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André Gallant

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Why is it so hard to bake bread with Georgia wheat?

Decatur’s La Calavera Bakery
The loaves at Decatur’s La Calavera Bakery are among the few in town baked with Georgia-grown wheat.

Photograph by Andrea Fremiotti

Consider the BLT a microcosm for the locavore movement. The lettuce and tomato could be plucked from a raised-bed garden just outside the kitchen door. The pig that offered its belly for bacon could have rooted on pasture the next county over. Mayonnaise, the only condiment rightly allowed by BLT purists, could be whipped using yolks from backyard eggs.

But what about the bread? Perhaps the crusty sourdough slices came from a neighborhood boulangerie specializing in old-world baking traditions, but the flour likely traveled hundreds of miles to reach Atlanta from Midwestern prairies and mills. When it comes to loaves, Georgia lacks a local grain economy—the bread corollary to farm-to-table. It’s a logistical and agricultural problem that bakers and farmers hope to correct.

Wheat is a cash crop in Georgia but ranks well below soy and cotton when it comes to acreage sown. The variety cultivated by farmers here—soft red winter wheat—makes wonderful, fluffy biscuits and cookies, as well as good forage or feed for animals, but produces lousy loaves.

Only one Georgia farm, DaySpring Farms in Madison County, currently grows the kind of wheat preferred by bread bakers: hard red winter wheat. They’ve done so organically since 2014, even though Georgia’s wet and humid climate makes that a difficult task. DaySpring’s workers grind wheat berries, the kernel of the wheat plant, into flour using the farm’s own stone mill.

Why is it so hard to bake bread with Georgia wheat?
Georgia-grown hard red winter wheat at La Calavera Bakery

Photograph by Andrea Fremiotti

Despite the artisanal process and close proximity to metropolitan bakers, DaySpring’s flour struggles to compete with the ones most bakeries typically employ. The challenge with the flour, according to the farmer who produces it, isn’t how it tastes but how it performs on a baker’s table.

“What we produce is different than commercially available flour that [bakeries] founded their businesses on,” says Nathan Brett, whose family owns DaySpring. Brett grows a strain of wheat called Catawba, bred by plant scientists at North Carolina State University.

Because DaySpring’s stone mill grinds the whole wheat berry, it churns out coarse flour compared to pure, white flours from large companies. It’s also fresh, which gives the flour greater nutritional value, Brett says. (A wheat scientist I spoke with confirmed that freshness, among other factors like soil quality and processing, increases flour’s health benefits.) “It’s a live product,” Brett says. “It’s not going to respond the way a flour that sat in a warehouse for a few months would.”

For most culinary uses, restaurants could easily replace industrial flour with local flour. But bread is more complicated.

Bakers are picky by necessity about the flour they use because even the slightest fluctuations in their process can throw off production. Catawba is a flavorful, delicious wheat, says Chris Wilkins, co-owner of Root Baking Company in Ponce City Market. But it’s low-protein, which affects a loaf’s shape and texture.

Decatur’s La Calavera Bakery
Wife and husband Dale Ralston and Eric Arillo of La Calavera

Photograph by Andrea Fremiotti

Every batch of commercially grown and milled wheat arrives at a bakery with consistent gluten properties and ash content, which are dependable qualities prized by bakers, explains Eric Arillo and Dale Ralston, the husband and wife duo behind Decatur’s La Calavera Bakery. La Calavera is one of the few Atlanta-area bakeries that has fully incorporated DaySpring flour into its operation. (Brett points out that two women-run, pop-up microbakeries—Sarah Dodge’s Bread is Good and Betsy Gonzalez’s Osono Bread—also use DaySpring flour in their bread; Osono relies entirely on flour from DaySpring and from artisan growers in North Carolina.)

A small grower like DaySpring generally can’t match the predictability of its industrial counterparts. For La Calavera, that means working with DaySpring flour has required “a lot of hit-and-miss experimentation,” Arillo says. He and Ralston now consistently bake a sprouted grain bread made entirely with fresh DaySpring wheat berries that Ralston mills herself. For other loaves, they use a mix that’s 50 percent Georgia flour.

Wilkins’s experiments with DaySpring wheat have yet to yield customer-ready results at Root Baking Company—but he’s close. He’s had better luck with inventive loaves that rely on locally grown grits and field peas, both from DaySpring, rather than wheat. Like his La Calavera colleagues, he’s committed to supporting a local grain economy. “If farmers go out of their way to do it, we should show good faith and see what we can do,” Wilkins says.

