( Originally Published 1917 )
The oyster a general favorite. One of the oldest foods known to the human race is the oyster. History has it that primitive man to a great extent depended upon the oyster and other shellfish for his food.
While Canada, Holland, Italy, England, Belgium, Japan, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Denmark, Norway, and Russia have all at some time or another counted oyster fishing among their industries, France and the United States are the only countries where it has reached large proportions. Of these two countries, our own maintains by far the more extensive oyster beds.
We are all fond of this wholesome food, which neither abundance nor cheapness can make common. Whether placed before us stewed, fried, steamed, or raw on the half shell, there are few of us that can withstand the appeal this shellfish makes to our palates. And in Europe, the land of delicacies and of epicures, we find the oyster almost supreme. The Parisian queen of fashion gives the oyster first place on her elaborate menu; the English hostess at the country place features this fruit of the sea at her week-end dinners; and the frugal wife of the Dutch peasant gives it the place of honor at her simple table.
The American oyster abroad. We export many thousand gallons of shelled or "shucked" oysters and many thousand bushels of unshelled oysters each year to Europe and to other parts of the world. One may purchase Chesapeake Bay oysters in Russia, France, South Africa, Japan, Australia, or any other country where there is wealth enough to allow men and women to satisly their taste for foods brought from a long distance.
It Is usually conceded throughout the world that the oysters of American waters arc the finest grown anywhere. In many parts of Europe the most discriminating diners request that they be served American oysters and will accept as substitutes for these only the small, delicate product from the Dutch waters.
Nationalizing the oyster. Few changes that have affected our national food supply in recent years are more important or wonderful than the nationalization of the oyster. There are men who can recall the time when fresh oysters were a rare delicacy to the inhabitants of this country, except along the seashore. Today they are obtainable any time in the season almost anywhere in the United States, and at a price that puts them within reach of persons of the most moderate means. This has been made possible through the great progress made in the methods of handling and. shipping oysters so that they may be carried far inland without spoiling.
"Cove oysters." Before a system had been developed for the safe transportation of fresh oysters to remote parts of the country, a method was devised of steaming the bivalves and packing them in hermetically sealed, or airtight, cans. These are known as "cove oysters," and are popular even where fresh oysters can be had.
Oysters for inland markets. Because of the wonderful improvements in handling and forwarding this most delicate and perishable of foods to points far in the interior of this great country, our nation has, within late years, built up a mighty trade in oysters. To-day there is hardly a hamlet so remote from the seashore or from the centers of civilization that its inhabitants do not celebrate the coming of September with an oyster supper. These fetes continue until the letter "r" disappears from the name of the current month.
The rancher, the lumberman, the miner, and all who work in the more isolated inland localities are almost sure to celebrate their appearance in town with a feast of oysters. At the same time the rulers of the, earth, and those who live in the capitals of fashion and are free to indulge their taste without thinking of expense, can order nothing more tempting.
We have much reason to feel grateful that this country has a vast natural supply of oysters—by far the richest of any country in the world—and that the development of rapid transportation, of refrigerator cars, and refrigerated shipping containers has made it possible to place the oyster—in season—on the tables of families in almost any part of the United States.
Oyster culture in America. At one time it seemed that our great natural supply of oysters was doomed to destruction through the greed of the men who were permitted to take this rich harvest from the sea.
So rapidly were our native oyster beds being destroyed, and with such vicious disregard of all laws and the common good, that public opinion finally brought pressure to bear on lawmakers to stop this wanton waste.
It was then that the ancient and neglected practice of oyster culture was suggested, together with adequate laws to govern the gathering of oysters. The pioneers in this good work recalled that the collection of oyster "spat," or young oysters, upon artificial stools was practiced by the Romans in the seventh century and that the same method is now employed in Lake Fusaro, Italy. This method is to pile rocks on the bottom of the lake and drive stakes around them. Breeding oysters are planted on the rocks and their young fasten themselves to the piles or stakes, where they are left until ready for market.
