defense mechanisms against marine pathogens. (Who knows what kind of crap filter through oysters everyday?!) These compounds may one day be used to fight cancer in you or in me. In 2011, she received the prestigious Dorothy Hill Award from the Australian Academy of Science for her research on anti-cancer extracts from Australian whelks. She currently teaches at in the School of Environmental Science at Southern Cross University in Lismore, Australia.

Banjul, The Gambia, West Africa

Women work together in The Gambia to raise and harvest oysters
for sale in the local market. Their techniques not only help themselves,
they are helping save the environment.
Oysters are helping some women of The Gambia, West Africa, find a way out of poverty and into financial independence. I get goosebumps every time I think about this program.  TRY Oyster Women's Association ( started in 2007 with 40 women in a single village; they have now grown to more than 500 women in 15 villages around The Gambia capital, Banjul. Women have been harvesting oysters (Crassostrea tulipa) for decades in the mangroves near Tanbi National Park. Eager to find ways to be less destructive to the mangroves and to increase production, the West African government and international groups funded several projects to find the best ways to grow oysters. First, they started with rack systems and then moved to the hanging method.

Want to get involved? TRY is always seeking people to work with the women at harvesting sites and to teach basic business skills. For more information, call 220.991.1162 or email You can also donate money at

Board Member, World Oyster Society
Director, International Oyster Symposium
Kahren Dowcett
World Oyster Society

Kahren Dowcett founded the Living Arts Institute to "spotlight social and environmental topics highly relevant but not so visible nor in mainstream public discourse." Lucky for us, her current cause is oysters.
The Living Arts Institute has created a unique way to educate the public about oysters. Cirque de Sea: An Oyster Tale Extraordinare is a stage play featuring Sammy the Spat; Oyster Cabaret is a dinner theater; and Oysters to the Rescue is an education program geared toward middle school students. All of these programs will be featured at the first ever Cape Cod Week (Oct. 18 - Oct. 15, 2014) - a week-long celebration of oysters beginning with the Wellfleet OysterFest and ending with the Bi-Valve Beach Bake and Bonfire at the Sea Crest Hotel. The Living Arts Institute is also the official producer of the International Oyster Symposium, a global event supported by the World Oyster Society. The 2015 event is being held for the first time in the United States. Dowcett is the only female officer on the executive or steering committees for the World Oyster Society, and now she's in charge of its most high profile event. 


In 2009, Tommy Leggett, a Virginia oysterman, conducted an informal survey of his contacts on the East Coast, to try and determine how many oyster farmers were women, excluding those who work in hatcheries, sorters, shuckers and researchers. Here's a quick glance at his results:

There are more than 1,000 small clam and oyster farms on the East Coast 
  • Maine has 5 women oyster farmers 
  • Massachusetts has 6 women oyster farmers
  • Connecticut has 3 women oyster farmers 
  • New York has 4 women oyster farmers 
  • New Jersey has 1 woman oyster farmer 
  • Virginia has 2 women oyster farmers 
  • North Carolina has 3 women oyster farms
I know this number has grown by a few but the story is the same. Fortunately, women who are looking to get into the oyster growing business have several role models to look to. In fact, some of the best oyster people in the country are women, including:
  • Barbara Scully, Glidden Point. A Canadian-based TV producer I spoke to said when offered to make a show about oysters, she declined, saying it would get in the way of the work. 
  • Barbara Austin, Wild Wellfleets. A 30+ year veteran who the weathered oystermen of the area call "a legend."
  • Abigail Carroll, Nonesuch Oysters. A relative newcomer to oyster farming, Ms. Carroll is innovating, growing slowly, taking her time, and finding out what works.   

Adjunct Associate Professor, USCS
Research Coordinator, Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve

Kerstin Wasson is not afraid of the mud, or the cold, or the looming task of saving oysters one at a time. Kerstin and her team of researchers are nursing wild Olympia oysters from the brink of extinction. Olympia oysters were plentiful until the 1920s. Middens (oyster shell piles) found in the area date back at least 7,000 years. Kerstin, through her work with the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve, hopes to bring back the Olympia oyster to it's previous levels. The Elkhorn Slough is a critical piece of the Olympia oyster because it connects the oyster beds in San Francisco to Mugu Lagoon. Using shell necklaces (oyster shells tied onto strings) and reef balls (oyster shells attached to domed shaped cement blocks), her team is hoping to find slowly bring back the native Olympia population. It's tedious work. Some areas of the Elkhorn Slough estuary have less than 100 Olympia oysters. The threat of extinction is real every day. 

"The energy of these women is prodigious. There are children, cattle, a vegetable garden and everything else to see to before and after eight hours of oystering … Yet there is hardly a women who doesn't find time to grow flowers." - Eleanor Clark
Throughout history, it has always been the stories of love, suffering, and lessons that have bonded women. In 1964, Eleanor Clark wrote The Oysters of Locmariaquer, a subtle, romantic, jarring, beautiful book about the small town of Locmariaquer on the Breton Coast of France that grew Belon oysters. At the time, women outnumbered men ten to one. Clark artistically wove the stories of these oyster women with the fabric of the town and the oysters themselves. 

(Sadly, the native Belon population in Locmariaquer was wiped out in the 1970s. Oysters now grown in the area are Japanese Gigas.) 

Happy Women's History Month. To all my oyster girls out there, I hope you find time to grow flowers.