UNC cultural historian Bernie Herman, chair of the American Studies department, in Westerhouse Creek. (photo courtesy of Bernie Herman)
Oyster Culture: Cultivating the foodways of a Virginia coastal community
Bernie Herman is not a marine biologist, but he knows an awful lot about oysters. For instance, it doesn’t take much space to grow the mollusks. The gathering space on campus between UNC Student Stores and Lenoir Hall fondly known as The Pit “would easily grow a million,” he says.
There’s more. One oyster filters roughly 50 gallons of water a day. It takes about 24 months for a native oyster to grow to “market size.” Oysters need substrate — a hard surface like recycled oyster shells — on which to settle.
Herman, the George B. Tindall Distinguished Professor of American Studies and Folklore, raises about 70,000 oysters in a private restoration effort on roughly five acres of “lease ground” owned by the state of Virginia. Herman’s “Westerhouse Pinks” are cultivated in Westerhouse Creek on the Eastern Shore, a slender saltwater peninsula across the 20-mile Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel from touristy Virginia Beach. The shore community, which has a long history of persistent poverty, is also rich in local food, from oysters and clams to soft-shell crabs, spot fish and snapping turtles. Locals from miles around gather to consume the latter at an annual turtle party hosted by Theodore Peed. This is quite literally, Herman says, “the South you never ate.”
July 6, 2012 : The temperature and stillness relegate oyster work to the early hours in the day when the air is still cool and the morning winds are stirring. … The first cage was full to bursting — in fact, the oysters were pushing the lid up and off. These are older native oysters that possess a pinkish hue to their shells that is particularly evident on new bill growth. — from Bernie Herman’s oyster diary
Herman lived here as a small boy, eating oysters and clams and puffer fish, also called “swelling toads.” It’s a place “defined by a powerful sense of belonging, a place where you drive around on the back roads and you always wave, a place where folks pull together,” he says.
How do you play to the strengths of an area with a distressed economy? What does this place already do best? These are the questions that Herman the cultural historian brought to the table with an idea for heritage-based, sustainable economic development.
“Does the Eastern Shore of Virginia have a cuisine that is as complex and varied as say New Orleans or Charleston — no it doesn’t. But it has a special cuisine,” he says. “And so I started talking with folks, documenting local foods, collecting recipes (like clam fritters) and listening to the narratives that go with food and place.”
He also involved his undergraduate students in the effort. Lauren Shor (American studies ’11), wrote her senior honors thesis on the cultural history of clam farming. She and Dylan Hubbard (business administration ’11) helped Herman bring 10 of the nation’s top food writers, chefs and culinary historians for a two-day immersion on the Eastern Shore in 2010. Author Molly O’Neill included stories and recipes from the Eastern Shore in her cookbook, One Big Table: A Portrait of American Cooking.
“It’s one thing to bring the food to somebody; it’s very different to get out there on Hog Island and you’re seven or eight miles off shore and you’re standing knee deep in water … with seven or eight million clams at your feet,” Herman says.
May 15, 2011: [Last] November, we held an oyster tasting in Chapel Hill at 3Cups; in March we convened with Lorraine Eaton [food writer at The Virginian-Pilot] and conducted a six-creek-plus seaside taste test. Not unsurprisingly everyone held forth that their oyster was best. The larger point is that from creek to creek the flavor profiles varied as significantly as if we were tasting wines. — from Bernie Herman’s oyster diary
In addition to what has become an annual oyster love fest at 3Cups, Herman worked with oyster grower and mentor Tom Gallivan of Shooting Point Oysters and Eastern Shore seafood trucker Dean Hickman, who now makes a weekly run down South to area restaurants. One of the star chefs who has been supportive of Herman’s efforts is Andrea Reusing of Chapel Hill’s Lantern restaurant, praised for fusing fresh local ingredients with Asian flavors. Herman regularly sets aside some of his “Westerhouse Pinks” for Reusing’s use.
Herman has also written essays about the cuisine of the Eastern Shore for Southern Cultures journal. He’s had some successes promoting the region’s unique foodways, yet “there’s still a lot of work to do,” he says.
“It’s important to keep up the effort to get the word out there, create awareness and hopefully increase market demand,” he says. “I hope this could serve as a model for other communities. It would be great to work with UNC students and a North Carolina community.”
“Environmentalists, scientists and others would do very well to listen to the anecdotal knowledge of a person who has spent 10, 15 or 50 years working on the water. … That’s part of what a real liberal arts education should teach you is how to listen.”
[Story by Kim Weaver Spurr ’88, fall 2012 Carolina Arts & Sciences magazine ]