OUT TO SEA: Empire State Mollusks

An admirer of unique mollusks swoons for Long Island.

In the minds of many people, oysters and Bluepoints are synonymous. They feel that New York is the only city that counts and Bluepoint the only oyster worth asking for. The funny thing is that, in the two centuries since Bluepoints’ reputation was made, everything about the oyster has changed——except the name, which was always the most important part of its success.

The original Bluepoints were, apparently, great oysters. They had Long Island’s Great South Bay to thank for that. Shielded by Fire Island and with an average depth of only six feet, the bay formed a vast and shallow estuary ideal for oystering. Spat grew well and safely in the river-fed east end of the bay, while adult oysters thrived in the warmer, saltier west end. Bluepoints really did taste better than oysters from the East River or Raritan Bay.

Once the Bluepoint craze took off in the early 1800s, everybody in New York who wanted an oyster wanted a Bluepoint. Mysteriously, they got them. More and more Bluepoints became available. How? Because everybody began calling their oysters Bluepoints. First any wild oyster in the vicinity of Blue Point, a town on the Great South Bay, was called a Bluepoint. Then any wild oyster from anywhere in Great South Bay was sold under that name. By the 1870s the wild oysters were gone and Chesapeake seed was being planted in the Great South Bay and sold two years later as Bluepoints. One of the first tasks of the Long Island Railroad was to send four trains a day into New York City laden with fresh Bluepoints.

oysterboat.jpgName control arrived in 1908, when a state law designated that an oyster must spend a minimum of three months in Great South Bay to be called a Bluepoint. Of course, that law only had jurisdiction in New York, so Connecticut oystermen continued to call their oysters Bluepoints. (Today, you may see Connecticut Bluepoints listed on menus, which is fair enough. But you’ll also see New Jersey Bluepoints, Virginia Bluepoints and oxymorons from even farther south.)

When you order a Bluepoint today, one thing you can be sure of is that the oyster has not spent a single day of its life in Great South Bay. Today, a Bluepoint is usually an oyster from Long Island Sound, the opposite side of Long Island. Today’s Bluepoints have the mild flavors of the sound——quite the opposite of the original Bluepoints, which must have been salty. The change came because the oyster industry in the Great South Bay died, with the hurricane of 1938 delivering the coup de grace. Not only did it bury the oyster beds under sediment, but it also punched some new inlets through the barrier islands, allowing the Atlantic to penetrate the bay. With that oceanic salinity came oyster drills and other predators that hadn’t been able to survive in the brackish bay. New oyster seed was wiped out. Adult oysters could still grow in the bay, but the 1940s introduced a number of duck farms that drained into the bay, creating a nitrate soup garnished with algae blooms that choked out the shellfish.

By then the Bluepoint name had already migrated to Long Island Sound, as New York growers decided if they couldn’t beat their Connecticut neighbors, they would join them. All the surviving New York oysters were in the sound——particularly Oyster Bay, where Frank M. Flower and Sons, one of the primary suppliers of Bluepoints, survives to this day.

Long Island history abounds with oyster names that caught fire and quickly vanished in a conflagration of overconsumption: Rockaway, East River, Saddle Rock, Shelter Island. Huntington Bay yielded a trove of exceptionally tasty morsels in 1859, and was instantly picked clean by every oysterman on the coast. To see illustrations of that frenzy, depicting 215 oyster sloops packed cheek-by-jowl in the small bay, is to witness the Tragedy of the Commons at work.

Of course, the biggest name to suffer such a fate was New York itself. As Mark Kurlansky expertly details in The Big Oyster, his oyster-tropic history of New York City, one of the first things the colony of New York became famous for in Europe was the quality of its oysters. These oysters were bigger, fatter and brinier than the oysters known in Europe at the time, and they quickly developed an unrivaled reputation. They also grew everywhere—in Raritan Bay, in the East River, up the Hudson, around Liberty and Ellis and Governor’s Islands, along the shores of Manhattan itself.

Today, no one associates Manhattan with oysters——oyster bars, perhaps, and indeed there were more than 80 in the city on last count, but good oysters don’t come from Manhattan or nearby. They do still come from New York, however, if you know where to look. The same conditions that made Bluepoints famously succulent still exist; you just need to move farther away from the population centers.

