Can These Two Men Save the East Coast Oyster?
Writer Francis Lam explores the Chesapeake with the cousins behind Rappahannock Oyster Co.
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.
The family business was not where the cousins, or the bay, were heading. In 1899, their great-grandfather James A. Croxton Jr. signed leases for oyster grounds in Virginia. The industry was booming: Before the state stepped in to divvy up the grounds, men dug, trawled, poached, fought and sometimes killed for Chesapeake oysters. The cousins’ grandfather, William A., expanded the leases and grew the company. But a generation later, things had changed. Oystering had become too hard, too risky, and watermen weren’t pulling them in like they used to. Overharvesting, pollution and disease had denuded the Virginia Chesapeake, the place from which all oysters in the eastern United States get their species name, Crassostrea virginica. The family’s last bushel tumbled in when William A. retired to tend to his garden and play with his grandkids in a cloud of cigarette smoke.
By the time Travis and Ryan grew up, oystering was little more than family lore: a clutch of photos, some handwritten logs. But maybe it’s that distance that allowed the cousins to give up careers in finance and publishing and claim their legacy in their own way.
I went down to Virginia to see that legacy. Out on the water, the shore shrunken to distant stripes of green, our boat rocked tipsily while Ryan and his farm manager, Patrick Oliver, used a crane to lower a cage of nearly grown oysters back to the riverbed—a 300-pound box of rocks swinging at head level. After the men unlatched the hook, I relaxed, looked around at the lolling water and tried to imagine what this place was like before people got here. The shore is almost untouched by development, but that past is still almost unimaginable: a crazy, outer-space sight of billions of wild oysters piled onto each other, fused into undersea mountains, their tops cresting as craggy gray-white islands—a jagged nightmare for explorers’ ships. Those oysters likely gave this place its Algonquian name: Chesapeake, the Great Shellfish Bay. “I’d love to know what an oyster here tasted like 200 years ago,” Ryan said. That is, before generations of watermen—including his family—strip-mined those shell mountains down to mudflats.
In Ryan’s mind, the smell of youth was the gasoline-and-cigarette-scented air of his grandfather’s station wagon; Travis talks about growing up with a stutter, and how his grandfather was one of the few people who made him feel OK, in speech or in silence. They are devoted to his memory, but not necessarily to the way he handled the riches of their bay. “I’m totally open to my grandfather’s story disappointing me,” Ryan said to me on the way to their farm. “He and my great-grandfather are just as culpable as anyone for destroying the industry here—just taking as many oysters as they could, never thinking about the next year.”
By the time the cousins decided they wanted to get into the business, the wild oyster harvest had dropped to one-thousandth of what it had been at its peak. Crassostrea virginica was about to disappear from Virginia. If the industry was going to survive, that meant farming—putting oysters into the bay, not just taking them out. People thought the idea was…cute. “ ‘Oyster gardening, huh?’ everyone said to us,” recalled Travis. “You figure old-time watermen just didn’t want to change what they knew from the past, but even the state regulators were telling us it wouldn’t work.”
Equipped with an aquarium air pump and instructions dredged up from the Internet, they started experimenting in Travis’s living room. They mail-ordered oyster larvae, dumped them into a laundry tub with river water they hauled home in a pickup, and waited while the Ghost of Low Tides Yet to Come weaved his stinky fingers through the air. A few putrid weeks later, they found out the larvae were dead from the start. “I’m surprised I’m still married after that,” Travis laughed.
Once they figured out how to cultivate oysters, though, they also came to realize that farming gives them the creative freedom to explore flavor, unlike pulling up wild specimens wherever you find them. How an oyster tastes depends on the water it’s grown in, and so the cousins farm in different areas to create different flavors: this one saltier, that one sweeter, this one more like butter. While their beloved Rappahannocks are delicate and smooth, their Stingray oysters, from Mobjack Bay, taste like a bite of chowder, fatty and deep, and their Olde Salts—grown on the ocean side of the bay—are delicious, briny babies, awesome like potato chips are awesome, a party jam of an oyster.
With a diversity of flavors to offer, Travis and Ryan built their business around partnering with premier chefs. Manhattan’s Le Bernardin, Eric Ripert’s high temple of fish, was their first account, and from there they learned what characteristics the most discriminating cooks want from an oyster. Modernist Spanish chef José Andrés, of Washington, DC’s Jaleo, works with them to create particular oysters for dishes he’s imagining; their newest experiment will be trying to grow oysters shaped like a cube. “It took a chef to show us how to shuck an oyster when we tried to sell our first batch,” Ryan said, laughing. “Suddenly we were in these amazing restaurants, eating food two rednecks have no business eating.” Travis shook his head, saying, “The first time Todd Gray served us roasted oysters at Equinox, we tried to eat the salt he served them on.”
Now the cousins get jet lag from flights around the country, popping corks and shells. But restaurant relationships are about more than sales; they’re about making new fans—and advocates—of the Chesapeake oyster. And that means survival of the species. Because the more chefs want the oysters, the more of the oysters farmers will grow in the bay. The more oysters in the bay, the more plankton they eat; the more plankton they eat, the clearer the water; the clearer the water, the more sunlight hits the bottom; the more sunlight hits the bottom, the more the grasses grow; the more the grasses grow, the more silt stays in place; the more silt stays in place, the less silt chokes the oysters; the less silt chokes the oysters, the more oysters there will be in the bay. It’s an elegant system, once it gets back into whack.
After two days exploring the farm, the Croxtons took me out with Ryan’s father, Bill, to a pinprick on the map called Butylo, Virginia. This is where Grandpa William A. Croxton had his oyster house, on a small island at the end of a concrete path jutting out a few hundred feet into the Rappahannock River. We walked down the causeway, stony shells crinkling under our feet. Out on the point, I looked back at the crescent of land behind us, a vibrant, watercolor green. Its curve was so acute, it pulled my eyes along its swerving bend to take in the full scene of how water and land sit together in silence. It was lovely and peaceful, and it was hard to imagine the sweat that was worked up here, the cascading crunch of oysters shoveled into baskets, the men piling bushels of flint-toned food, a suited Croxton tallying the haul. Few wild oysters survive here now, and Travis and Ryan’s cages sit miles farther down the river.
Nothing is truly as it was. A new building, someone’s home, stands where the oyster house stood. The mounds of shells we were stepping on weren’t from these waters. They were probably from Louisiana; for decades, shucking houses brought in oysters for processing when the local supply dried up. But underneath those, however far below, are the shells of Chesapeake natives.
The tide rose, the river starting to lap over and pool onto the slabs of the path, and we hurried back to shore. As we walked, Ryan spotted an oyster washed onto the causeway. He went over to it and picked it up. He stood there for a moment, holding it, making a weighing motion with his hand. “It’s alive!” he finally said, and he threw it back into the river.
Francis Lam is an editor at large at Clarkson Potter and a James Beard Award–winning writer. He likes to chew his oysters.