A study of oyster culture in France, where it has been practiced since about 1865, as well as in Germany and other European countries, brought about a change of attitude on the part of lawmakers toward the reckless combing or raking of American oyster beds. The oyster beds in certain localities are now closed for long periods and no one is allowed. to fish in them. Both our federal and state governments have passed laws governing the seasons of fishing, the locations, and the manner in which ,the oysters may be caught. European experiments had proved that oysters could be farmed successfully and both the quantity and the quality of the product improved by proper cultivation. Accordingly, oyster farms were platted, seeded with baby oysters, and cultivated.
Oyster farms. Today a man may rent, lease, or buy an oyster farm from the state much the same as he would a dry land farm. The boundaries are plain and definite, even though the crop lies from twenty to a hundred feet below the surface of the water on which the fisherman's boat rides. In Rhode Island, for instance, the shellfish lands are leased to planters at so much an acre. The income from the oyster beds is used by the state to improve the industry.
There is virtually no limit to the amount of oyster land that one may lease for the growing of oysters. There is one man who is at present holding about twenty-five thousand acres of oyster land and paying the state a good rental for the tract. In leasing such a large plot of land, this oyster grower took into consideration several important possibilities. The same beds may not be productive two years in succession; changes in the currents of the fishing waters may bury a bed under drifting sand and smother the crop of oysters. He also realized that to obtain the best results from oysters they must be transplanted and that he must have beds in different bottoms and at different depths. He recognized that emergencies might make it necessary for him to move his oysters or else have them destroyed, and he must, therefore, have several beds ready in order to meet this situation.
Growing the oyster. The oyster bed is prepared by clearing the ground of rubbish and then sowing "cultch"—shells and 1 stones — upon which are "spats" of oysters no bigger than a pinhead. The best cultch is good fresh oyster shells, which sell for about five cents a bushel in the Chesapeake region, where our most famous oyster grounds are located.
We can liken a "spat" of oysters to a "fry" of fish. Perhaps there may be as many as fifty of these tiny oysters upon one shell or rock. As they grow, the weaker ones are forced off. This process continues until there are left, say, two oysters. If they are both strong and hardy and firmly attached to the cultch one may grow around the other and in that manner make an irregular shell. Frequently more "spat" gathers upon these shells, causing the oysters to grow in "clusters" one on top of the other, until those inside the cluster are dead. But careful planters prevent this unnatural growth.
The beds are constantly examined and when it is found that the oysters are growing in clusters, the planter dredges or tongs them up, breaks them apart, and replants them. In fact, the separating and placing in other beds begins as soon as the oysters are old enough to be transplanted. Their age is determined by the ridges that appear in their shells, which designate the growth made each year.
Forcing oysters for market. On the most favorable part of his farm, the oyster grower makes a forcing bed. He watches the oyster market constantly and studies the conditions of his crop. When he decides upon the quantity of oysters he wishes to market and the time when he wishes to reach the market with them, he selects the oysters he intends to force and plants them in the forcing bed. This is usually done during spring and early summer. Young oysters are not raised on these forcing beds. These beds are used solely for preparing for market oysters that are almost mature. The oysters are usually allowed to reach their third year before being marketed.
Enemies of the oyster. But the planting, the transplanting, and forcing of his oysters do not constitute the farmer's only care. The closest attention is needed to protect his crop from the many enemies that prey upon it. Among these enemies are the starfish, the drumfish, the drill or borer, and many fishes which attack the oysters when they are very young, before their shells have formed.
Suppose an army of starfish, or "five fingers" as they are known to the oyster industry, should descend upon a bed. How would they attack the oysters and what would be the defense? The starfish closes its five fingers about its victim and then settles down to force open the shell a task at which it is an adept. This done, the starfish almost literally inhales the oyster absorbing it by suction.