But good faith doesn’t guarantee good loaves. Despite the rise of artisanal bakeries and increasingly sophisticated eaters, “our tastes are attuned to a certain type of bread that’s different than what a local grain economy might give us,” Arillo says. He and Ralston try to bake what they call “bridge loaves,” bread that pairs unfamiliar grains with crowd-pleasing ingredients. “We respect the old processes,” Arillo says, “but we throw some bacon in it to make people eat it.”

Wilkins says it’s not up to farmers or consumers to strengthen Georgia’s grain economy. Bakers must make the case for more local flour—with irresistible bread.

“People should have high expectations of bread,” Wilkins says. “Bakers are craftspeople. It’s up to us.”

This article appears in our June 2019 issue.

It could soon be legal to harvest oysters in Georgia—but why is the proposed law so murky?

Harvesting Georgia oysters legislation
A wild oyster in McIntosh County, Georgia

Photograph by André Gallant

Georgia’s oyster industry is primed for a comeback. Over the past five years, shellfishermen, scientists, and environmentalists have collaborated on the best way to reintroduce—after decades of dormancy—a sustainable and thriving oyster economy. Such oysters hardly could be able to be hatched fast enough to feed the hunger of diners across the state; restaurants are prepared to order bushels upon bushels of the bivalves.

So what’s the problem?

Currently, it’s not legal to grow oysters in Georgia. That day should arrive soon, though, following legislation that’s advancing under the Gold Dome. The nearly identical House Bill 501 and Senate Bill 182 recently passed their respective chambers—which bodes well for passage of legislation. But the regulations in the bills—which are intended to usher in a new oyster era—may stifle rather than kickstart the resurgence.

A number of powerful groups stand behind the bills, including the Department of Natural Resources Coastal Resources Division (CRD), which oversees the shellfish industry and authored the legislation. The Georgia Chamber of Commerce is on board as well.

“We are trying to do something that other states have done and that we believe could be great for Georgia and for some of our coastal counties,” state Rep. Jeff Petrea, R-Savannah, sponsor of HB 501, said during a House Game, Fish, and Parks Committee meeting.

Other supporters, including ones from the marine science community, say any law is better than no law—that whatever the flaws and uncertainties, those issues can and should be fixed later.

Then there’s the faction that would prefer no law at all compared to what’s proposed. The oystermen I spoke with, including Charlie Phillips of Sapelo Sea Farms and others who asked not to be quoted for fear of retribution from future regulators, fall into this category.

I’ve spent the past five years researching Georgia’s developing oyster industry. I even wrote a book about it: A High Low Tide: The Revival of a Southern Oyster. On the one hand, I wonder what took so long for the bills to materialize, and it’s a relief that the future of aquaculture is finally up for discussion by lawmakers. On the other, the bills raise many concerns—including putting Georgia oystermen at a disadvantage compared to those in other states and compared to deeper-pocketed local competitors. Those factors, coupled with the vague wording in some of the proposed regulations, have made oyster enthusiasts uneasy.

I worry that this uncertainty isn’t likely to breed many oysters.

“The CRD [Coastal Resources Division] could really be the hero of this whole affair if they would just provide some clarity and explanation,” says Bryan Rackley, co-owner of renowned oyster-forward restaurants Kimball House and Watchman’s Seafood and Spirits, and member of Oyster South, an advocacy group for oyster aquaculture in the Southeast. “There’s still too many critical unanswered questions.”

The management of aquaculture is newly chartered water for Southern states. Alabama, North Carolina, and Florida have crafted their rules only in the past decade, with edits still on the way. Their trials and errors should guide Georgia as it sets its course. But the guidelines that helped make aquaculture so successful along the Atlantic coast and Gulf of Mexico can’t be found—at least not definitively—in Georgia’s legislation.

One potential problem with the bills is quite technical. Oyster farmers require specific gear to grow their crop. The bills do say gear can be used in the water, but the specifics are hazy—and specifics are important. Georgia’s oystermen are desperate to be able to use what’s called “floating gear,” which allows them to work in a way that’s less dependent on the tides and produces a higher-quality oyster. But there’s no direct acknowledgement in the legislation of this need. (The bills would allow the state to lease subtidal waterbottoms, which is good news. Subtidal bottoms are the part of the waterways where floating gear would be used to an oyster farmer’s benefit.)

