TODAY'S PAPER
Good Evening
Good Evening

Amid pandemic, oyster farmers pivot to preserve one of Long Island's most iconic foods

Paul McCormick, owner of Great Gun Shellfish Co.,

If you were handed an oyster right now, right this very second, could you open it? Oyster farmer Paul McCormick pretty much knows the answer. Standing in his skiff one Sunday morning in March with a Great Gun oyster in one glove and a knife in the other, he touches the tip of the blade to the oyster’s hinge. "It’s almost like hitting tar," he said, as he pressed into the give point. A twist of the blade, and the hinge popped open; a swipe under the top shell, and McCormick lifted it away.

Inside was a pristine oyster, tiny bubbles clinging to its edges. McCormick neatly severed the adductor muscle underneath and handed it over. "See? It’s easy."

Most Long Islanders who love oysters don’t possess this skill. Instead, they simply wait for them to magically arrive at their restaurant table—Peconic Pearls, or Little Rams, or Fire Island Blues—perched on ice with a little bowl of mignonette tucked by their sides.

At least they did until the spring of 2020, when the seafood towers vanished because restaurants were closed, or those that stayed open stopped buying oysters, which were never much of a takeout item. For McCormick and other oyster farmers around Long Island, it was a cataclysm: They saw their orders plunge almost overnight, even as millions of oysters kept growing and threatening to breach marketable size on farms in the Peconic Bay, Great South Bay and Moriches Bay, where McCormick is one of three growers.

Each year, McCormick raises nearly half a million Great Gun oysters here on four underwater acres he leases, a few dozen yards off an undeveloped stretch of shore. On this windy morning, he and his crew were raising their beds to the surface after their months-long spell on the bottom of the bay, away from the threat of ice. As his first mate, Mike Oldham, tethers the plastic mesh bags to lines on the surface, McCormick is busy harvesting oysters to fill orders. He opens another, and hands it over. I knocked it back and tossed the shell into the water. "What do you taste?" he asked.

Paul McCormick, owner of Great Gun Shellfish Co.,
Paul McCormick, owner of Great Gun Shellfish Co.,
Paul McCormick, owner of Great Gun Shellfish Co.,
Left: Paul McCormick, owner of Great Gun Shellfish Co., sets out for a morning of harvesting in the Moriches Bay. Top: McCormick holding one of his Great Gun oysters. Bottom: McCormick turning over the plastic bags of oysters during a morning of harvesting in the Moriches Bay. Photo credit: Newsday/ Alejandra Villa Loarca

It was like winter captured in flesh. "Snow," I said, without thinking, then that impression was followed by the flavor of lemons smashed against stone. This complexity has earned Great Guns (and their smaller sister oysters, Little Guns) a following over the six years that McCormick, a former clammer, has cultured Crassostrea virginica (a.k.a. Eastern oysters). Once the town of Brookhaven passed a resolution to let him farm, it took a couple of years to secure the necessary approvals from a raft of government bodies—the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, the United States Coast Guard and the Army Corps of Engineers.

McCormick, who saw immense potential in the industry both economically and environmentally, persevered. Oysters filter dozens of gallons of water each day, pulling nitrogen and algae from the water. "The leadership of the town was just incredible. They had the foresight and vision to understand the value and benefit [of oysters]."

It was in 2015 that McCormick first placed spat (infant oysters) in Moriches Bay. Called Great Guns for the beach just across the water, they went into floating bags tethered to a line on the surface, where they could be tumbled by the waves and wind. That action, plus shaking the bags by hand, shape the deep cup chefs look for in oysters, a cradle that increases the oyster’s volume and makes them easier to open and serve. "We let the elements work for us 24-7," he said. "The oysters are naturally agitated and rocked, and they use their adductor muscles, so they get a workout."

The nutrient-rich surface of the bay fed and grew his oysters quicker than McCormick anticipated—they hit the lower end of market size, about two inches, within seven months. Which meant they could continue to grow and hit nonmarket size quickly, too. "We’re constantly going through the farm and pulling oysters before they’re past their market potential," he said.

By March 2020, McCormick and his small crew were harvesting between 30,000 and 40,000 oysters a month (in the summer, that jumps to 70,000). Then, COVID-19 hit, and he had to think fast. "I decided the only way to survive was to go directly to the consumer," he said, as he dumped hundreds of oysters onto a makeshift table in the boat and, with both hands, began counting them into buckets.

“People love seafood, but people are intimidated. We had to teach people how to shuck an oyster, how to cook oysters—all of these limitations have always been a challenge. But this year, with COVID, it was magnified."