Snuggled within the forked fishtail of Long Island’s East End are Peconic Bay, Noyac Bay and Gardiner’s Bay. A hundred years ago, after the prodigious oyster beds of the Great South Bay were destroyed, the East End waters took up the slack, harvesting mountains of oysters from the clean waters of Greenport and Shelter Island. The oysters were as sweet as could be, and grew justly famous. In 1936, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle called Greenport “the heart of Long Island’s famed oyster industry.” At one time Greenport hosted 30 canneries churning out tinned oysters. The oyster seed came from Connecticut and the adults were harvested with power dredges. Then the oyster beds disappeared, done in by pollution and a brown tide in 1984–—85 that scorched the life out of Peconic Bay, starting with the phytoplankton and working its way up the food chain.

Now the oysters are back, still sweet, and salty enough to get the mouth watering. The North Fork of Long Island is an eater’s paradise, from the porgies and bluefish and steamers to the farmers’ markets bursting with tomatoes and peaches to the wines, some of which——such as Lieb Cellars’ pinot blanc——are a natural match for the local oysters. A supply of supremely good oysters is increasingly flowing out of the East End, all from tiny operations. This time, it’s all aquaculture. (Or nearly all; see Mecox Bay.) Most growers use rack-and-bag culture—metal cages submerged in just a few feet of water, just offshore, accessed by small skiffs.

Remember the distinctive New York license plates of the 1970s and 1980s, burnt-orange with black lettering? That look lives on in Peconic Bay oysters. (If you don’t remember the plates, think Cincinnati Bengals instead.) Some orangish local algae may be responsible, or it may be the brood stock. Long Island freshwater is known for its high iron content, so perhaps some of that iron seeps into the bay and affects the look and taste of the oysters. Certainly once you start imagining the look and smell of a hot, rusty cast-iron pan, you notice it in the oysters——a metallic touch that enlivens the tongue. Cooks rave about the full and piquant taste cast-iron pans impart to food; perhaps the Peconic Bay does the same thing.

The New York Oysters to Know

Bluepoints have been coasting on their name for nearly two centuries. The Bluepoint rage in New York City began in the early 1800s after delicious, robust wild oysters were found in the waters off the town of Blue Point on Long Island’s Great South Bay. As everywhere else, those oysters didn’t last long as New York City quickly devoured every last Bluepoint and called for more. More came. Though already in 1824 the Gazetteer of the State of New York was referring to Bluepoints in the past tense, by then a 23-mile-long überbed of oysters had been found in the Great South Bay, baymen were multiplying like fleas and any oyster from the Great South Bay was being sold as a Bluepoint. That kept up through the 19th century. Once the bay’s wild oysters had been depleted by mid-century, growers replanted the beds with seed oysters from the Chesapeake, let those oysters reach a bare minimum market size of three inches, and sold those as Bluepoints. Memories are short; people remembered they were supposed to choose Bluepoints, they just didn’t know why. Already in 1881, the US Government’s report on the oyster industry complained, “The present [Blue Point] is small and round; but the old ‘Blue Points,’ cherished by the Dutch burghers and peaked-hatted sons of the Hamptons, who toasted the king long before our Revolution was thought of, was of the large, crooked, heavy-shelled, elongated kind with which one becomes familiar all along the coast in examining relics of the natural beds, and which even now are to be found by the thousand in all the mussel-lagoons of the gulf of Saint Lawrence. Now and then, a few years ago, one of these aboriginal oysters, of which two dozen made a sufficient armful, was dragged up and excited the curiosity of every one; but the time has gone by when any more of these monsters may be expected.”

And by 1910, when the farming of Bluepoints reached its peak in the Great South Bay, the biologist James Kellogg could write of “the popularity of Blue Points and other baby oysters that formerly found no favor in American markets. On account of their very small, thin, rounded shells, these are in great demand. But it is a safe statement that the average American who has experienced the Blue Point flavor in New York, could not sit down in Norfolk to half a dozen large, fat, adult Lynnhavens, which afford not only the finest flavor, but also something to eat, without declaring the superiority of the latter.”

Today I could make the same statement, though I would no longer go to Norfolk for my large, fat, superior oysters. You will see Bluepoints on every oyster menu in Manhattan, and quite a few elsewhere, because many people believe they want Bluepoints and nothing but. The oysters themselves are seeded on the bottom of Long Island Sound, both the Oyster Bay area of Long Island and the Norwalk area of Connecticut, dredged up a few years later, and have an extremely mild taste. You can do better. In fact, if you can find them, the Bluepoints sold by the Bloom family and by Chris Quartuccio in Great South Bay are fine oysters, a cut above the many impostors.