Harvesting Georgia oysters legislation
Hatchery-grown oysters spread out on a dock by the Skidaway River

Photograph by André Gallant

Oystermen also are frustrated by language that does not authorize the summer harvest of oysters. From May until October, when waters are warm, oysters are more likely to harbor Vibrio bacteria, which can sicken children, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems. Despite these serious public health concerns, oysters are harvested elsewhere in the South and safely served during the summer season, thanks in part to refrigeration and quick transportation. Atlanta restaurants already serve oysters from across the South all summer long, so why not let them serve Georgia-grown ones? Do we trust the methods of Louisiana, the Carolinas, and Florida more than we would our own?

Without summer harvest, oyster farmers say it will be difficult to thrive. Who will invest in a business that draws no income for five months? The way the bills are currently worded, there’s potential for summer harvests, but, again, the language is vague.

Environmental groups such as the Altamaha Riverkeeper and One Hundred Miles have questioned how the legislation would allow the state to determine who has the right to farm oysters. Under the bills, a blind “lottery” would be used to assign rights to oyster leases; sealed applications would be submitted, yet the CRD would determine who wins the lottery in the end, choosing “the bidder it considers most advantageous to the state.” It’s possible that it could cost thousands of dollars just to apply to the lottery, without the promise of being awarded the lease. According to the legislation, applicants would be required to have already invested in commercial or agricultural acreage on which they’ve constructed coolers and a packing house.

Regulators typically utilize lotteries when the resource—an overfished species like red snapper, for example—is limited. Oysters are farmed from seed produced in a lab; it’s more akin to agriculture than fishing. The only limit to this resource is space. Our marsh lands are limited, yes, but I’ve heard estimates from aquaculture specialists that 100 small oyster farms would take up one percent of wetland acreage. We currently have one provisional oyster farm in the state. There’s much room for expansion.

CRD officials have said that they want to implement the lottery process and other prerequisites to ensure success—that applicants should be able to prove the ability to farm oysters. But the lottery creates a barrier to entry for local fishermen, who generally don’t have access to the kind of capital required to invest in such a system. There has to be way to introduce oyster farming to the state that doesn’t price out traditional watermen.

How the CRD determines which areas of the marsh are subjected to the lottery is another ambiguity. Without a shellfish scientist or aquaculture specialist on staff, how do regulators choose sites? In other states, farmers are allowed to convince regulators that a particular stretch of water is well-suited for aquaculture, but no similar protocol exists in the bills’ current wording. All discretion and decision-making remains with one department.

In public comment, Coastal Resources Division Director Doug Haymans told legislators that the CRD plans to convene an advisory council of industry members, just as it does with finfish and shrimp fisheries, to help implement the new laws. But what kind of honest criticism about regulations can the regulated make to the regulators? With their livelihoods at stake, how truthful will oystermen be?

Instead of an industry advisory council, it would behoove the CRD to bring together diverse perspectives on growing this nascent industry, including members of the environmental and conservation community, scientists, aquaculture experts, and industry representatives. This would be an essential move in creating transparency as the department unrolls its aquaculture strategy.

If all parties manage to make these murky oyster regulations work as intended—with the common goal of swift, safe, equitable, sustainable aquaculture—we should see multiple Georgia oyster varieties on ice at Atlanta’s raw bars within two to three years of the legislation becoming law. If that’s the case, I’ll issue my apologies to bureaucrats and politicians as I order a dozen McIntosh bivalves.

Update: This story has been amended to include the first name and title of Coastal Resources Division Director Doug Haymans.

The case for eating Georgia “jellyballs”

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Georgia Jellyfish
Cannonball jellyfish are plentiful on Georgia’s coast.

Photograph courtesy of Tennessee Aquarium

After chef Matt Marcus decided to introduce jellyfish to the high-end Southern menu at his revamped Watershed, he hit a snag. Marcus had bought the 20-year-old, James Beard Award–winning restaurant in April, eager to make his mark. He was fascinated to learn that cannonball jellyfish—a smaller cousin of the feared shore demon but harmless to humans—is Georgia’s third largest fishery by volume, after shrimp and crab, thanks to demand from markets in Asia. He decided to serve the catch, called jellyballs, to further promote and showcase Georgia’s seafood industry. No other Atlanta restaurant he knew of was offering it.

