If you thought there were no holidays worth celebrating in August, think again. Grab your peeling knife and reseda sauce, Friday is National Oyster Day.
While we take all of our shellfish seriously here in Rhode Island, the oyster is a shellfish that deserves its own day of recognition and celebration. After 164,000 years (there is evidence that early humans shelled and feasted on them), oysters continue to be popular and feature prominently on restaurant menus today. It’s a whole seashell heritage. The oyster has even distinguished itself from other seafood entrees. Restaurants often have bars where they display their fresh oysters like exquisite jewelry. They employ highly skilled workers for the specific job of shucking each oyster as it is ordered. The oysters even come on their own special platters, served on a bed of finely chopped ice with little flags indicating its original seabed. They definitely don’t do that for chicken wings.
It was the ancient Greeks who took the oyster to the next level. They were the first to grow and cultivate them. In fact, the Greeks loved the oyster so much that they believed that Aphrodite, goddess of beauty and love, was born from the sea in an oyster. In almost all seaside civilizations, the oyster has become both an important resource and a delicacy. Here in our own backyard, oysters were an important food for Native Americans. In his 1643 notes, Roger Williams describes the Narragansett tribe fishing for oysters. And once European settlers got a taste of it, the popularity of oysters continued to grow. At the start of the 20th century, oysters were the most dominant and abundant shellfish in Rhode Island. There were over 50 shucking, shipping and processing plants in full operation along the shores of Narragansett Bay at its peak.
Rising food prices:Why a Middletown restaurant is warning customers about rising fries prices
Oysters even played a role in the Underground Railroad, as discussed recently at the Preservation Society of Newport County’s Eaddo and Peter Kiernan Lecture Series. Researcher Adrian Cato studies the history and socio-ecological connection of oysters on the Atlantic coast, from Chincoteague, Virginia, to Newport. She spoke of George T. Downing, a successful African-American caterer from New York known for his oysters, who followed the city’s elite to Newport during summers in the mid-1800s and brought his catering skills and his oysters with him. Downing eventually provided his restaurant in New York as a rest station on the Underground Railroad. He would also help those seeking safety while traveling a place to hide among the jars of pickled oysters he shipped between New York and Newport on the famous Fall River Railroad. Downey was a hero who also worked to integrate Rhode Island’s public schools and his efforts and triumphs were born from the success he had selling the bivalve shellfish we all love.
But the story of the oyster also includes how it was overfished in the early 20th century. At the same time, the pollutants were beginning to damage and kill the oyster beds. And suddenly oysters were hard to find. Then came the 1938 hurricane which dealt a near fatal blow to the Narragansett Bay oyster industry, wiping out shuck houses, shipping docks and oyster boats. But the industry held on. Current oyster production is based on coating practices and sustainability. Thanks to the efforts of dedicated conservationists and oyster farmers, oysters are back and here to stay, hopefully for another 164,000 years.
New restaurants:Food Shack opens in the new Middletown Grange. What Will Burgess says about the restaurant
That’s why National Oyster Day is so worth celebrating. Make it your mission this Friday to enjoy one or a dozen. Let the salty taste of each unique variety slide down your throat. Order a sample at Midtown Oyster Bar or Gulf Stream. Treat yourself to the Mooring or the Bristol Oyster Bar. Enjoy featured local selections at Benjamin’s Raw Bar or Lobster Bar. Top them with vodka cocktail sauce at The Black Pearl or harissa cocktail sauce at Cabana Newport. Fry them at the Landing or bake them at the Brick Alley Pub. You don’t have to look too far to find fresh, delicious oysters in Newport. The Clarke Cooke House has some. The red parrot too. So this Friday, go out and party. Raise your oyster shell in the air and toast and drink to this most legendary shell.
Dan Lederer is a Middletown resident with 30 years experience in the restaurant industry throughout New England. He continues to work locally behind the scenes in the industry and remains a dedicated fan of all things restaurant and hospitality. His column appears on newportri.com and Thursdays in The Daily News. Cheers!