If you’re in the Atlanta area and want to eat oysters, one of the places to go is Kimball House in Decatur. On any given day, they might have oysters from Washington State, California, South Carolina, Maryland and Virginia. The menu changes daily.
“A lot of my focus is on maintaining what we hope others will view as a really solid oyster menu,” said Bryan Rackley, one of the owners of the restaurant.
Oysters are sort of like wine; they taste different, depending on where they’re from. Rackley said he sees people get excited about ordering oysters from places they’ve visited, or from where they grew up. But diners at Kimball House don’t usually get to try oysters from Georgia’s coast. The restaurant has had those on the menu just a handful of times.
“I think that people would be thrilled to have oysters from Georgia on our menu,” Rackley said. “We would be thrilled to have Georgia oysters on our menu.”
The problem is, the oysters that grow wild on the Georgia coast aren’t big, individual ones that a restaurant would sell one-by-one. The way they grow is in clusters, with lots of them stuck together. They're great for throwing over a fire at an oyster roast, said Rackley, but not what people are looking for at a nice restaurant.
Or, put another way: “The locals love them, they know how to deal with them,” said Joe Maley, unloading a day’s harvest of oysters on a dock in Midway, south of Savannah. “But get too far up the road and people go, ‘What’s that?’”
Maley is the president of the Georgia Shellfish Growers Association.
“People already know that Georgia oysters [are] excellent,” he said. “I’ve sent some to Atlanta, to white tablecloth restaurants up there, and they rave about them, you know."
But Georgia has a relatively small oyster industry; according to Maley, only about a dozen people harvest them professionally on the coast. His oysters mostly go to locals, but he’d like to see oysters from Georgia compete in restaurants with those from other states. Right now, he said, they’re not.
“Yeah,” he said, “we’re getting our lunch eaten, if you will.”
Now, the University of Georgia has opened the state’s first oyster hatchery, which could bring more -- and bigger -- Georgia oysters to Atlanta restaurants.
In The Lab
"These are some oysters that were spawned in the last part of the summer,” Thomas Bliss said as he lifted a big tub out of a tank full of sea water. Bliss is the director of the Shellfish Research Lab at UGA’s Marine Extension Service on Skidaway Island.
As the water drained out of the tub, we could see what looked like grains of sand at the bottom. They were actually thousands of baby oysters, called spat.
“They’re about one to two millimeters in size right now,” said Bliss. “We estimate we have probably about 50 to 100,000 oysters in this one.” There were five of the tubs, adding up to potentially half a million spat growing in the lab.
Bliss said after these oysters get a little bigger, UGA will give them to growers to set out in the estuaries until they’re big enough to harvest. Instead of clustering up, as they would in the wild, the hatchery oysters should grow into the big, individual, thick-shelled oysters that restaurants want.
This is the first year the hatchery’s been up and running, and Bliss said they’re still figuring things out.
Working Out The Kinks
John Pelli, one of the growers UGA is working with, harvests clams and oysters near Skidaway. He drove his skiff out to a spot where he collects wild oysters and is also growing farmed ones. After navigating through a maze of salt marsh with grass higher than our heads, he waded over to the hatchery oysters, which were in a big net bag.
“They don’t look too bad,” Pelli said, shaking the bag and rinsing the oysters in the water.
Pelli said he knows he can sell these oysters, but he and UGA haven’t totally worked out yet the best way to farm them: how much to move them around, how much they should be submerged or how much can be left up to the tides shaking them up.
“I don’t want to commit to anything until I know I can deliver,” he said. “That’s what it boils down to.”
So, Atlanta oyster fans will probably have to keep waiting, as UGA and growers like Pelli work out the kinks.
In a subsequent interview, however, Bryan Rackley from Kimball House said he recently got some of Pelli’s oysters -- the first Georgia-farmed oysters he’s ever sold -- and the response from customers was, he said, “phenomenal.”