All started well. His first batch of fresh jellies arrived in a FedEx box from Golden Island International in Darien. Unprocessed, jellyballs feel like a raw scallop—a pale pink blob that’s firm under a squeeze—and look like tiny umbrellas. Marcus found that they share flavor and texture with octopus and cuttlefish, though he says jellyfish can taste “a little cleaner.” For the version that appeared on the menu, he rolled and trussed the jellyballs and dunked them in liquid nitrogen. Then, he sliced them like noodles, blanched them, and sauteed them in butter with shallots, serving them twirled up in the center of an Ossabaw hog consommé with a poached egg. Marcus says customers flipped for the dish, which he called a Georgia carbonara. Then, his key ingredient ran out.

Jellyball season runs from late fall to mid-spring, depending on ocean temperature, which makes the window for fresh jellyballs somewhat short. Not knowing this, Marcus asked Golden Island for another round. A gallon bucket of the company’s mainstay arrived: dried and salted jellyballs, shelf-stable for two years and wildly popular in China, Korea, and Japan, where they’re beloved for their crunchy texture and eaten as a salad.

Marcus wasn’t sure what to do. The jellies were so stiff, he threw one against a kitchen wall with a loud thwack. Reconstituting a preserved jellyball requires a 10-hour soak in water to remove all the added salt, Marcus learned. But after a long steep, and then another, the brine remained.

“It’s so salty, it blows out the palate,” Marcus says. Further attempts to desalinate failed, so Marcus removed jellyfish from the menu.

Despite the setback, support is on the way. This fall, a collaboration launches between Golden Island International, the University of Georgia Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant, and southern chefs with the intent to increase domestic sales of jellyfish beyond Asian markets and sushi restaurants. The idea is to bring jellyballs to creative kitchens with the hope that cooks will devise interesting new ways for diners to enjoy them.

“We feel there’s an opportunity to work jellyfish into the mainstream.”

“Thirty years ago, nobody was eating sushi or calamari,” says Terry Chuang, owner of Golden Island International. “Now, it’s everywhere.”

Golden Island manager April Harper adds: “We feel there’s an opportunity to work jellyfish into the mainstream, but we don’t know what that’s going to look like. Our Asian market demands one thing—salted and dried—and we don’t know what our domestic market will want.”

Harper, for example, hadn’t considered that a chef like Marcus would want fresh jellyfish. No one had asked for it before. She hopes American cooks can find uses for Golden Island’s dried jellyfish, but she’s eager to supply other versions if needed. The company might be able to flash-freeze fresh jellyballs to keep Marcus’s Georgia carbonara on the menu year-round. Or perhaps they can ship large quantities of fresh product to Atlanta, where Marcus can preserve the bounty—trussed and dunked in liquid nitro, just as he did before—as if it were a summer glut of tomatoes. The partnership, the participants hope, will help figure this all out.

When in season, local jellyfish are plentiful and can help meet the overseas demand for them. In less than 30 minutes, trawlers can haul thousands of pounds with minimal bycatch, says Bryan Fluech, associate director of marine extension for UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant. The style of nets deployed to capture jellyballs rarely ensnares sea turtles. “It’s probably our cleanest fishery,” Fluech says.

The Georgia shrimpers who supply Golden Island with jellyfish are facing diminishing yields of their shrimp catch and increased competition from farmed Asian imports. Jellyballing, as the practice is called on the coast, helps shrimpers pick up the slack, especially because the cannonball run along the Atlantic coast occurs between brown and white shrimp seasons. Harper believes she can draw more local fishermen into this lucrative work if demand for jellyfish were to increase. Local interest would also help Golden Island diversify its jellyfish sales beyond Asia and, specifically, beyond China. (The current tariff tete-a-tete between the United States and China further clarified the need for Golden Island to expand closer to home, Harper says.)

In Atlanta, Marcus is eager to do his part. He’s found that jellyballs absorb whatever flavor is added to them in cooking, not unlike tofu. In his earlier experiments, he figured out that frying them can yield good results, as can a low-and-slow braise. But it’s tricky. Because they’re mostly water and collagen, jellyballs melt into a gelatinous slime after too much heat and time. Marcus has been most successful with his deep freeze and quick scald method.

“You find a new product, and not many people are using it,” Marcus says. “That’s exciting. What’s most exciting is to be able to use an indigenous product and keep some of my [shrimping] buddies in the water.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified UGA’s Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant.

This article appears in our October 2018 issue.