Mike Kanter, FreshDirect

"A couple of days ago, you basically had frostbite on your nose and lips and toes and fingers," said Jim Miller, leaning on the edge of McCormick’s boat, his boots in the knee-deep water of low tide. Miller had just sloshed 200 yards from his farm over to McCormick’s with a few of his own oysters, called Pelican Island. As the temperature struggled past 30 degrees, Miller, McCormick and McCormick’s assistant, Shan Mahmud, banter as if spring had already sprung, even though they were still clad head to foot in neoprene and rubber.

When oyster farming blanketed much of New York’s shoreline in the 19th century, Moriches Bay was cut off from the ocean, so salinity was low and runoff from duck farms had nowhere to go. Instead, oysters were grown elsewhere throughout the town of Brookhaven—one of the earliest leases, in 1800, was for oyster culturing in Drowned Meadow Bay (now Port Jefferson Harbor).

In 1931, a violent storm tore open Moriches Inlet, letting the runoff out and driving the salinity up. Then, the Great Hurricane of 1938 upended the shellfish industry. Mired in the muck, millions of oysters suffocated, and the business declined even further as development-driven pollution battered the trade through the 1950s and ’60s. Baymen came to dominate the water—among them a teenaged Jim Miller. "Back then, it was gravy," he said of clamming. "My friends would be cutting lawns for a couple of bucks. We could go out and catch a couple of bushels of clams and make more than what they made in just a few hours."

In his 30s, Miller tried his hand at raising oysters in Peconic Bay, but the stars weren’t aligned—living far from his beds, and still working as a bayman, tending them wasn’t profitable nor easy. "Aquaculture wasn’t a big thing then. It was a threat to the commercial fisherman—they could clean your clock, and I was too far away to keep an eye on [the beds]," he said. He eventually cut his losses.

About 18 months after McCormick founded Great Gun Shellfish, Miller’s pioneering spirit drew him back into oyster orbit. "[Paul] got the ball rolling, and I took a chance again," said Miller, who leased two acres next to McCormick and planted spat from the same hatcheries—Fishers Island Oyster Farm on Fishers Island and Aeros Cultured Oyster Co. in Southold.

"I run 300,000 oysters as a one-man band, which is still a [ton] of work," said Miller, now 54. He continues to clam and fish. "Clamming and fishing, it’s a one-shot deal—it’s intense, harder work, but you don’t have to worry about going to sleep and knowing the wind is gonna swing around to 50 miles per hour from the southeast and break your cages out, and then you’re running around the bay trying to find them."

Despite coming from the same spat and growing within spitting distance, Great Guns and Pelican Islands are markedly different in shape and taste, a testament to the mysteries of place. Miller’s cages lurk just a few inches deeper in the water, where it’s slightly cooler, and so they grow slower than McCormick’s—taking a year or more to reach market size. Taste them side by side, and Pelican Islands are straightforward and robust, briny and concentrated. Great Guns are crisper and creamy, with changing layers of flavor.

With the advent of COVID, Miller continued to sell his oysters to the same distributors who buy his clams, including Mastic Seafood, and in turn sell them either retail or to restaurants such as Tweeds in Riverhead and Buoy One in Westhampton. Miller also heard they were being shucked at pop-ups at wineries such as Jamesport Vineyards in Jamesport.

In fact, a visitor to the North Fork during the first summer of COVID would’ve found local oysters in many new places: at a few more farm stands, shucked-to-order raw bars at wineries and at self-serve roadside stands set up by farmers such as Matt Ketcham, who sells his Peconic Golds in front of his Cutchogue home.

FreshDirect, which years ago began selling Montauk Pearls and a few other Long Island oysters, continued to sell Great Guns (and Little Guns) through their website. According to Mike Kanter, FreshDirect’s seafood category merchant, Great Guns in particular, and many other Long Island– raised oysters, fit what the company looks for: sustainability, flavor and backstory. "Sometimes those stories are right in your backyard, and people don’t know it, because they’re busy in their day-to-day and don’t have time to look around," said Kanter, who travels the globe for exceptional seafood. "On Long Island, you have these world- class oysters in your backyard."

Kanter said the farmers’ stories became especially important in 2020. "The restaurant aspect of the business was totally devastated," he said, and the company had to grapple with home diners’ anxiety around shellfish. "People love seafood, but people are intimidated. We had to teach people how to shuck an oyster, how to cook oysters—all of these limitations have always been a challenge. But this year, with COVID, it was magnified. We tried to give solutions. ‘Hey, shuck oysters at home. It’s not hard, try it—what do you have to lose?’ "

While still selling to FreshDirect, McCormick bought a refrigerated van and began to market oysters himself on social media and his website—$25 for 30—making deliveries to homes along the South Shore. "There was nothing like meeting the customers who eat your oysters," he said.

