Food - The plight of the Southern oyster

Reflections from the Southeast Oyster Symposium

Kimball House is normally closed on Sunday afternoon, but on March 9, every seat in the restaurant's sun-filled dining room was taken. Local chefs, restaurateurs, and food writers sat elbow to elbow at small tables covered with platters of fresh oysters, cold beer, and stacks of literature on local oyster growers. Everyone in attendance was there to learn.

The Southeast Oyster Symposium — brainchild of Kimball House co-owner Bryan Rackley, food blogger Ted Golden, and Dr. Bill Walton of Auburn University's Department of Fisheries, Aquaculture, and Aquatic Sciences — was held to create a forum for growers from across the Southeast to showcase their oysters, educate the crowd on local oyster sourcing options, and drum up some new business. Selling just one bag of oysters, Walton says, can be huge for a local farmer's bottom line. Another main goal of the gathering was to dispel some widely held misconceptions about Gulf oysters and discuss their importance to our region.

Along with the fear of vibrio, the harmful bacteria associated with eating raw or undercooked seafood, many people are still spooked by Gulf oysters after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Rackley, who oversees the oyster menu at Kimball House, witnesses diners' hesitation firsthand.

"I see the words 'Gulf oysters' polarizing our guests into two groups," Rackley says. "One has a romantic idea of the Apalachicola oysters they ate as young people, while the other group is deathly afraid of vibrio (even if they don't know what that is) and is turned off by the size and tendency for Gulf oysters to lack taste or a pleasant texture."

But according to Walton, Atlanta has the potential to become the oyster capital of the South, and those who attended the symposium got a taste of just how diverse and spectacular a Southern oyster can be.

The farmers and their oysters made the trip from neighboring states such as Point aux Pins Farms and Sandy Bay Oyster Company from Alabama, St. Jude Farms from South Carolina, and Chadwick Creek Farm from North Carolina, among others. Surprisingly, they were all very different from appearance to mouth feel to salinity even if they were grown geographically close. These kinds of differences emphasize how much control farmers have over their final product. By entering into a relationship with these local farmers, restaurateurs can source their oysters based on desired characteristics such as salinity, which varies based on when they were harvested, and texture and size, which is influenced by farmers shaking the oysters, and more. The biggest challenge, however, is getting these farmed oysters to market.

"You either have to put them in a cooler and get them on an airplane or get them in a refrigerated truck," Rackley says. "The former is fast but expensive and a lot of work. The latter is easier but a bit slower and requires distribution and truck routes. I think the farmers that came to Kimball House for the event know that we and other restaurants in Atlanta will be able to sell their product. Both sides, however, have to figure out what the best method of getting them here will be."

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