Omnivore - Oyster South coalition, Kimball House's Bryan Rackley advocate for Southern oysters
As the oyster advocacy group grows regionally, Kimball House continues to raise the raw bar in our own backyard.
- NAME GAME: Turtleback (from left), Murder Point, and Southern Pearl Gulf oysters
Bryan Rackley, co-owner of Decatur’s Kimball House, returned to the restaurant late last week with a haul of Murder Point oysters from Alabama's Gulf Coast. He stood in the converted train depot's tiny shucking room, gazing down at the glistening shells as if they were precious jewels. Murder Points are known for their plump, ivory-colored meat and a briny liquor that tastes like a sip of fresh sea.
This particular batch of oysters was bound for last weekend's Charleston Wine and Food Festival, where Rackley would show them off to fellow oyster-lovers and especially those who doubted the quality of a Southern-grown oyster.
“Any oyster can taste good on a cracker," Rackley says. "This is our chance to render the condiments optional.”
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Rackley is among a growing number of Southern oyster advocates. In 2014, Rackley co-founded the Coalition for Advancement of Southern Mariculture (CASOM), or Oyster South for short, with Atlanta-based food blogger Ted Golden and Dr. Bill Walton of Auburn University’s School of Fisheries, Aquaculture and Aquatic Sciences. Oyster South is an advocacy network made up of 40 oyster farmers, seed suppliers, restaurateurs, dealers, writers, educators, and researchers throughout the South. Its mission "is to encourage the sustainable development of oyster mariculture in the southern US, to help the region’s economy, improve the coastal environment, and preserve the coastal culture and traditions."
- Angela Hansberger
- SHELL GAME: Kimball House's Bryan Rackley cradles Murder Point oysters
These initiatives were the bedrock for the first-ever Southeast Oyster Symposium held at Kimball House last April. With a handful of local chefs, restaurateurs, and food writers in attendance, growers from across the Southeast showcased their oysters and educated the crowd on local sourcing options. For many, the event was a crash course in the modern plight of the Southern oyster.
Pretty much every body of water and grow-out method produces different flavor profiles and our corresponding goals are pretty simple," Rackley says. "The first is to show that these oysters are nuanced, interesting, and belong on raw bar menus across the nation. These are often very subtle, buttery, and woody oysters that defy the hell out of the traditional Gulf oyster. And the second goal is to simply get more people interested in growing so there are more oysters in the water."
For Oyster South members, changing consumer perceptions and the region's economic development are tantamount to maintaining healthy ecosystems through sustainable farming methods.
"The environmental and ecological upside to healthy oyster populations is huge," Rackley says. "And we want to see this trend keep moving in the right direction."
Many argue that Atlanta is perfectly positioned to become the South's oyster capital: It’s within easy driving distance to not one, but two coasts with oyster cultures. Under Rackley's direction, Kimball House is leading the charge. On the restaurant's robust raw bar menu, Rackley describes the different oyster varietals in vivid detail. His clever descriptions include scents, textures, flavor profiles, and sometimes the music that would ideally accompany the slurp. There is almost always a story behind each name and a person behind each story.
Like those Murder Points, for example "Lane Zirlott and his family are growing these and they are completely crazy about their oysters," Rackley says. "Whether it's the oysters length, cup depth, or profile, Lane is obsessive ... these guys care about their oysters like they are their own flesh and fucking blood."
Oyster South is becoming a valuable new community resource for curious aficionados, oyster growers of all experience levels, and restaurants looking to spruce up their shell programs. Oyster South's new website contains info galore on suppliers, participating members, and ways to help promote Oyster South's mission. Until then, you can learn a lot from Kimball House’s oyster menu. No need for crackers.