Fired Up

Old Myths Shouldn't Keep You From Enjoying Shellfish This Summer

By Steven Major

 

Centuries ago, the Shoals of North Carolina were brimming with oyster beds that formed vast reefs visible from the coast. At its peak, the local industry produced over a million pounds of oyster meat in a single year. While abundant in supply, the harvesting of oysters from naturally formed reefs had a strong seasonal component that lead to the adoption of a rule of thumb for when they were safe to eat; only in months that contain the letter ‘R’. This rule, which excludes consumption from May through August, protected people from ‘red tide’, which is a term used to refer to algal blooms that lead to toxicity in shellfish, and also prevented the shellfish from being harvested while they were spawning.

The modern oyster economy of North Carolina is much smaller today, as overharvesting and disease have greatly reduced the wild population of shellfish along the coast. Of all shellfish produced on the East Coast, only about one percent now come from our state, but recent years have seen new growth. Along with a change in scale has come a change in the composition of the industry, as a growing portion of that production is now from aquaculture – oyster farms that can produce consistent yields year round.

New methods of production along with a strong set of safety regulations have also lead to a change in the way oysters can be consumed. The old adage about months with the letter ‘R’ no longer applies, as high-quality oysters and other shellfish are produced year-round.

The ability to enjoy fresh oysters during the summer months has become part of the North Carolina culinary tradition. The bivalves are buttery and meaty, but also light and chilled, making them perfect for evenings that rarely see temperatures dip below seventy degrees. With a large bar that seats as many as 50 guests, the Full Moon Oyster Bar in Morrisville is a popular place for people to enjoy time with friends and family while oysters are shucked by the peck. Steamed, grilled, raw, or fried, their assortment of fresh seafood makes this a local favorite spot for lunch and dinner. Also worth trying are the crawfish alligator cheesecake and blue crabcake. Pair your North Carolina oysters with a local beer and you can feel good about doing your part to support the local economy while enjoying a great meal.