Where the Rappahannock River feeds the Chesapeake Bay, off the coast of Topping, Virginia, I dipped my hand into the gray-green water and took a taste. It was soft but heavy, with the quietest purr of salt. Here, at the mouth of the river, cousins Travis and Ryan Croxton grow the oysters that give their Rappahannock Oyster Co. its name. Those oysters taste like this water, but better: barely briny, with a delicate, scallop-like flavor, beautiful but bluntly animal, as if they were nursed on chicken stock. These are the oysters the cousins love best, because they taste like this place. Because they taste like what was almost lost.
Travis and Ryan come from a long line of Chesapeake oystermen, but the Croxtons before them wouldn’t have dreamed of using their methods. Instead of hauling up wild oysters as watermen have done here for more than a century, the cousins farm shellfish from pinpoint-tiny seed. Instead of working just the Rappahannock riverfront, they “plant” oysters in different areas of the bay, imparting different flavors. Instead of selling oysters to Campbell’s to be canned in soup, they work with superstar chefs. Travis and Ryan’s company is one of the first to make oyster aquaculture commercially viable in the Chesapeake; they sold nearly five million oysters last year. And they’re spreading the good word at their three restaurants: Rappahannock in Richmond, Virginia; Rappahannock Oyster Bar in Washington, DC; and Merroir, a sweetened-up seafood shack overlooking their farm.
But it’s not commercial success that drives them. “We got into this for silly, nostalgic reasons, for the romantic stories,” Ryan said, a literature major’s way of being aw-shucks about the fact that he and Travis are bringing their beloved Chesapeake oysters back from near extinction. They farm oysters to connect to the spirit of their grandfather and to honor their family by fixing the mistakes their ancestors made.