Great South Bay
When last we left the Great South Bay, it was a 1940s cesspool of duck sauce, not fit for oysters or even people. With this in mind, you will no doubt have averted your eyes in horror at the sight of a listing for Great South Bay oysters. But the bay has improved drastically since those dark duck days, helped by the dying of industry, and is now pretty clean. The Bluepoints Company, which staggered through the second half of the 20th century importing frozen lobster, actually tried its hand at oysters again in 1998, and managed to produce 15 million seed and 2 million adult oysters as recently as 2002. But, as one grower told me, “Growing oysters is falling-off-a-log easy. Making money at it’s the hard part.” The business was never profitable and the facility, in West Sayville, may soon be transformed into condos. But somebody out there is selling Great South Bay oysters. They are elusive. Keep your eyes, and your taste buds, peeled.

Great White
Another of those white, salty, full-bodied, tannic, brittle-shelled Long Island oysters. Great Whites, as you’d expect from the name, are pretty big, and usually good value. (Great White and Saddle Rock are both marketed by K&B Seafoods, which supplies half of Manhattan. If you don’t see them on the menu and want to try them, consider asking at your favorite seafood house.)

Mecox Bay
Trace your finger across Long Island, looking for great oyster geography, and east of Great South Bay you suddenly come across a perfect skillet-shaped bay, its handle poking into the Atlantic. This is Mecox Bay, home to weekend mansions and to a surprisingly robust population of wild oysters, perhaps the last in the region. As such, they are the closest thing alive to the original wild Bluepoints that had New Yorkers all aflutter in 1820. Unlike shallow Great South Bay, Mecox is a deep hole, and its oysters flourish at 30 feet, where they stay cold and crisp. They grow slower, too, so a market-sized Mecox Bay is at least 3 years old, with a Fort Knox shell that makes it easier to shuck than any other Long Island oyster. As a wild oyster, a Mecox Bay can only be harvested in season, which runs from mid-November to the end of April. Its flavor is awfully mild, not salty, and oddly alkaline. Brewster’s Seafood, in Hampton Bays, has a saltwater well in Shinnecock where it relays Mecox oysters to get them salted up before selling them, which may add interest.

Profile: Oysterponds
The Oyster
Oysterponds are the epitome of East End oysters. They have the classic umber-and-black shells, which in my experience always yield a particularly savory oyster with a refreshingly tannic, cast-iron bite. They have an oceanic salinity of 32 parts per thousand and are always at least four inches—they grow so fast in their creek that any three-inchers are stuck back in the water to grow for a few more months. In fact, Oysterponds grow so fast——note the soft lip on the bill——that they have the thin shells that also seem to characterize East End oysters. Shuck with care. Like most Northeastern oysters, they are good in September, great in November and stay good through March or April.

The Place
Any card-carrying ostreaphile must greet the appearance of a road sign for a place called Oysterponds with a flutter of the heart. Arriving by ferry from Connecticut to this far eastern tip of Long Island, everything seems right for an oyster score. The John Singer Sargent landscape of sea captains’ homes, gray bay and gently stretching salt marshes. The “i”s of osprey nests dotting the distance and the flocks of egrets high-stepping through the ponds. The fact that there are no cities in sight.

Technically, the name of the town is Orient. The town of Oysterponds was founded in 1646, only seven years after Oyster Bay, which is much closer to Manhattan and became a center of the oyster industry. Oyster Bay didn’t like people confusing Oysterponds with Oyster Bay, so it convinced the town to change its name to Orient. Today, the name Oysterponds lives on in the historical society, the recreational access and the oysters, which were harvested in these ponds by Native Americans for centuries before Dutch settlers took over in the 1600s.

Other East End oyster farmers grow their oysters by leasing bottomland in various spots of Peconic and Gardiner’s Bays, dropping large metal cages filled with oysters about 10 feet deep onto the leases, and later hauling them up with winches attached to boats. That’s what you do when you don’t have particularly good oyster habitat. Oysterponds, however, are different. The ponds themselves are an estuary separated from Gardiner’s Bay by grasses and sand dunes. Cutting through the dunes at a five-knot clip is a salt creek that runs with the tides, exchanging all its water every few hours, unlike most estuaries, which can take six months for full turnover. The creek is crystal clear, just a few feet deep, and burgeoning with life. I raked my fingers through the golden sand at the bottom and came up with a handful of clams, then scattered them over the surface and watched them dig their way back under. Oysters that escape the Oysterponds bags do fine on the bottom too, changing from umber to whitish-green and developing strong, ridged shells indicative of life on the bottom. Crabs and fish dart in and out of the grasses and oyster racks.

