Not long ago, the southern United States was an oyster wasteland. Chesapeake Bay populations had been so overharvested that Maryland’s shucking houses were importing Louisiana oysters to stay in business. Then Louisiana’s reefs were killed off by fresh water released from the Mississippi River to push away oil from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster. Meanwhile, years of drought in Florida led the federal government to declare Apalachicola Bay, once the source of 10 percent of the nation’s oysters, a fishery disaster in 2013. “It’s been hard for anyone to make a living oystering,” says Bill Walton, a professor at Auburn University who’s known as Doctor Oyster.
But as wild reefs disappeared and prices skyrocketed, growers adopted the cutting-edge cultivation methods that turned the Pacific Northwest into an oyster power-house. Raised off the ocean floor, in mesh barrels that keep them from being eaten by predators or suffocating under sediment, the oysters flourished—with quality that caught everybody by surprise. “Perfect cups, full meat, nice and clean,” says Walton.
Dozens of new varieties have since appeared. Some are sweet, some are salty, and most can be found only in the South’s oyster bars. (See below.) There are buttery Murder Points from Alabama, briny Phat Ladies from South Carolina, and decadent Caminada Bays raised in the rich waters of south Louisiana. Order up a dozen, wash them down with something cold, and send for more. There are plenty to go around.
Where to Slurp the Tastiest Oysters
Kimball House, Decatur, Georgia
The Variety: Murder Point
The Chaser: Absinthe
The Ordinary, Charleston, South Carolina
The Variety: Phat Lady
The Chaser: Vermouth Spritz
Pêche, New Orleans
The Variety: Caminada Bay
The Chaser: Gentilly Shakedown