TOPPING, Va. – When Travis and Ryan Croxton first went to New York City in 2004 to market their homegrown oysters, one of the few seafood places they had heard of was Le Bernardin, so naturally they just showed up with a cooler at the kitchen door.
“We really Forrest Gumped it,” said Travis, 39. “We had no idea what we were doing.”
Chesapeake oysters were so rare then that the chefs wanted to try them on the spot. But neither Croxton, both of whom had master’s degrees, knew how to shuck an oyster. “Finally the chef took it out of my hands and did it himself,” Travis said.
Oysters had almost disappeared from the Chesapeake Bay when the Croxtons, first cousins and co-owners of the Rappahannock Oyster Co., graduated from college. And after decades of bad news about pollution, silt, disease and overfishing in the bay, many locals wouldn’t eat them raw. “A whole generation of Virginians grew up without virginicas,” said Peter Woods, the chef at Merroir, the Croxtons’ oyster bar here, where the Rappahannock River empties into the bay. “For oyster roasts, oyster stuffing, all these traditions, you just couldn’t get your hands on them.”
As he spoke, Woods was shucking a dozen just-pulled virginica oysters, the kind that grew wild on thick shoals all around the bay when the first Europeans sailed in, the wooden hulls of their ships brushing against the shells. It is the same oyster that grows in Long Island Sound and on Cape Cod and points north – and now, with modern aquaculture, as far south as Georgia.
“Now they can’t get enough of them,” said Woods, twirling the flesh into a plump and attractive “Rappahannock roll” that sits up high in the shell. Food styling was not part of the traditional job description for a waterman (Chesapeake-speak for fisherman), but it is just one of many ingenious ways that a new generation is trying to bring a thriving oyster trade back to the bay.
In 1899, when the cousins’ great-grandfather leased 5 acres of nearby river bottom and started the company, the water here was still rich with the plankton and phytonutrients that oysters need to live. The bay’s floor was inlaid with shell and rock, the sea grasses were tall, and the water was brackish (part salt, part fresh, ideal for oysters) like most of the coastal Chesapeake, among the world’s largest estuaries with more than 11,000 miles of shoreline.
But the oyster population was already cratering under commercial and environmental pressure. The 20th century brought more-sophisticated dredging tools and more pollution: Modern farming, with its fertilizers and insecticides, dumped enough nitrogen and phosphorus into the bay to bring its life cycle to a near-complete halt, said Bill Goldsborough, director of fisheries for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which was formed in 1967 to protect and restore the bay.
The cleanup is proceeding (slowly), and oysters play an active part. They are filter feeders, slurping 50 to 60 gallons of water a day and cleaning it as they go. “For protecting seafood, usually you’re talking about restraint: Don’t eat it, don’t catch it,” Ryan Croxton said. “But with oysters, the more you eat, the more we grow, and the more bay they can clean.”
At peak trade, around 1875, 20 million bushels of wild oysters were taken from the bay each year. By the late 1990s, the total was 20,000. Restoration of the bay’s ecosystem, undertaken by multiple state, federal and private agencies, was proceeding with painful slowness, and repairing the oyster business was not a high priority.
The Croxtons did not grow up as oystermen (Travis studied finance; Ryan, Southern literature), and neither did their fathers. “Grandpa told them to go to college instead of messing around with oysters,” Travis said. The boys inherited the leases on the river, and by law they had to grow oysters there or give them up.
Thus began the road to Le Bernardin, the Grand Central Oyster Bar and beyond. The two have reinvested what they’ve earned, opening restaurants with high visibility, one in Richmond, Va., another in the busy Union Market in Washington.
After building a steady market for their trademark oyster, the Rappahannock River, they began to build a range of flavors. Now they grow oysters in several locations, where the water varies in salinity and depth, each producing somewhat distinct flavors: crisp Stingrays in Mobjack Bay, briny Old Salts in Chincoteague Bay and the oyster for the people, the Barcat.
The Barcat is an all-purpose Chesapeake oyster, distributed and marketed along with the Croxtons’ premium oysters, but at a lower price to feed the current boom in raw bars and $1 oyster happy hours. Instead of growing Barcats themselves, they hatched a new cooperative of oyster farmers, mostly current or former watermen, that serves as an entry point to aquaculture. The members can grow as few or as many as they like but still go fishing and crabbing on the bay.
These watermen, Travis said, have seen that farming helps sustain both the bay and their businesses. In the last decade, all the Chesapeake fisheries have become more tightly controlled, and law enforcement more persistent. Illegal fishing in protected waters, or at night, or out of season, was a low-risk income stream for generations of watermen. Now, it’s far more difficult. This month, Maryland’s Natural Resources Police scored its first conviction for oyster poaching based on evidence from a state-of-the-art surveillance system it shares with the Department of Homeland Security.
Under these conditions, the peaceful, lucrative life of the oyster farmer grows ever more attractive. “Even the roughest, meanest water guys notice when their friend is driving a new truck,” Travis said. “Suddenly, they get interested.”