Bill Wade and Susan Elnicki Wade may not be professional oyster growers or shuckers, but they certainly know what they’re talking about. They’ve been spending most of their free time recently living the dream, researching the oyster restaurants, bars, and dives, that specialize in the delicious Chesapeake oyster for their new book The Chesapeake Oyster Lovers’ Handbook.
From strip malls in Virginia, to the nicest white linen restaurants, the Wades have been immersing themselves in the oyster word, diving into it’s historical, agricultural, and economical relevance. Now experts, I called them up to chat about their favorite spots, figure out how to tell good oyster bars from bad ones, laugh about the aphrodisiac myth, and in general badger them with my stupid questions. They were great sports.
What inspired you to write the book?
Susan: I don’t know if you knew, Kaylee, but we also had a series of books called Crab Decks and Tiki Bars of the Chesapeake Bay?
Yes, I heard about those!
Susan: That’s our original project and we started that about… four years ago?
Bill: Five years ago.
Susan: Yes, five years ago. A friend of ours said, “Why don’t you guys write a book, you’re always going up to the Chesapeake Bay?” That became our first book. We had a Maryland edition and a Virginia edition… and this was sort of born out of that. Out of our travels and seeing how oyster bars were popping up everywhere. Thanks to the new aqua farming they’re more plentiful, they’re available year round. So we thought, we should put this into a book, and that’s what sparked us.
Bill: Yeah, with crab decks, you think of summer, and with this one you get to complete the cycle. Year round food out of the Bay. So it kind of came because we were just bopping around so much. In order to get the books done we would have to do a lot of off season investigation on crabs, and we were just running into the oysters over and over and over again. Then oyster festivals… And then we got more immersed in it and started meeting the oyster growers, and then we started meeting the shuckers, and before you know it, we were learning a lot about it and it falls into line with the Crab Decks book.
Susan: Crab decks are such a traditional Maryland thing, so we gravitated towards that because Bill is from Maryland. He grew up there and his parents have a boat on the Bay, so it was a part of his childhood. The oyster thing became fascinating to us because there are so many possible components. Of course they taste good, and they’re good for you, but on the environmental side as well, they’re a really an important factor in replenishing the waters of the Bay. They’re little filter feeders. Weird fact: One little oyster can filter fifty gallons of water in a day. It’s like a keg of beer a day. It’s amazing. Then we got even more interested, not that we’re environmentalists per se, but there’s so much good that’s happening here and it’s really booming.
Bill: There are economic benefits too. Dead water, there wasn’t really anything coming out of specific little creeks and all of a sudden they’re bringing a million oysters a year out of a little tiny creek and selling them and giving people jobs. We really didn’t see the oyster houses popping up, probably because they couldn’t really supply enough to them and now, holy hell, we have a whole book of more than a hundred, just in the area. Now they have a guaranteed supply of oysters coming out because oyster farmers are growing them.
Why have oysters becoming so popular over the last couple of years?
Bill: I think they finally got the farming part right on a grand scale. I think, for a while there, they were dabbling in it, and they got a little bit out, and then they figured out how to get a little bit more out, and then others started copy good aqua farming practices. Then also, finally, Maryland government started making it a lot easier to get licensed to do so. Prior to the administration that just ended with O’Malley, there was, I think, five or six different agencies a Marylander who wanted to grow oysters had to go through to get licenses. It was really prohibitive. They streamlined that and all of a sudden, at least the Maryland growers, started exploding. Virginia was well ahead of Maryland in that regard.
Susan: I have another thought, just a different spin on it. I’m more the foodie here and I think everything old becomes new again. You know that phrase? Chesapeake oysters in particular, since the 1800’s have been regarded as some of the finest oysters in the world, and it wasn’t until the mid 20th century when they were over harvested, and the area became polluted, and disease ravaged them, that they got a bad reputation. With the aqua farming, there are all of these positive attributes, like cleaning up the water, so they’re safe to eat, but there was a time when people were dubious about it. If you’re to go to a restaurant now, and it cracks me up, you’ll see deviled eggs, scrapple, these things that my mom used to make. It’s a very 50’s thing, like tiki has come back again. Sometimes we reach back a generation or two and see what they were doing and I think a little bit of that is happening with the oyster bar. Many of them of them you walk into and there’s… not this Gatsby feel… because they’re all different, but there’s just something so decadent about sitting down with the silver tray and the ice and there’s such a ritual to trying a little cocktail sauce, you know? It’s a little bit of a throwback thing.
Bill: Back in the day my mom would go into a restaurant and say, “I’d like a white wine.” No one asks that anymore. You ask for a specific kind or a specific vineyard. Oyster growers are jumping on that as well. Every little creek, every little indentation on the Bay, tastes a little different for each oyster, there’s a little different salinity, or a little different temperature, a little bit different phytoplankton, so that’s made it fun.