Just before those pivots, Shan Mahmud, a scenic artist who lives in Brooklyn, had begun helping McCormick. Mahmud had met McCormick early in 2020, after she began taking classes at SPAT, the Suffolk Project in Aquaculture Training program at the Cornell Cooperative Extension in Southold. "I’d been thinking about [farming] for many years, but I didn’t have a history on the water," said Mahmud. However, she’d grown interested in sugar kelp farming—an up-and-coming diversification for shellfish growers, including McCormick—and the only legal way in was starting first as an oyster farmer. "I thought I would just give it a shot."

When McCormick asked her to help at Great Gun—flipping and shaking bags, harvesting, bagging oysters—she was keen. "I knew it was a lot of manual labor, and I’m fine with that," she said. COVID notwithstanding, there were other, more basic, challenges. "I’m five foot tall and it’s noticeable—when the water is just below chest level for them, it’s almost hitting me in the face."

By "them," Mahmud was referring to McCormick and Oldham, but perhaps also to Miller and their fellow oyster farmer Sue Wicks. When she was 17, Wicks left Center Moriches for what would grow into a successful career as a professional basketball player in Europe, Japan and the United States. Wicks became an WNBA All-Star and was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013. After Wicks retired, she did some coaching, then returned home to Center Moriches, where she plotted her next chapter.

Wicks’ father had been a bayman, and the salt in her veins began to tingle. "I had a moment of wanting to be back on the water," she said. "I heard about Paul’s farm, and he invited me to his house and said, ‘You should do this— give it a try. As many as we can get out there on the water is good for the environment.’ "

Wicks embarked on the process required to lease a spot in Moriches Bay, next to Miller and McCormick. "I didn’t know what the heck I was doing," she said, but muddled through with a blend of luck and persistence. Once she had the myriad approvals, Wicks convinced a spat farmer in Sayville, Billy Hart, to sell her some seed despite her inexperience. He parted with 5,000 of his lovingly tended baby oysters, and Wicks put them in the water, in floating bags.

She thought the first batch would take a year to 18 months, but the bay had other ideas. "All of a sudden, in seven months, I realized I had fully grown oysters ready to sell. I didn’t even know how or where to sell them," Wicks said. "Everything was new, and everything was the first time."

She dropped in on restaurant kitchens with the oysters she was calling Violet Coves, partly for the spot of violet on their shells. "I’d knock on the door and ask for the chef, and every time, I was greeted with a big smile. They would stop what they were doing and crack open oysters and say, ‘This is great.’ "

Delicate, grassy Violet Coves ended up on the menu at places such as Stone Creek Inn in East Quogue, Salt & Barrel in Bay Shore and Maison Premiere in Brooklyn. Chef Eric Ripert took Violet Coves for Le Bernardin, his storied seafood restaurant in Manhattan. "That was like playing Carnegie Hall," Wicks said. By early March of 2020, after a brief winter lull, she was selling 6,000 Violet Coves a week. Then sales went to zero that March and Wicks had to lay off her two staffers. "Then they came back to 500 a week. It was like ‘OK, I gotta go online.’ " And so, like McCormick, Wicks began selling Violet Coves through her website.

Nowhere in my business plan was delivering two dozen oysters to someone’s house. It was certainly a revelation and it was a very personal hand-off. We were all so lonely. They’d say,

‘Oh, thank you for this gift.’ I was paid back in an emotional way. And every time you’d drop off a bag, six hours later, you’d be tagged on Instagram for this magnificent meal," said Wicks.

Back in the late 19th century, so rabid was the hunger for oysters that restaurants in New York City served them every which way—raw, stewed, broiled, fricasseed, fried, pan-roasted, steamed, frittered and à la Newburg, made with cream, egg yolks and sherry. Closer to home, and our time, you’ll find them roasted with sriracha at Pearl in Island Park or shucked to order at Salt & Barrel in Bay Shore or Cajun- fried at Crossroads Cafe in East Northport.

These dishes are yours to make at home, of course. As you brace an oyster in a towel with one hand, an oyster knife in the other, it’s going to feel welded shut. Touch the knife tip to the hinge and probe gently—the blade will catch a ridge, and the ridge will slowly give. You dig in harder—and, in what feels like a miracle, with a shimmy and turn of the wrist, the top shell lifts away to reveal soft folds submerged in a slick of seawater. The second time is easier. By the fourth, ergonomic memory creeps in, as well as something else, almost a tidal pull. "Oysters are a story and connected to a place and the sea and that farmer," said Wicks. "There’s a certain snap of nostalgia. An oyster is a tiny little time capsule."

Information

GREAT GUN SHELLFISH: 631-896-0766, greatgun.com

PELICAN ISLAND SHELLFISH: Sold at Mastic Seafood,1951 Mastic Rd., Mastic; 631-281-9608, masticseafood.com

VIOLET COVE OYSTER CO.: 917-767-2818, violetcoveoysters.com

Latest reviews