The best oysters in the world
An intergenerational food ecology
It is always a delight to open your inbox in the morning and find, tucked amongst the flood of junk mail, an absolute gem of writing.
I often feel this way about Alicia Kennedy's newsletter, but this morning's issue on oysters was so good that it nearly brought me to tears (literally, but in a good way).
It's an example of balance, just as she says oysters are an example of balance as a food: Here it’s the balance between the subject research we do as writers and the sources we draw from, and our own subjective experience as eaters.
As a fellow lover of oysters, it tugged at my heartstrings but also inspired me to put pen to page.
First, in my graduate class on Food Information, where I posted an excited announcement to the students offering it as the basis of an (optional!) writing exercise, which I've put at the bottom of this email.
And second, in this essay, which I quickly jotted down on my phone (and likely reflects the very light copyediting that comes with such an exercise, my apologies in advance), which I wanted to share in the spirit of putting more oyster literature out in the world.
In the mid-1940s, my grandma's life was, among other things, a mixture of blackout curtains and oysters.
My great grandfather, Aubrey Hopkins, was a marine biologist, and specifically a marine biologist who researched oysters. For a time, they lived on an island research station off Pensacola, Florida, which once served as a medical quarantine island for sailors suffering from various ailments. My family lived in what was once the doctors' quarters, as did several other researchers who lived on the island. Each morning, Dr. Hopkins would leave the island on a boat to collect and study specimens, and would return always before sundown.
It was during World War II, and it was a time when staying off the island past sunset was a danger to yourself as well as a violation of various wartime security guidelines. I grew up with grandma's stories of the island, and I still have a few photos of it, too, of her and her sisters lined up in front of the house, surrounded by the thick-bladed grass that's ubiquitous in Florida yards, one of the few that can hold up to the state's intense heat and sun.
I remember her telling me, over breakfast at a friend's diner, about the Uboats she would occasionally spot off the coast, and about how they had to drive over the bridge from the mainland well before sunset, to close all the blackout curtains before dark to avoid detection. And I remember her telling me, as she often did, about the oysters.
My grandma's life was rooted in the sea and the creatures in it and near to it, from the wild horses on an island off Beaufort, NC to the oysters in the Gulf. Having grown up around the oysters, grandma eventually researched Gulf oysters too, though this wouldn't form the bulk of her expansive and wide-ranging career.
My family's relationship to oysters was as kin and as sustenance. We'd eat oysters, of course (except for my mom, who hated seafood despite, or perhaps because, she grew up on the water). But we also respected them as beings: My grandma would never fail to point out oysters and other creatures we'd see as we'd kayak together, starting the morning on the water before coming home to pull fresh grapefruit and oranges from her trees to eat alongside grits, bacon, and eggs.
In other words, I learned early on that the oysters and ourselves are part of the same ecosystem, where each gives and takes, and that the sea was far more than just a collection of resources for us to pull from.
Like Kennedy, one of my favorite foods is raw oysters. When I moved to Florida for my PhD, I slurped them down by the dozen, served on those big metal platters or in plastic baskets on 25 cent oyster night, where I'd usually just have 2-3 dozen by themselves for dinner. Living closer to grandma meant more visits, and she continued to tell me about her life on and near the water and her adventures around our favorite bivalves.
And I would make regular trips to Apalachicola, where grandma also lived for a time in a little yellow house to be near the water and the oysters, and where I would go to watch the oystermen from the deck of one of the oyster bars (usually Boss, sometimes Up the Creek) as I slurped down my favorite treat.
I always say that Apalachicola oysters are the best oysters in the world, plump and sweet, and large enough to fill your whole mouth with a single slurp.
There's a bit of irony, then, that I ended up in Atlanta, where we pull our municipal water from the Chattahoochee river that flows into Apalachicola Bay and sustains oyster populations and the oyster tongers whose life work relies upon them, both of which are rapidly declining in the area.
It’s why, when I see more and more luxury condos pop up here, the pang of loss and frustration is twofold. On the one hand, because I continuously watch neighbors be displaced under the guise of ‘revitalization’ and sometimes under the guise of better urban planning and density that will make Atlanta less car-centric.
But it doesn’t (I would love us to have fewer cars!), it simply shoves the less wealthy out of the way so people with means can enjoy their live/work/play in an overpriced tinderbox. Those who can’t afford it simply get to spend more time on a car or in a bus, further cut off from the resources and amenities of their now-former homes.
But the loss is ecological, too: Atlanta is not growing at a sustainable rate, nor are we effectively planning for the ongoing massive influx of people, each of whom need some amount of the city’s resources to survive and thrive.
Our infrastructure is woefully unprepared, as evidenced by the regular flickers and outages of power in my home, our cracked roads, or the fact that my internet slows down considerably and regularly, because so many people are plugged in upstream from me. All of these require resources to repair and maintain, and resources to expand.
Perhaps the most visible ecological loss is to our tree canopy, another area in which our approach to change, progress, development, or whatever you want to call it is woefully out of balance.
But there's a less visible ecological cost, or at least less visible to us, too: Atlanta’s water supply continues to further draw upon the Chattahoochee river, sucking up water like a vacuum cleaner, with no end in sight.
But our actions do not happen in a bubble, and this excessive water use alters the salinity of the water in Apalachicola, where the Chattahoochee meets the Gulf, drastically altering the ecosystem and the brackish waters oysters need to survive.
We are, in our unwillingness to consider sustainable growth, making others bear the consequences of our inaction.
And so, after generations of relationships with oysters, my relationship perhaps feels more urgent and tender than that of my forebears. Having seen the magic of thriving oyster beds, and the importance to us as human communities and us in an ecosystem, my relationship to the Chattahoochee is perhaps more expansive than for those who haven't spent any time around oysters.
It’s why I have such a frustrated relationship with the pace of development here
Represents to me the continued deforestation of the landscape here, the continuation of our path to spread our resources thinner and thinner and to reduce the tree cover in this temperate rainforest we call home. But it makes me think of the oysters, and the communities built around them, farther south.
I reflect on how my own family’s lives were built around them, and how lives and the ecosystems they inhabit might shift as we continue to shift and enjoy our lives and ecosystems further upstream.
And, I hope that, at least once in your life, you get to enjoy the magic of an Apalachicola oyster, and get to spend time appreciating the place they come from as you do.
A very optional writing exercise:
Though not a graded or at all mandatory exercise, once I wrote these prompts out for myself, I shared them with my students to use now or later (or not at all!) as they saw fit. The exercise is in two parts:
Write about a single food experience of your own, and notice how Kennedy pulls out the small details of her writing, like tripping as she's running to an oyster cart. What small details can you pull out of your memory that humanize the story you're telling? What moments stand out, and how can you really flesh out those details? What feelings do they evoke? What sensations?
Reflect not only on the sources we use as research material, but on our connection to those sources. Notice how Kennedy talks not only about MFK Fisher's oyster writing, but about her specific copy of the book. What sources do you have this kind of connection with? How does it impact your writing? How can our personal connection to a resource serve as an anchor for our writing, while also allowing us to expand that anchor into a thoughtfully researched piece?