Most oyster farmers expect 50 percent mortality of their crop from seed to harvest, but when I asked Reg Tutthill about his die-off rate, he looked at me with incomprehension. “Our oysters don’t die,” he said. “Maybe one now and then.” Something about the conditions of the creek makes oysters thrive. Part of that is the growth rate. The disease Dermo (harmless to humans) attacks many Long Island oysters in their third year, but Oysterponds have already reached a generous market size of 4 inches within 18 months, so they are well out of the water and in Manhattan bellies before Dermo ever finds them.

The Producer
Reg Tutthill has the good fortune to own, not lease, the prime piece of natural oyster real estate on the East Coast. How do you get such a place? There’s a bit of a waiting list: Tutthill’s family got theirs in the 1640s as the first Dutch settlers in the area, and they’ve been lovingly holding it tight ever since. Reg is in his 70s, has had hip and knee replacements and has every right to enjoy a long retirement. Instead, you’ll find him in waders several days a week, knee-deep in his creek, culling oysters with his partners, a few old friends grounded deeply in place. None of them has to be here; they do it because the creek screams out that fat, happy oysters should be raised in it.

The system for doing that is gloriously low-tech. No dredges, no floating trays, no divers, no boats. Just rebar “tables” sitting a foot off the bottom with bags of oysters attached. That’s it. Wade out when the weather’s nice (“we pick our days,” Reg admits), turn the bags to shake off the fouling, move the oysters to the next station in the creek as they grow larger, and pick out the ones that are ready for market. This last step is done in mid-creek on a makeshift table of two sawhorses and a piece of plywood, with a rock to crush the crabs and oyster drills that spill out of each bag with the oysters. Bags of market oysters are stored at a dock on the creek and pulled just a couple of hours before the weekly truck arrives to ship them to K&B Seafoods, the main distributor for Oysterponds. In winter, when ice prevents boat-dependent farmers from reaching their crop, Tutthill and his swift, nonfreezing creek sometimes become the only game in town.

A lot of oyster farmers you meet seem tired. Tired of the years of backbreaking work pulling dredges or 400-pound cages and watching half your crop die before it reaches market size. Not the Oysterponds gang. They seem like there is no place they’d rather be, taking their rhythm from the creek and each other. “We get to solve the problems of the world while we’re out here,” they told me as they dumped a new bag of oysters on their table. “Yesterday we solved Social Security. Today we’re working on health care.”

Standing in that creek, with no company except the egrets and osprey and the golden oysters tumbling onto the table, it’s easy to lose track of time. Yet if anything, these older men seemed to be savoring it, the stream like a water clock marking the passage of the hours.

Pipes Cove
A mainstay at the Grand Central Oyster Bar, at Nick & Toni’s in East Hampton, and other toney places, Pipes Cove oysters are Greenport neighbors to Widow’s Hole, the two coves separated by Fanning Point. Pipes Coves live in the back 40 of the Silver Sands Motel, growing just beyond the roped-off swimming area. Both Pipes Cove and Widow’s Hole have a salted iron flavor note that is the essence of Greenport oysters.
One of the partners in Pipes Cove was quoted in a magazine saying that when he eats a Pipes Cove, “I like to chew it and let the taste buds explode in my mouth.” Which sounds painful, but last time I ate Pipes Coves, all my taste buds survived. That was on the Shelter Island ferry, as I tried to convince my mother that she’d been wrong about oysters all along. Leaning over the rail, I shucked an oyster and handed it to her. She ate it and let the shell drop into the water. “I don’t remember them tasting like this,” she said. I handed her another. “Have the oysters changed?” she asked. I handed her another. And another. They were all gone by the time we hit Shelter Island.

Robin’s Island (East End)
Robin’s Island is an unblemished 435-acre paradise in Peconic Bay owned by the financier Louis Bacon. The oysters, also known as East Ends, are harvested from waters near the island, and have that recognizably Peconic medium brine and body and iron richness, though not quite the liveliness of a Widow’s Hole or Oysterponds, which come from closer to the open sea.

Saddle Rock
Saddle Rock is one of New York’s famous old oyster names, and another great example of an oyster craze. The original Saddle Rock was a formation in the East River near Norwalk Harbor. There, in 1827, exceptionally large and tasty oysters were discovered. Saddle Rocks quickly became all the rage, known especially for their prodigious size. If you liked large oysters, you looked for Saddle Rocks. By 1832 Saddle Rocks were kaput, but that was no problem for enterprising New Yorkers, who by then sold any large oyster as a Saddle Rock. The name faded away, though memory of it did not, and now it has cleverly been revived——and trademarked. Today, they are no longer from the East River, and you should be happy about that. They are from the Connecticut side of Long Island Sound, and of medium size, with medium brine. Think of them as a larger, saltier Bluepoint.

