Chesapeake Oysters: The Bay’s Foundation and Future — book review
By Kate Livie; 192 pages; published October 26, 2015 by American Palate, a Division of The History Press. Paperback $18.42, E-book $6.49.
Originally, I was going to call this piece “Biography of a Bivalve” but that would have broken one of the golden rules of writing they taught me in Journalism school: always avoid alliteration. Thus, the title you see above. This book on Chesapeake oysters is of the genre where the author picks a topic they are interested in and then tries to tell you everything you ever wanted to know about it. Like the biography of a person, the subject-at-hand is put into perspective, from whence it came, what its good points and bad points are, challenges it has faced and overcome (or not), successes and failures, and so forth.
The touchstone volume for this book would undoubtedly be William W. Warner’s Beautiful Swimmers: Watermen, Crabs and the Chesapeake Bay, considered by many a classic (it won a Pulitzer Prize). Livie, as Director of Education of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum (my wife and I are members), and a native of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, brings a local’s background and knowledge to the subject. So, if you enjoy dining on oysters, whether raw, stewed, fried, or in some other fashion, and you want to know more about them, then this book will be a good place to start, especially if you’re also interested in Chesapeake oysters and their Bay.
Oyster as victim
Livie points out that The Bay, with its brackish waters and relatively shallow depths, is a near-perfect home to the eastern oyster, Crassostrea virginica. Because of those conditions, Livey says the bivalves flourished to such an extent that in the 17th century, everyone thought there would be a perpetual supply. Unfortunately, the passage of time would reveal a different story. It is this boom, bust, and re-start story that Livey tells: a review of history, biology and commerce related to Chesapeake oysters.
The overarching story here is the oyster as victim. First of its own popularity — easy to harvest, prepare and tasty to eat. In addition, its shells was useful too: burning them made quicklime used in mortar and plaster, essential for buildings. She goes on to write that the shells also were useful in the production of iron, but she doesn’t explain how. (Being trained as a geologist, but not a metallurgist, this made me curious. It turns out that the shells provide calcium that functions as a flux, or purifier, helping to yield more iron out of the ore.) All of these factors led to a drop in the oyster population as they were over-consumed: “In 1884, over 14 million bushels of oysters were harvested. By 1900, the catch was just over 5 million.”
What would be the next steps? Regulation, licenses, fines, policing and such, along with attempts at cultivation. With differences in the approaches to these issues between Maryland and Virginia, and the watermen and the authorities, there was poaching, animosity, mayhem, and murder. Violent disputes known as the Oyster Wars occurred from 1865 until 1959 (entire books have been written on the subject). Maryland and Virginia took starkly different approaches: “Maryland reacted by establishing a byzantine series of catch limits and size and seasonal regulations and restricting harvesters to archaic methods, like dredging under sail. Virginia, on the other hand, reacted by passing legislation that allowed for oystermen to lease barren bottom in addition to a wild fishery.”
If political issues weren’t enough, the Chesapeake oysters faced other problems as well. Increasing population around the Chesapeake Bay meant more silting and run-off of chemicals from fertilizers. Storms, such as major hurricanes also caused them problems; 1972’s Agnes was particularly destructive. And starting in in the 1960s they got hit with diseases — first Dermo, and then MSX, or Haplosporidium nelsoni. Both caused already shrunken populations to decrease further. Virginia’s saltier waters made their oysters more vulnerable and they got hit first; but by the 1980s, Maryland’s oysters were infected, too. “Virginia’s catch went from approximately 7.5 million pounds in 1980 to 1.5 million pounds in 1990, while Maryland’s catch went from about 14 million pounds to fewer than 3 million in the same period.”
Finding help for Chesapeake oysters
How could these difficulties be overcome? Leaving the oysters alone wasn’t an option, as so many livelihoods depended on them. Here again, the differences in approaches between Maryland and Virginia come to the forefront. Several approaches were tried, and from Livie’s telling of the tale, it would seem Virginia has met with more success. New types of disease-resistant oysters were found and several approaches to farming oysters were tried. Maryland’s watermen, though, seemed particularly resistant to farming, though it is now seen to be ascendant in the 21st Century.
By this time, though, many watermen, especially in Maryland, found they could no longer rely on their old careers and had to find work ashore. In addition to oysters, harvesting clams became another way to earn money. Aquaculture was met with much resistance, particularly from long-time watermen; one St. Mary’s County waterman is quoted as saying “With aquaculture comes an oyster farming industry that wants large leases of water columns, not just bottom leases. These large water column leases prevent watermen from crabbing, fishing and other ventures that watermen do to earn a living.” This has meant much of the new aquaculture efforts have been undertaken by non-watermen: entrepreneurs willing to try something new. The penultimate chapter ends on a optimistic note: “Today, the Chesapeake Bay is poised to become an indomitable force in the shellfish world again — in defiance of MSX and Dermo’s devastation.”
The final chapter then presents a look into the future, where oysters may be plentiful and those who enjoy them in all their varieties and flavors seek them out to be savored like fine wines. Oysters are experiencing a renaissance, “Fomented by the explosion in popularity of the slow food and farm-to-table movement, the backlash against hyper-processed industrial foods has reawakened interest in American regional shellfish.” Julie Qui, blogger at In a Half-Shell, offers city guides for oyster lovers to such places as New York, Los Angeles, and Boston. Locally, here in Washington, D.C., the Old Ebbitt Grill’s annual Oyster Riot event has become well-known.
This is a long and complex tale, which Livie handles fairly well. At times, it can seem a bit repetitive, especially when addressing the political aspects of the story, but all-in-all she succeeds in wending her way through the history, biology, meteorology, archaeology, and all the other threads that make-up the weft-and-warp of the tapestry of the story she weaves. Let us hope that the bright future she limns for our Chesapeake’s oysters at the end of the book holds true.
I was a bit concerned when I picked this book and realized it was published by American Palate, whose Forgotten Maryland Cocktails: A History of Drinking in the Free State I had found so wanting in my review of December 14, 2016. Fortunately, this book was not plagued with typos. The E-book version doesn’t have an index as such, but that’s because it is fully searchable. The printed volume, however, does have an index, which, though brief, seems fairly accurate.
The E-book is easy to read as it sets up in a nice two column format and the reader can select the text size. It also lends itself readily to highlighting text — something I find very useful for reviewing purposes, especially as I’m very reluctant to ever make a mark in a printed book. The print version, like the previous book, was also printed on coated paper throughout, which is a bit of overkill.
In the printed version, the type appears to be set at 11 points on 13 points, so a bit small to my eye and the column-width appears to be about 72 characters wide, which again, is a bit much. In printing, the general rule is your column should be one-and-a-half- to two-times as wide as the width of the alphabet in your typeface’s lower-case letters, or 39 – 52 lower-case characters wide — much more than that and your eye will have trouble getting from the end of one line to the beginning of the next. Fortunately, I didn’t read the printed edition very much, and stuck with my nicely enlarged E-book text. In the printed copy’s favor, the evenness of spacing between lines is far superior in the when compared to the digital — you stick a superscript or subscript in there, and you get a jarring bit of extra space between lines in the digital version.
There is a 16-page unpaginated section of color figures in the middle of the printed book. There is a similar section in the E-book, which looks quite nice on a color screen, but of course you’ll miss out on that if you’ve got a black-and-white only Kindle. That’s a big reason I don’t use my Kindle anymore. ♦