Where to eat local seafood on Georgia’s coast

Sunbury Crab CompanySeafood described as fresh and local at restaurants on the Georgia coast isn’t always so, despite close proximity to fishing grounds along the state’s 100-mile coastline. “The reality is that less than 10 percent of [Georgia] restaurants use our local shrimp,” says John Wallace, owner of Poteet Seafood, a Brunswick distributor. It’s worse for fish. Catch limits and regulations can make commercial saltwater finfishing unprofitable. Last fall, hurricanes interrupted the catches for the few Georgia fishermen still working, and the storms and other factors limited local supplies of flounder, snapper, and grouper.

To find out if a restaurant’s seafood is truly local, “the only thing to do is ask and hope they tell the truth,” Wallace says. Some tips: Seek out the Wild Georgia Shrimp decal on entryways and menus; order whiting, a shrimp bycatch, when possible; be skeptical of fish provenance in late winter and early spring (when fisheries close while fish spawn); and expect fried oysters to come from Texas or Louisiana, at best. One local catch that can always be trusted? Blue crabs. They’re abundant but messy to eat, which is why most restaurants don’t serve them.

Luckily, enough coastal restaurants do local well and fess up when they don’t. Here’s a selection of standouts.

Sunbury Crab Company

Sunbury Crab Company
The Maley family built Sunbury Crab Company from the ground up.

Photograph by Gregory Miller

Sunbury Crab Company
Order a basket of steamed blue crabs, and the server trots out a placemat, a wooden mallet, and a bucket for the piles of cracked shells you’re about to create. There’s nothing tidy about dismantling a blue crab for its succulent meat, but the chaos is worth it. The Maley family, which built this restaurant from the ground up, harvests its own crabs and oysters from St. Catherine’s Sound, a short boat ride up the Medway River from the restaurant’s marina. (Sunbury is about an hour’s drive south from Tybee or north from Jekyll.) Clusters of wild local oysters are served steamed when in season, from fall to spring. Finfish isn’t always local—the chef tries to catch enough trout himself to keep customers satisfied—but the quality is high. On a recent visit, breaded redfish commanded space in a stuffed fry basket, and a bone-in flounder was served spiced and grilled—head removed, tail on. 541 Brigantine-Dunmore Road, Sunbury, 912-884-8640

 

Sunbury Crab Company
Sunbury co-owner Bernard Maley helps harvest much of the restaurant’s seafood.

Photograph by Gregory Miller

Sunbury Crab Company

Sunbury Crab Company

Doo Dads
Retired paper mill worker Larry Geter made a name for himself in Camden County and Jacksonville as a James Brown impersonator. He’s so proud of his likeness to the soul star that he keeps comparative photographs posted on a sandwich board that leans against his roadside restaurant. All manner of proteins come freshly fried out of Geter’s makeshift outdoor kitchen—from alligator to chicken gizzards. Deep-fried blue crabs, whiting, and conch fritters, served with a tangy homemade conch sauce, are worth a stop. You won’t miss the place: Bright yellow signs and 14-foot-tall pink flags scream “Doo Dads.” 99 Kinlaw Road, Woodbine, 912-674-7824

The Fish Dock
Perched on a tall bluff skirting the Sapelo River in sleepy McIntosh County, the Fish Dock is the closest the Georgia coast comes to a true sea-to-table restaurant. Owner Charlie Phillips is a fishing industry legend in Georgia. He owns Sapelo Sea Farms, the largest clam farm in the state, leases wild oyster beds, and operates a legion of fishing and shrimp boats. All that catch eventually becomes bowls of clams steamed in wine and butter, blackened whole margate or black sea bass, and soft-shell crab sandwiches in a dining room that overlooks Charlie’s fleet. 1398 Sapelo Avenue, Townsend, 912-832-4295

Desposito’s
Savannah’s no-frills port city roots are on display at this low-slung bar tucked beside the Thunderbolt Bridge, en route to Tybee Island, where newspapers cover the tables. Nelson’s Quality Shrimp, just a net toss away from Desposito’s kitchen door, keeps this half-century-old marshside establishment stocked with Georgia brown shrimp. Choose blue crabs (boiled) and shrimp (garlicky or deep fried) over the trucked-in oysters and Alaskan snow crab legs. 3501 Macceo Drive, Thunderbolt, 912-897-9963

Best of the rest
In Shellman Bluff, Speed’s Kitchen (1191 Speeds Kitchen Road) is good for fried shrimp and deviled crab and Hunter’s Cafe (1093 River Road) for a grouper sandwich or steamed wild oysters.

In downtown Woodbine, Captain Stan’s Smokehouse (700 Bedell Avenue), a popular spot for barbecue and nightlife, sautés local shrimp in garlic and vermouth.

