by David Cecelski
I’m writing this on OcracokeIsland. A gale-force wind is blowing with gusts as high as 60 miles an hour. I came here to visit the N.C.Center for the Advancement of Teaching, which I did, but now I can’t leave. The ferries have all shut down because of the gale. You can barely walk outside: coming offPamlico Sound, the northwest wind just about knocks you off your feet. I love storms like this.
On my way here, I picked up a peck of oysters at the Rose Bay Oyster Company. It’s located on US 264 six miles west of Swan Quarter, in HydeCounty. You can stand on the company’s dock and look out over RoseBay and one of the state’s loveliest salt marshes. A little creek comes down next to the oyster house, an old, two-story wood and cinderblock building where oyster shuckers have plied their trade for generations.
Rose Bay ’s oysters were once famous for their abundance and flavor. They were exalted as early as the 19th century, but they had nearly vanished by the 1970s. That was partly due to over-harvesting, but probably more because of all the canals and ditches that were dug in the big pocosin swamps to the north. They poured freshwater and silt into the bay. Both are poison to an oyster.
A century ago, there were oyster shucking houses all over the PamlicoRiver. In those days, oyster canneries and raw shucking houses flourished from Swan Quarter to little Washington. Thousands of local and migrant laborers shucked oysters there every winter. They produced so many oyster shells that people built roads with them, melted them down for lime, and ground them up for chicken grit.
Today there is only one oyster shucking house left on Pamlico Sound or any of its tributaries—the Rose Bay Oyster Company. And even a lot of its oysters—probably most—are trucked here from the GulfCoast, shucked here and sold wholesale.
But not all the company’s oysters hail from the GulfCoast. For the last couple months, the company’s manager told me, they’ve been shucking only North Carolina oysters again—and at least some from Rose Bay, which, 25 years ago, I thought I’d never see again. While most of their business is wholesale, they welcome folks that drive into their oyster-shell parking lot, amid the giant piles of oyster shells, next to that lovely creek and salt marsh.
In addition to oysters shucked and in the shell, the Rose Bay Oyster Company sells shrimp, soft-shell crabs, sea scallops, and fish, in season. My peck of NC oysters cost just $10.00.