Dan Rattiner's Stories

Oysterland: The East End Is Famous for Its Oysters Again

East Hampton is selling oyster farming licenses as part of this shellfish revival.

All summer, we see the summer people jogging along our roads and lifting weights in our gyms. Behind their hedges, they run on their treadmills in their mansions. They might play tennis or swim in their pools.

In the meantime, the local people are busy working out in ways that put food on the table and are good for the environment. They grow crops, they surfcast, catch fish from a boat, clam and enjoy the time in the sunshine. Often they talk in the Bonac dialect that their ancestors brought over from England in the 18th century. “Yes, yes, bub,” means they agree with you. “Finest kine” means it’s the best. “Going up-street” means heading into town. Their bounty is sold in fish markets, their vegetables in the farmers markets.

So why don’t summer people do something constructive instead of running around, getting nowhere? I’m talking to you.

Until now, the most helpful physical thing a summer person could do in the Hamptons was pull off the road and pick their own strawberries. There are fields for that. There’s a farmer out front under the sign that says that. It’s not much work, but it’s something. Years ago it was all the rage, then it kind of faded into the woodwork.

But now the Town of East Hampton allows you to farm oysters. Yes. You can be a bayman.

The town is selling oyster farming licenses to first-time farmers for $250 per individual or family (and $150 for following years). With these licenses, they will provide you with oyster farming gear, cages, trays, brushes, oyster bag, adolescent oyster seedlings and a plot in the bay to call your own. You will be given the tiny seedlings for the summer beginning on June 22, and you will be able to grow and harvest almost all of them with the understanding that your limit will be no more than 1,000 a season, with the ability to enjoy half with your friends and family. The remaining half must be given back to the East Hampton Shellfish Hatchery who in turn seed local bays and inlets to help reestablish the oyster population.

You will need waders, an aluminum rowboat and an oyster shucking knife at your own expense. Your farm plot will be in Three Mile Harbor, Hog Creek, Accabonac and, it is expected, Napeague Harbor this summer. Further sites are being considered for Lake Montauk and Northwest Creek. I might add there are additional farms with slightly different rules available for the public at the Cedar Beach County Park in Southold and Tiana Shores in Southampton. There is also an exception for bay-front residents with docks who would like to create an oyster farm alongside the dock (these cost $350 to start).

So why not, instead of working out and accomplishing nothing for anybody but your personal self, put food on the table and help the environment. You see, adult oysters get their nutrients by filtering sandy bay water and ingesting nitrogen, carbon and other nutrients that our waters are rich in—so rich, in fact, that they have caused deadly red tides of algae in the summertime in recent years, similar to what destroyed our oyster fishery years ago. One oyster can clean up to 50 gallons a day as it grows. As you know, eastern Long Island was famous for its oysters in the old days, but not anymore. The red tide saw to that. Now the oysters are being brought back to do their job, and, with a large enough fishery, the bays and harbors will be healthy and the red tides will be a thing of the past.

As a farmer, you will either wade out or row out to your site with your gear, drop the adolescent oysters in their cages by rope to the muddy bay bottom, set a buoy with your name or colors on it, then row or wade back to shore. Another way to do it is to put the oyster seed in floating cages that are connected by ropes to float partially above the surface of the water and partially below.

Tending to your crop will require that every three or four weeks during the summer you will brush the cages of barnacles and debris, separate the fast-growing oysters from the slow, and generally keep an eye on how things are going. Bring the kids. Treat them to some of the words and phrases you’ve learned from the local Bonackers. Enjoy the sunshine. Row back in and tie up. Come home sunburned. Then in the fall, pull your cages to shore, put some of your catch in the fridge and the rest on ice until you can get it to the fish store.

To apply for a spot in the East Hampton Shellfish Education Enhancement Directive, go to the East Hampton Town Hall and ask where to sign up. On March 2, there will be a lecture and workshop at the East Hampton Shellfish Hatchery, which is at 21A Fort Pond Road in Montauk. Phone 631-668-4601 ext. 7901 or 631-816-3082 to reserve a seat.

I think that city people may be proud, sunburned pioneers for this latest big thing. The spots are selling out. There’s already a waiting list. So this is one of those things like a build-able plot of land out here, a cabana at East Hampton Main Beach, a box seat at Guild Hall or a membership in the Southampton Beach Club, all of which are rare and something to brag about—in Bonac.

At home, serve your oysters raw with red sauce to be slurped down. Or cook them up all sorts of ways to serve your family while you look out at the clean bays and harbors that surround you. Offer them raw as an appetizer, on ice, in fancy drinks such as Oyster Shooters, or as Fried Oysters with Tartar Sauce, Creamy Oyster Bouillabaisse, Oyster Pan Roast, Oyster Stew, Oyster Bisque, Oysters Rockefeller or Oyster Chowder. Become a four-star Michelin oyster chef and Zagat honoree. And buy the matching chef’s hat and apron emblazoned with OYSTER HAMPTON. Write a best-selling oyster cookbook.

Oyster chowder
Who doesn’t love chowder? Photo: iStock

John Howard Payne, the former owner of Home Sweet Home, the 17th century saltbox on Main Street in East Hampton, was also famous for penning that tune of the same name. Here is his recipe for Oyster Chowder, from the Town of East Hampton website.

1 quart oysters
3 cups milk
2 cups cream
1 cup water
1 cup thick cream
1 bouquet garni
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon onion juice
1 blade mace
1 tablespoon creamed butter
2 tablespoon parsley, minced
2 thyme leaves

Parboil the oysters in their liquor, drain. Let liquor stand a while, then pour it slowly into a double boiler, and add the milk, thin cream, water, thick cream, the bouquet garni, thyme, clove onion juice, mace. Bring just to a boil then strain. Separate the soft parts of the oyster. Chop the hard parts and add to the liquid and bing just to the boil again. Add the soft parts of the chopped oysters just before serving, and the creamed butter and the parsley. Pour into soup plates and serve with water crackers.

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