Oyster blog

Photo by Donna Turner Ruhlman.

 

I’m back from a fascinating trip to Massachusetts, where I visited a hatchery on Duxbury Bay. It was only due to this trip that I thought about where oysters come from and realized I had no idea how they are born. Most oyster farmers buy oyster seed, which are oysters the size of pinheads but fully formed. I had to turn to Rowan Jacobsen’s 2007 book A Geography of Oysters for an explanation. He is more elegant than I will be here, as my previous post, Considering the Oyster, shows. (Oh, and I urge oyster lovers to visit his fabulous new site, Oysterater, which describes every oyster available in the country and what people say about them.)

The above are Island Creek Oysters and I ate them on this floating barge in the middle of the bay. The oyster on the left is one grown to normal size. The one on the right was bound for the restaurant Per Se (until I ate it, that is), which requests that specific size. These oysters are super briny with an almost buttery finish and were remarkably sweet for this time of year.

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But it was not until I visited the Island Creek hatchery that their life span became clear, as its founder, Skip Bennett, showed me where and how he breeds oysters. Female oysters spawn, sending out millions of eggs that must be found by billions of sperm released by male oysters, as Jacobsen memorably puts it, in one titanic ejaculation. Fertilized eggs grow into larva. Some species of oyster spawn the larva already formed. The larva begin to grow a shell and land on a surface where the shell finishes forming, and there the oyster remains.

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In the hatchery, though, Skip Bennett chooses the brood stock, looking for the perfect oysters. And more than that, once they become oysters, he feeds them a diet of phytoplankton that he and his team grow themselves. He experiments with a number of different species, with different cell sizes, to give the oysters the perfect diet, so that they grow quickly and are very healthy. Once they’re viable, they’re spread on the silty floor of Duxbury Bay, and in about 18 months, they look like the oysters above.

The seed looks just like seeds, but they grow incredibly quickly and will eventually filter 50 gallons of water a day. “A million set oysters weigh two pounds and your can hold them in your hands,” Bennett explained to me, cupping his hands. “Eighteen months later they weigh 200,000 pounds and cover an acre of sea bottom.”

We are living at a time when oysters are available to us in unprecedented quality and variety. Lucky us.

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© 2015 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2015 Donna Turner Ruhlman. All rights reserved.