Susan: And oyster growers are really capitalizing on that as well. A lot of them are young or are in other careers, so they name things like Sweet Jesus or Hidden Pleasure, so they make it kind of fun and sexy to want to eat oysters again, so I think that’s been part of it.
That’s so funny.
Susan: I know, I know. I love looking through some of the brand names. They are so hysterical.
This is a question I was going to ask you later, because it’s silly, but do you think people actually buy into the whole aphrodisiac thing?
Susan: Well… [Bill laughs] I think they do. I’ve read a couple of different things about it. There are nutrients in oysters that have been scientifically shown… well they can kind of help men get their groove going. I’d have to double check that for you, but there are true health benefits. Plus there’s history, in the Roman times they would have orgies and eat oysters. It’s partly because it looks like a girly thing and you have to open it up.
Bill: Mussels look more like a girly thing than oysters and they don’t say that about mussels.
Susan: I don’t know.
Bill: I think there’s very thin evidence, but why not perpetuate the myth because it’s more fun to do that?
Susan: Is there truth to it? I think the jury’s out but some say. It’s certainly better than eating a cheeseburger.
What sets Chesapeake oysters apart from other varieties like Blue Points?
Susan: In the Chesapeake Bay there is only one species of oyster, Crassostrea virginica, but they taste different depending on where they’re grown and what they absorb from the waters. It’s called a merroir, with wines it’s called a terroir, the grapes taste different depending on the soil they’re grown in. As you go up the East Coast there are other species, but it’s primarily the East Coast oyster from Canada, all the way from the Northern Atlantic, all the way down to Florida and even in the Gulf. It’s pretty much the same species. It’s not until you go out to the West Coast that you see some different ones. It is the indigenous species of the North East.
Bill: You can imagine how a Canadian climate and its waters would produce a different tasting oyster then here.
Susan: And Bill did a really cool thing in our book. We devised a map that charts out the taste, because a lot of it is based on salinity.
Bill: I should back up and say, we thought about doing every oyster there is, but we only had so much time to do this, so we concentrated on our specialty, which was already the Chesapeake Bay. Since it’s exploding we were kind of ahead on the curve on what’s going on here. What I did is I took the Bay and divided it into 13 oyster growing zones and I did that by examining where oysters are being grown currently as well as salinity levels that vary among the Bay I’ll often realize where the fresh water is coming off of a major river.
Susan: Let me just make one thing a little clear, the Bay, at the top of the northern part has the Susquehanna river and freshwater flowing into it. Those oysters grown near the top, are less salty, less briny because the salinity levels in the water is lower. Then as you travel down south and into mouth of the Bay where the Atlantic waters can flow in, the salinity level is higher. So that’s why they have a saltier taste. That’s why Chincoteagues are really briny. They’re right out on the Atlantic. If you look at Barren Island oysters that are grown around Hoopers Island, which is way north of that, those are going to be fresher and more buttery. That’s what Bill’s map did. He made you look at the Bay from north to south and see how as the salinity grew, the richer, brinier, taste came out in the oysters. It’s just a personal preference. I like the buttery ones of the north and Bill likes the briny ones of the south.
Bill: Yeah, I like them all, but this is one of the primary ways they do taste different. Even from creek to creek, if that makes any sense. So I divided the Bay into various growing regions and gave a general taste profile for each region so folks could get an idea. I think one of the fun things we did is create a taste chart. We took all the brands that we could locate, and it was quite a few, I think it was a hundred, and when we could get an exact description of what that brand tastes like directly from the grower, we included it. Otherwise we included a description standard from that region. So our idea, is that if you go to one of the oyster houses listed, and you see a menu, and you see the various names of these oysters and you have no idea what it means or what it’s going to taste like, in theory you open up the back of the book and can read and say, “Oh, okay, I’d like to try this one.”
Is it possible for a novice, someone who is just dipping their toe into the oyster world to tell these different flavors? Or is it something you wont notice right away?
Susan: From the first time, you can tell. One time we were out down the York river and the bartender said, “Let me show you how to really taste oysters.” and he picked one from the north, then one that was farther south, and then one that was like Chincoteague south, and took us on this tour going from briny to medium to salty. That was the first time we went, “Dang, this really is different.” We became after that, not obsessed, but really curious to explore the differences in flavors. But the oyster growers sometimes get really goofy when describing them. Just like wine people, and it’s so goofy when you read something like “the metallic taste and finish,” who wants to eat something metallic? Don’t use that word!
Bill: Yeah, it’s something that I really don’t understand… but the uninitiated can certainly immediately tell. You go to two different regions and the uninitiated will be able to tell the difference.