At first the oyster planter knew of no way to cope with the starfish other than to pick his oysters bodily out of the bed and carry them away. This of course was not practical. But now there is a standard method which progressive oyster farmers employ. Great balls or tangles of cotton waste, rope yarn, or other soft material are the weapons used in the fight against these starry plunderers. The' oyster growers drag these balls of cotton waste across the oyster beds. The starfish is covered with sharp spines which are easily entangled in these drags. As a result, thousands of the invaders are caught and hauled out of the water. They are then destroyed by th, awing them into scalding water, which kills them.
The borers, although not so numerous as the starfish, are more dangerous because there is practically no way known by which a bed may be freed of them.
They fasten themselves to the shell of the oyster and bore a hole through which they put their sucking tube to draw out the oyster.
The drumfish do the most harm of all when a school of them descends upon a bed. Like other fish, they migrate and are therefore not confined to any certain spot. But, fortunately, they are not numerous in our oyster waters and they herald their approach by a heavy booming. This fish has grinders, that is, teeth set back from its jaws in rows like cobblestone paving, with which it crushes and grinds the oyster, shell and all. A school of drum-fnsh may completely destroy a bed of oysters in a few minutes.
When the oysters are very young they are the prey of every fish in the waters, some of which might swallow enough tiny shell-less oysters at one mouthful to stock a bed for a season. It is said that only one oyster out of about every 10,000,000 reaches maturity. Nature, however, tips the balance in favor of the oyster, as the mother oyster sometimes lays as many as 60,000,000 eggs in a spawning season. If care is used in the cultivation of an oyster bed, it is possible to bring to maturity a much larger percentage than one in 10,000,000..
American oyster beds. While oysters are found along practically the entire Atlantic coast, the greatest yields are secured from Long Island Sound and Chesapeake Bay. The public oyster beds of the Chesapeake have yielded in one year nearly 15,000,000 bushels of oysters.
California also produces oysters which are much like those found in the Mediterranean and other European waters. The oysters of our North Pacific coast are of fine grade, being highly prized by epicures. The oysters of Louisiana are also famous.
Although the natural beds were fished practically barren during the years previous to the passing of laws by the government to regulate the industry, the careful cultivation and the scientific development of oyster beds have actually increased the annual crop. In recent years the harvest of oysters has greatly increased and there is every reason to expect that it will continue to increase.
Each year more oyster land is being cultivated in this country and the oyster growers are learning more about their industry by a careful study of the various methods of oyster farming practiced in Holland, France. England, and Japan.
In spite of the enormous yield of oysters taken from our waters every year, we import this food from other countries in small quantities. The French oysters, for instance, are demanded for consumption in a very few fashionable hotels in large cities.
Tonging and dredging for oysters. In "tonging" for oysters the oyster men usually work two in a boat, standing one at each end. They scrape the oyster bed with long tongs that look much like double rakes. These men become expert in this work and can tell by thq touch when they strike a cultch, even though the tongs may have handles twenty feet long. Dredging for oysters is done with steam dredges which scrape the cultch from the oyster beds and dump it into scows that always accompany the dredge.
In Japan oysters are planted in beds which are left uncovered when the tide is out. This makes them easy to gather. It is excellent for the oysters, too, as they are said to grow much faster under conditions of alternate exposure to air and submersion in the water. But this practice cannot be followed in the United States as the frost would kill the oysters. In Japan oysters are also planted on fences in the tidewater, which helps to make the harvesting of them very easy.
Shipping oysters. The oyster shipping season is from September until May, although for local use oysters may be harvested all the year round. In summer, the oysters, which arc spawning, are not in good condition to ship. In some parts of the Atlantic, however, where the water is cold, the oysters are planted in early spring for summer use, as they cannot spawn in cold water.
After the oysters arc gathered they are carried to the packing houses. There they are "shucked" or shelled, cleaned, and put into sanitary containers for immediate shipment to the markets. Oysters are shipped in refrigerator cars especially designed fbr that purpose.