Oysters may have connotations of frivolity, wealth, and excess, but no seafood-loving foodie can argue that the briny bivalves are anything but delicious. They also have a long history in the U.S. Oysters were consumed by coastal Native Americans and became wildly popular in Colonial and early America. The nutrient-rich waters around New York City became the center of production for the booming oyster industry. By 1880 fishermen were harvesting around 700 million oysters a year from New York's waters.
Not long after its meteoric rise a combination of polluted waters and invasive species drove oyster cultivation to ruin and the price sky high. (For more oyster history, see Mark Kurlanksy's history of oysters and New York City, The Big Oyster; History on the Half Shell.) Thankfully, though, oyster cultivation was not dead. It moved away from the polluted waters of the big city and found safe harbor elsewhere along the Atlantic coast.
And just like the progress made on land, the last 20 years has seen leaps and bounds made in the theory and practice of low-impact, sustainably farmed seafood, oysters included. Perry Raso is one of these pioneering aqua-farmers; he tends a seven-acre shellfish farm in East Matunuck, Rhode Island, and runs a wildly popular local restaurant, Matunuck Oyster Bar, that overlooks the estuary and inlet that make up his farm. I spoke with Perry on the morning of Easter Sunday as he shucked oysters and prepared for the inevitable influx of locals at his restaurant.