Shucking For Schools

Words by Margaret Weinberg

Photos by Wes Frazer and Dakota Sumpter

 

Attendees are lined up at Auburn University’s Ag Heritage Park half an hour before the Alabama Oyster Social begins. Pulling in, I’m struck by the billows of smoke snaking from under the white tent bordering the park’s Alfa Pavillion. On one side, Bulls Bay Oyro smokes oysters lowcountry-style, shoveling them onto a communal table where eaters break open shells and slurp the smoked delicacies with cocktail sauce. On the other side, a series of Southern chefs, including a delegation from New Orleans’ Angeline, uses an elevated grate system, called a Kudu, to bring their oysters to woodfired perfection.

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The Social is the brainchild of David Bancroft—Alabama-born, Texas-raised, and Iron Chef champion. David is the executive chef at Acre Restaurant, a hyper-seasonal eatery located in Auburn, where the Social is held. But the impact of this event extends far beyond the borders of this college town. The Social not only treats oyster lovers to a good time, it also provides a financial contribution and a chance for networking and recognition to the Auburn University Shellfish Lab on Dauphin Island. I get to talking with a man who can tell me more, described to me as “the Indiana Jones of oysters”—Bill Walton, associate professor and extension specialist at the Auburn University Shellfish Lab.

Oysters, as Bill describes them, are completely sustainable. You don’t need to feed them, medicate them, or even use freshwater for their growth. Oysters filter pollutants, improving the very habitats they rely on, and attract other sea creatures that encourage biodiversity. At the same time, he explains, oystering provides jobs in coastal communities that lack for them, making them both economically and environmentally beneficial. “It has to be about the people,” he tells me. “You go to a local port, in a fishing community—I just want there to be working boats there. I just want there to be boats where people can go out on the water and make a living.” To Bill, oysters are about keeping families and communities together, bettering coastal waters, and, of course, creating delicious food, all at once.

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The Shellfish Lab on Dauphin Island hosts researchers from a multitude of Alabama universities. Bill works with graduate students throughout the year and hosts undergraduate students coming from across the state during the summer. At the same time, he and his team serve as a resource for the region’s oyster farmers. The way he puts it, they provide advice, training, and the answers farmers need, using applied research to answer questions that haven’t been asked yet. While the Lab is stationed on the coast, it remains connected to the city of Auburn, which is how Bill met David, whose Oyster Social directly benefits the Lab. Bill is sure to emphasize though that the Social benefits the Lab in order to benefit the farmers. “It’s all about the people in the water,” he tells me. I’m ready to meet some of those people.

As I’m leaving the Oyster Social, I stop at the raw bar to thank some of the farmers and am lucky enough to run into Lew Childre of Shellbank Selects, an oyster farm in Gasque, Alabama, just down the road from Gulf Shores. Lew encourages me to pay them a visit and see what oyster farming is all about. I don’t hesitate to do just that, winding my way from Birmingham only a few weeks later.

As lifelong coastal inhabitants and lifelong friends, both Lew and his partner, Jarret Frith, have watched fishing and shrimping lose their profitability as water health has declined on the Gulf. “For years the industry of fishing in this bay has slacked off,” Jarret tells me, “you’ve got to evolve with the times.” The partners point to a variety of factors for this health decline—fertilizer runoff from golf courses, chemical plants in Mobile, and sewage spillage, to name a few. For them, growing oysters is both a way to adapt to environmental challenges and improve the waters they’ve watched generations of their community make a living off of. Jarret explains that, as bivalves, one adult specimen cleans roughly fifty gallons of water a day. Additionally, Jarrett and Lew have seen increased biodiversity in the area they’re farming. Fish and crabs congregate around the cages, drawing stakeholders up the food chain—larger fish and commercial fisherman. “It’s an ecosystem we create,” Jarrett says.

When Jarrett and Lew started Shellbanks Selects, they had so few oysters that they gave them names, tracking their progress with hawk-like attention. This was a passion project from the start. Today, they have seventy cages and 320,000 oysters. They source to nine regional restaurants and have worked events across the Southeast, yet Jarrett still works in construction and Lew commutes eighty-miles each way for his job as an engineer at a steel mill. To supplement, Jarret runs a tour company, called Whiteboots Charters, where he takes customers out on the water to see what the life of a fisherman is really like. They’re at the farm most weekends, year-round.

We meet Lew and Jarret on a boat ramp jutting out from Bay Breeze RV on the Bay, located in Gulf Shores, where they’ve set up a homemade tumbler. Picture a long, spinning tube, pocketed with holes that deposits oysters into plastic bins below. Tumbling is a way to knock the bills off young oysters that are not yet ready to harvest and to encourage growth toward “the perfect oyster.” Jarret shows me what he means by this, selecting a larger example and showing me its flat top and cup-like shape on the bottom, ensuring that oyster will be held with its “liquor” in the shell. They tell me that the restaurants they source to are specific about size—not too big and not too small, in other words, “one bite on a cracker.”

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One striking aspect of the Oyster Social is the sheer diversity of oysters one finds at the event, not only in appearance, but in taste as well. I recall that at his table, Mike Lata of Charleston’s FIG explained to me that what he loved about oysters was this very diversity in regionality. Oysters are influenced by distinct terroir—their taste profoundly impacted by their environment. Mike explains that this regional distinctiveness allows oysters to serve as a way to connect consumers to their waterways. Jarret elaborates on this as it pertains to Shellbanks’s oysters. The spot they’re farming contains a high enough salinity for oyster growing, but it is also marked by a series of fresh-water springs coming out of the bottom. This combination of saltwater and fresh ground water give their oysters an “earthy, buttery taste” that makes them hard to forget.

After they’ve been run through, the oysters are put back into their cages, half-full, with room to grow, and stacked on a Louisiana fishing boat. We bring them back to the anchored buoys that hold them in the water, Jarret and Lew diving in to reattach them. We can’t harvest to taste, as they’re in closure due to high-rain, but Jarret ensures me all I’ve missed is the twenty-minute boat ride to Bon Secour Fishery, their processing plant. I’m in an oyster mood, so I head to The Royal Oyster nearby, figuring I can at least sample some others. I eat a few plump Texas imports with horseradish and mignonette, before I let on to my waiter that I have just come from the Shellbanks farm. He reveals he has a few of theirs left in the back and promptly shucks two “on the house.” The difference is astounding, revealing an oyster soft and succulent, fresh and vegetale, and completely without need for toppings or accoutrements.

This year’s Alabama Oyster Social was originally advertised as the final. But oyster-lovers fear not—given the immense popularity of the event, the city of Auburn has decided to step in and host a fifth-year in 2019. Mark your calendars, and in the meantime, try a Shellbanks Selects oyster at the following restaurants: Salt at San Roc Cay (Orange Beach, AL), The San Bar at San Roc Cay (Orange Beach, AL), Royal Oyster (Gulf Shores, AL), Sea N’ Suds (Gulf Shores, AL), Southwood Kitchen (Daphne, AL), Voyagers at Perdido Beach Resort (Orange Beach, AL), Wolf Bay Lodge (Foley, AL/Orange Beach, AL), or State of Grace (Houston, TX). Or check out Whiteboots Charters, to hear it from Jarret and Lew themselves.