By Doreen Leggett
Morgan Ward, an oyster farmer, was sitting on the tailgate of his truck on the sand flats of Dennis, excited.
“Oysters are best in fall and winter,” Ward said, recorded by a video camera. “Make them a Thanksgiving tradition … Cook them, fry them, roast them. They are magic, they are delicious, they bring people together.”
Ward, in the documentary film “Tide to Table” shown at the Chatham Orpheum Theater last week, wasn’t done with his ode to oysters.
“Someone tries an oyster on Friday and by Sunday they are eating three dozen!” he told 100-plus laughing audience members gathered to see the film.
When the lights came up it was clear there were converts in the crowd. Several who attended this latest version of the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance’s Meet the Fleet had plans to serve oysters for Thanksgiving – it’s said the tasty bivalve was served at the first Thanksgiving.
Others were asking guest speakers where they could get oysters before the holiday festivities. Stephen Wright, co-owner of Chatham Shellfish Company, said he was selling them year-round.
Wright, and co-worker Farran Jalbert, had shucked more than 100 oysters as the doors were opening, all gone within minutes. They called for reinforcements while the crowd enjoyed lobster and scallop pizza from Pizza Shark.
“Seafood goes on anything,” said Jennifer Bryant, director of development for Fishermen’s Alliance, as she welcomed attendees. Meet the Event is a decade-old tradition that introduces the community to local fishermen and chefs.
One attendee asked where the oysters he had eaten were from. Wright’s answer, Chatham, drew cheers from the crowd.
The oysters Wright farms are on the brinier side and “very sweet” on the finish. Oysters across the Cape taste differently depending on what bay, harbor or estuary they are harvested from.
“There is nothing you can compare the flavor of an oyster to except the sea itself,” said David Wright, a Wellfleet historian, in the film.
Many of the oysters grown on the Cape start their life at ARC, Aquaculture Resource Corporation in Dennis.
ARC also sells its oysters wholesale and to retail markets, but the vast majority of its product goes off Cape.
Once in awhile it does sell to the local public and held oyster pop-up sales before the holiday.
“I hope you all have oysters on your holiday dinner menus this year,” said Melissa Sanderson, chief operating officer of the Fishermen’s Alliance who emceed the event. Fishermen’s Alliance is an investor in ARC.
Paul Wittenstein is the general manager at ARC and talked about how the hatchery spawns oysters (and also quahogs), nurturing them until they are about a millimeter and a half.
“ARC is the longest running shellfish hatchery on the East Coast,” Wittenstein said.
That seed is bought by growers all over the Cape and magic happens.
“We give them a canvas and they paint on it,” he said.
Those oyster paintings are worth $10 million to the economy of the Cape, said the Blue Economy Foundation’s Bert Jackson in the docu-film, produced by Pace University’s documentary team.
Oysters’ value also is environmental, cleaning the water as filter feeders taking in nitrogen, and using for shell and meat growth. Most developed areas have large quantities of nitrogen, on the Cape primarily from septic systems.
Wittenstein was also in the movie, a 38-minute romp through oyster history with stops in New York (to talk about the Billion Oyster Project) and Connecticut, which is making moves to become the Napa Valley of oyster production.
Those who had settled in the comfortable chairs at the Orpheum appreciated the history; oysters used to be sold from street carts, like hot dogs, and were common at bars and dance halls.
Local excitement came in the section of the film dedicated to oyster farmers on the Cape. There were lots of familiar growers, shellfish constables and those in the scientific and support community, including Josh Reitsma of Woods Hole Sea Grant.
Applause and laughter accompanied the clips of Johnny Clam, deputy shellfish constable in Wellfleet, and Shellfish Constable Nancy Civetta as well as Mike Dunbar (“In the middle of July everybody wants your job,” he quipped) and Ed Janiunas, growers in Yarmouth. Growers up Cape were cheered as well, including David and Matthew Ryan of Cape Cod Oyster Company. In the film Matthew said his first job, when he was 7 or 8 years old, was scuttling around the grant collecting the predatory moon snails and getting a nickel for each.
The small, often family aspect of the oyster farms on Cape was celebrated.
In the film, Ward said there were four generations of his family working the farm one day. He said that you can’t freeze your life, but that was one time he wished he had a pause button.
“It’s an honor and a blessing,” he said.