Susan: I also have noticed now at oyster bars that the staff, in particular if you have a shucker, they’re really excited about it and they love doing what this guy did to us for every customer that comes in. If you go down to Union Market, to the Rappahannock oyster bar down there, they only carry three, and they’re all Rappahannock, but each one is different and they love explaining it to you. So I think even a novice can come in and get initiated in these oyster bars and it’s kind of fun. You’re exploring something new.
As a novice, how can you tell the oyster bar you’re walking into knows what they’re doing?
Bill & Susan: BUY OUR BOOK! [Laughter]
Susan: Buy our book, that will tell you. We really screen them out… but by the way, they are very seriously regulated now so the safety is there. Second of all, if you’re ever out there’s a little tag that each oyster bag is supposed to have, if you ever buy them at a farmers market, look for that tag. It should have a date, where it was grown, and what company grew them. They’re really proud of those tags. By and large it’s no different than going to get sushi. You can tell if a restaurant is funky.
Bill: It’s not just a question of safety… you know one of the things that happened to us while we were pursuing this book, we go into a place and we say “Do you carry oysters?” they say yes, we ask what kind of oysters they carry and they say, “Um… Chesapeake oysters…” and we would just turn around and walk out and say, this is not the kind of place we want in our book. What we want in our book are not those that just happen to carry them and they don’t know what’s on that tag, instead they’re the ones that are proud to promote the variety they’re carrying and they know a little bit about it.
Susan: I found myself becoming a little militant when people tell me they’ve had Chesapeake oysters and I ask them what kind and they say, “Blue Points!” Those are not Chesapeake oysters, Blue Points are from Connecticut. And so I sound a little snobby… but I think if they try and sell you and say Chesapeake oysters are all the same, then you’re probably not in a place that’s really specializing in oysters and that was part of our criteria for the book. We wanted to make sure we were sending people where they can get oysters year round and the places that were serving them knew what they were doing, and you could get a couple different ones to try.
Whats your favorite variety of oyster?
Bill: In the book, we included oysters from the Atlantic, because there are so many grown on the barrier islands of Virginia or Maryland. Those are labeled a generic term, Chincoteague, even though there are a number of growers near Chincoteague Island. I tend to like those because they are salty. The saltier the better.
Susan: Some of the salty ones make my eyes run. I don’t like them they’re just a little too intense for me. Maybe I’m a wuss… I tend to like the buttery, cleaner tasting oysters. I really do hate naming names. It’s like saying I like my older son better, and I don’t, but if I had to I’d probably say Barren Island. I really like those.
Bill: Or the ones coming out of the Western Shore rivers. Like the Patuxent, or the York, or the Rappahannock. I think she likes more of the river oysters.
Susan: That’s true, but I think I would be more general about it. I just like the buttery, crisp oysters. I still like putting cocktail sauce on mine, although you should try them naked because then you can really get the taste. And I’ll take a fried oyster any day. I just think the crunch is so good. I could eat them forever.
I’m going to ask you another favorite question, so bare with me, but where is your favorite place to get oysters in DC?
Bill: Yeah, we have a favorite. It’s Pearl Dive. They really know what they’re doing and they’re very knowledgeable and they have a variety of oysters come through, and they prepare it in so many ways. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve gone there, ordered a plate of raw ones, tastes all the varieties, and then ordered an oyster entree too.
Susan: Their fried oysters are so freaking good. That little sampler, you get three on top with the chorizo and sweet potato, it’s awesome. There’s another one that I’ve come to love and that’s Pop’s in Adams Morgan. You feel like you’re in any kind of diner and their oysters are fabulous.
Bill: Yeah, you’ve got to go. And there. you can get dollar oysters 2:30am after the bars close.
Susan: I don’t know how some people do that… because if you’re going to throw up, all those oysters ugh. But Pop’s is a great one. It’s so fun, it’s so different, it’s not the white linen, tiny silver fork kind of place, and that’s one of the things I love about our book, we discovered some of the strangers places that were selling oysters because we didn’t want them all to be McCormick & Schmidt or Oceanaire where you’re paying $3 an oyster. We wanted to find the little out of the way places. That’s another fun thing, not only did we find interesting restaurants, but we found interesting places. We find them in strip malls next to a Chuck E. Cheese or an H&R Block.
Bill: And then we go in and they’re great.
Susan: They are!
Bill: You wouldn’t have any idea you’re in a strip mall.
Susan: There are places out in the suburbs where I normally get the heebie jeebies going out to, but they were really fun places. So sometimes if you’re stuck out at a kids soccer game and are done with the suburb life, there are tons of oyster bars around that are really good places to go.