This article appears in our July 2018 issue.

Will the Georgia oyster rise again?

Oysters
A wild Georgia oyster from City Market in Brunswick

Photograph by Whitney Ott

Ask Kimball House co-owner Bryan Rackley about any gaps in his Decatur restaurant’s oyster menu, and his answer comes clear and quick: On a list that includes selections from the Carolinas, Alabama, Florida, and Louisiana, he can offer no Georgia oysters. The omission, he says, is as frustrating as it is glaring. “To not have oysters from our home state represented, when there’s so much prime real estate [for production], is a missed opportunity,” Rackley says.

For many years, oyster aquaculture farms in the Northeast and on the West Coast have dominated U.S. shellfish production. More recently, Southern oysters from the Chesapeake Bay, Gulf of Mexico, and the Pamlico Sound have carved out regular slots on the chip ice at regional oyster bars. But Georgia continues to be absent.

The reasons why Rackley can’t source a local oyster are ecological, historical, and political. They’re also surmountable, and scientists at the University of Georgia and culinary advocates like Rackley are speeding up the process.

Oysters

Georgia’s 100-mile-long coastline supports a thriving estuary in which wild oysters proliferate. They form clusters, ugly piles of small oysters that look like bouquets of razor-sharp shells sprouting from river muck. The vast majority of oysters served at restaurants like Kimball House are farmed, and the difference between wild and farmed is striking. Farmed oysters are grown in cages from lab-produced seed, which typically takes about two years, and develop a uniform shape; they’re referred to as “singles.” Clusters are the country cousins of farmed oysters, too untamed for fine dining. While plentiful in number, cluster oysters are labor-intensive, messy monsters to shuck, making outdoor oyster roasts the preferable setting.

One hundred years ago, Georgia’s wild oyster bounty made the state a leader in an industry that functioned far differently than it does today. Oystermen, usually African Americans, hauled boatloads of bivalves from rivers and sounds to community canneries owned by white businessmen. Workers, usually black women, shucked the shells, extracted the meat, and steamed it in tins that could be shipped hundreds of miles inland. Both cohorts were paid piecemeal.

The boom didn’t last. Canneries lost their workers to urban migration and federal minimum wage laws in the 1960s, and various shellfish disease epidemics whittled down oyster populations. Companies that employed hundreds of people and owned dozens of boats and canneries closed. By the end of the 20th century, the industry consisted of part-time solo fishermen who sold oysters, along with catches of crabs, to neighbors and small retail shops.

Marine scientists at the University of Georgia decided the best way for them to help bring the industry into the modern era would be to build an oyster hatchery. In 2015, one opened at the UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant Shellfish Laboratory on Skidaway Island. A hatchery produces seed oysters, the first element in the farming process. Seed oysters mature in cages in brackish water farms, where they are tended—or “tumbled,” as farmers say—to ensure a deeply cupped shell. As they grow, oysters feed off phytoplankton in the water, which gives them a distinctive taste of place. Georgia’s estuaries create a bracingly salty oyster compared to more mild ones from the Gulf, with a crisp, vegetal flavor that results from the abundant cordgrass growing throughout the area. The hatchery currently produces millions of seed oysters for ongoing experiments to prove whether current oyster farming technology can succeed in Georgia’s marshes.

Shellfish Research Laboratory Director Tom Bliss says Georgia’s oyster-farming industry can catch up in terms of production to its contemporaries in five years. But first, the lab must provide enough seed to create a steady supply for farmers, and the state must pass regulations to allow for aquaculture “gear” (essentially, cages) and restructure how waterways are divided up for commercial use. Only then could a new generation of oyster entrepreneurs enter the trade. Once the process becomes predictable, Bliss says, “it will be easier to increase distribution to get Georgia oysters inland to markets in Atlanta.”

In addition to the research and outreach from Bliss’s lab, the nonprofit Oyster South is working to encourage oyster farming in the region (Rackley is a founder and prominent voice in the organization).

Georgia’s oyster sales were valued at a modest $120,000 last year. Bliss calls the industry’s potential economic impact “tremendous” for the state’s fishing communities; in the last decade, the oyster industry in North Carolina expanded exponentially and is now worth $2 million. Georgia, he claims, can quickly match that success.

Rackley, for one, can’t wait for the Georgia oyster’s rebirth.

“When it does happen,” he says, “our menu will be closer to complete.”

This article appears in our May 2018 issue.

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