During your next visit along the Virginia Oyster Trail, as you sit down at one of our local restaurants to enjoy one of the 8 regional flavors of this Virginia delicacy, relish in knowing the many hard-working families who, for generations, have been pulling these bivalves from our coastal waters and delivering to your plate.
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“When the first settlers began exploring Virginia’s waterways, oyster reefs were so large that they were navigation hazards,” said Bill Hight, long-time Urbanna resident and owner and operator of Urbanna Auto and Marine.
Through war, depressions and even disease, oysters have fed families on the battlefield, in their homes and on the tables of the country’s best restaurants. Families who have relied so heavily on oysters have dedicated their lives to learning how to harvest, shuck, sell, ship, cook, grow and eat the rich, sustainable resource.
“From the boating industry to restaurants, the oyster industry has driven every aspect of our history here on the Bay,” Hight said. “It’s the family businesses that are still here today.”
The term "shucking house" not only represents the place where oysters are shucked in preparation for market, it is also a well-know reference to the family-owned oyster "houses," their entwined lifestyle and businesses that are the backbone of Virginia's oyster industry.
Tommy Kellum of W. E. Kellum Seafood is a part of the third generation of his family who owns and operates a shucking house in Weems, VA. Tommy’s great grandfather W. Ellery Kellum started the business in 1948. Today, Tommy and his brothers provide jobs to the region’s commercial waterman, oyster shuckers, truck drivers and more. Together, they produce nearly 600,000 bushels a year.
“The oyster industry has lasted longer than any other resource-driven industry,” Kellum said. “Even after the MSX disease that wiped out most of the oysters in the 1990s, we’ve been able to come back and even grow.”
W. E. Kellum Seafood joins other local shucking houses which are run by second, third, and even fourth generation families. Shooting Point Oysters, H.M. Terry, Shores & Ruark and Bevans Seafood, are but a few.
“We’ve learned and grown a lot over the years,” says Rufus Ruark of Shores & Ruark. Ruark’s father opened the shucking house in 1976. “Aquaculture has played a pivotal role in grounding and sustaining the oyster industry.”
Families behind the shucking businesses like Shores & Ruark have learned how to help oysters grow by saving shells, letting them age, placing them in bins with larva and then planting them strategically throughout the bay.
Although aquaculture has advanced, growing oysters for some, the process for getting the oysters from water to table, is still relatively much the same. “We still use shaft tongs and you still have to shuck the oysters by hand,” Ruark said.
According to Larry Chowning, local writer an oyster industry expert, this hasn’t slowed the growth of the industry in recent years. “Today, Virginia produces half a million bushels of oysters a year and shucking houses are not only at the heart of our region’s economic success but also social and environmental success as well,” Chowning said. “If local businesses continue to market the oyster and the area, and they are smart about how they harvest and grow oysters, we should see continued growth”
As we head into the travel season, Virginia Oyster festivals abound where you can enjoy seeing some of those who spend their days working in oyster shucking houses. They come out to compete in “best shucker” contests, like at the well known Urbanna Oyster Festival.
You might even be lucky enough to take a lesson or two from one of these master shuckers like world champion Deborah Pratt and her sister, national champion Clementine Macon. Two fantastic ambassadors for Virginia’s oyster industry!
Virginia shucking houses send oysters across the country for families in other states to enjoy. For example, W.E. Kellum Seafood’s oysters can be found in major retail settings like Kroger, Whole Foods, Captain D’s and more. When visiting Virginia Oyster Country you can find Kellum's oysters at Virginia Oyster Trail restaurants such as The Chesapeake at the Tides Inn, Willaby’s Restaurant, Byrd’s Seafood, The Dining Hall at the Hope and Glory Inn. Shores & Ruark also ships around the country in addition to supplying local markets where you will find prepared foods and freshly cooked items to take home and enjoy.
Across Virginia's 8 Oyster Flavor Regions, as you indulge your oyster palette, be sure to ask each restaurant, market and/or retail outlet who supplies their oysters.
“Family to Table” makes the story of Virginia’s oysters personal, highlighting the connections that infuse each signature dish with a sense of community, a steadfast work ethic and cultural pride.
This White Boot Bog feature is sponsored by Virginia Oyster Country. Contributing writer Megan Wilson.
Visit the Virginia Oyster Trail Calendar of Events regularly for listings of upcoming activities and events.