At the Landlocked Oyster Fest and Benefit this Sunday, you can try oysters from 19 different farmers, 15 of whom produce in the Southeast. Georgia oyster farmers take up just two slots on that list—most come from the Carolinas, Alabama, and Florida—but that may change very soon.
“In the next five to seven years, we want to help increase in-state growers to about 50,” says Tom Bliss, director of the University of Georgia’s Shellfish Research Laboratory in Savannah.
Sunday’s event is the first of its kind put on by Oyster South, a nonprofit dedicated to encouraging oyster farming throughout the southern U.S., and it will benefit the Shellfish Research Lab. Chefs, including including Staplehouse’s Ryan Smith and Southern Soufflé blogger Erika Council, will partner with farmers to present oysters on the half shell dressed up with various accoutrements at Color Wheel Studios in Decatur. Buxton Hall BBQ’s Elliott Moss will come in from Asheville to cook a whole hog and some ribs with Bryan Furman of B’s Cracklin’, one of Atlanta’s best new restaurants. “We love oysters, but sometimes when you leave these events, you’re still starving!” says Kimball House’s Bryan Rackley, one of the founders of Oyster South. “So I asked those guys to do some barbecue.”
Rackley decided to make oysters a big part of what Kimball House does when it opened four years ago because “they challenge you to become a more perceptive eater,” he says. “Raw food that’s unadorned, just in its most natural state, is a triggering type of food: It really gets you thinking about what you’re tasting, and that carries over to the rest of your meal.” At any given time, oysters grown in the South make up 25 to 50 percent of Kimball House’s daily-changing raw bar menu, and while Rackley is reluctant to assign an overall flavor profile to the region’s oysters because there’s so much variation, he says that “stuff coming out of Gulf tends to be milder in salinity.”
Georgia has a healthy wild oyster population, but because of the large tidal variation here, they grow clustered together. “Our oysters have found their niche in that inner tidal zone, where the predation pressure is lower, but that’s a very limited space,” says Bliss. “So when they have their big spawns, all of the spats prefer to settle on existing oysters.” (A spat is an oyster that’s between two and 10 millimeters large. It takes anywhere from 12 to 18 months for it to grow to a marketable size.) Separating those clusters is a labor-intensive process that, because of breakage, ends in a small amount of oysters that could be served the way our tastes have grown to love them: on the half shell. Farming not only gets around that issue, but it also means consistency in count and size, which is what chefs—and ultimately, diners—want.
Three years ago the Georgia Department of Natural Resources gave UGA’s lab a grant to help it develop a hatchery, and it’s still the only facility producing spats in-state. So far, it’s been giving farmers spats and teaching them about oyster aquaculture free of charge, but ultimately Bliss wants to attract a commercial hatchery to help supply the industry as it grows. “We can do about five million oysters a year, but commercial hatcheries can produce 50,000 in the same amount of time,” he says.
Proceeds from the Oyster South event will help the lab buy larger tanks, improve its filtration system, and add more water storage. “As oyster aquaculture grows, it will lead to more jobs and economic growth in the coastal counties,” says Bliss. Also, existing clam farmers can add oysters to their portfolios, so to speak, and ride out any downs in the market a little smoother.
Bliss says that there’s a waiting list of people interested in getting a hold of commercial oyster farming land leases from the GDNR. “And there’s land to be had,” he says. “Georgia has the space for this industry to grow.”
“We have an opportunity to make this a more substantial part of our regional, local culinary identity,” says Rackley.
Landlocked takes place from 3 to 7 p.m. Sunday, October 29, at Decatur’s Color Wheel Studios. Tickets range from $100 to $150. For a full list of farmers, chefs, and drinks, go to oystersouth.com/events.