Shelter Island
Shelter Island is “sheltered” by the twin forks of Long Island’s tail, served by ferries from either fluke. It’s a somnolent island of gray-shingled homes and tiny, now-you’ll-catch-them-now-you-won’t fish markets, with a full quarter of the island devoted to the Mashomack Nature Conservancy Preserve. The Shelter Island Oyster Company was one of the big players in Long Island oysters right up to the 1950s, when they finally gave up the ghost. Now some clever islanders have revived the name, if not the methods. This iteration of Shelter Island oysters is grown on an 86-acre farm in the clean and salty waters of Gardiner’s Bay on the east side of Shelter Island. Like other Peconic Bay oysters, Shelter Islands have the distinctive black-and-rust shells and the black stripe on the top valve. The shells are wafer-thin, so you must be very careful not to shatter them, but once inside you will find a savory three-inch oyster.

Widow’s Hole
Mike Osinski is carrying the torch for all of us dreamers who think, “I’ll buy me a house on a stunning piece of waterfront, I’ll stick some oysters in my front yard, and I’ll sell them to all the top restaurants!” Somehow he managed to pull it off. Osinski became somewhat famous after Bill Buford profiled him in a 2006 New Yorker piece. Buford painted him as scattered, which he isn’t, yet business-savvy, which he is. He made his fortune writing software and came to oysters a few years ago from a very different angle than most aquaculturists. He bought a wizened, two-story, gray-shingled sea captain’s house on a peninsula smack in the middle of Greenport, a sizable town, and discovered that he could grow great, bright-tasting oysters just off shore, in cages sitting on shallow bottomland that came with the house. It’s a surprising place to grow oysters; stately houses line the shore, and the Shelter Island ferries scoot back and forth within spitting distance of the beds. But Greenport has a state-of-the-art sewer system and its waters are as clean as they were when the Dutch arrived——the state checks every week to make sure.

Even with great oysters, Osinski knew that he still needed to do something to differentiate himself from the crowd, so he approached chefs directly, winning over some of the most prestigious New York oyster accounts, including Le Bernardin, the Grand Central Oyster Bar and Della Famina. Most oysters are shipped to a distributor and then to restaurants, but every Wednesday Osinski loads his van with oysters and delivers them to all his accounts by hand. If you dine on Widow’s Hole oysters in a restaurant on a Thursday or Friday, you are eating extremely fresh oysters.

Mike and his wife, Isabel, send their two kids off to school each day, then climb aboard their skiff and spend the day hauling up oyster cages. On a good day, they can pull 1,000 market-size oysters. The cages come up slippery with bluefish, crabs and yellow and red seaweed. The red, they’ve learned, is a sign of good flavor.

“We don’t yet know why, but if we see a lot of red seaweed on the cages, we know the oysters will be delicious.” In fact, the seaweed itself is delicious. I tasted some right on their boat and it was better and fresher than anything in a Japanese restaurant, with a glorious squishy pop to it. Della Famina, in East Hampton, makes a dish with the seaweed and the oysters whenever Osinski can provide it.

The rich, lively Widow’s Hole flavor derives from the Peconic itself, and from the hundred-foot-deep channel running between Greenport and Shelter Island, through which most of the bay funnels. In August, that water is opaque with algae, producing plump oysters by September. They are sent to market at about two years of age. During their third year, the shells get marred by sponges, leaving them too unattractive for half-shell presentation. These get grilled for Osinski’s “100 Oysters a Day Diet,” which he says has suffused him with a bursting health and vitality he’s never known.

Where’s the widow’s hole? It’s a mini-harbor on the backside of the spit of land Osinski’s house sits on. It used to have a freshwater creek spilling into it, though the town redirected that water long ago. Still, the deep hole, protected on all sides, makes the ideal spot for Osinski’s dock and for storing the oysters before the Wednesday delivery. The remnants of the creek, now salty, also harbor some wild oysters, which Osinski is in the process of cross-breeding with his oysters to produce an oyster more disease-tolerant and better adapted to the native conditions.

Rowan Jacobsen writes about food, the environment, and the connections between the two. He is the author of A Geography of Oysters, a 2008 James Beard Award winner, and Fruitless Fall: The Collapse of the Honey Bee and the Coming Agricultural Crisis. He lives in Vermont.