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A Morning in the Oystering Life

A Morning in the Oystering Life

Uncategorized 🕔October 14, 2016

By Tres Lewis, son of Lighthouse Oysters owner Emory Lewis. Tres recently experienced for the first time what it’s like to harvest, wash, sort and bag oysters, and shared his insight into a day in the life of a working oyster farm:

Thinking life is short, recently I coordinated schedules at work and home to allow me to go help my Dad with the oysters every couple of weeks. It’s a unique opportunity to be back home where I grew up, spending time with my wonderful parents and experiencing firsthand “working on the water.”

Tres Lewis (in orange) recently experienced his first day harvesting, cleaning, sorting and bagging Lighthouse Oysters in Reedville, VA.

Tres Lewis (in orange) recently experienced his first day harvesting, cleaning, sorting and bagging Lighthouse Oysters in Reedville, VA.

 

My drive down to Reedville after my normal workday ends is an easy one – I get there late and stay up with Mom and Dad a long time, talking and laughing at old stories like always. Before I go to bed, I look out onto the Great Wicomico River, at the water shining under the lighthouse lights, and the winking reds and greens of channel markers.

I wake up at 5:30 a.m. – as dark outside as when I went to bed – and throw on some old clothes for the workday. Dad comes upstairs to make sure I’ve gotten up, and we talk low while eating a unique breakfast combination: Raisin Bran with some toffee peanuts added for extra sweetness. We head outside, and soon headlights cut the darkness as the Lighthouse Oysters team, Mate, Herb, and Thomas, roll up. I enjoy talking to them while we get ready.

Everyone gets oilskins and pulls them on, after a quick inspection to look for any tears ─ wire cages and oyster shells have left long scars mended with duct-tape patchwork. With boots on, we start to load ourselves onto the golf cart to ride to the dock, but there are five of us, and really only space for four. I say that I’ll just walk down, but they all object, saying “Come on” as they scoot around to make room for me. As we near the dock, Herb suggests I keep my elbows and arms inside the cart: it’s a tight fit between the dock railings, and it would be easy to lose some skin or gain a bruise as we squeeze through.

The morning is a little cool but there is no wind whatsoever. At the end of the dock, I start out helping Dad and Thomas raise the cages from the water via a lift and cable that groans under the combined weight of shells and wire. I’m a rookie at this, but Dad is patient as always, letting me know what to do and when. As each cage emerges above the surface, small jets of water periodically squirt out at different angles; Dad explains this happens when the oysters suddenly snap their shells shut for self-preservation.

After setting a cage down on the platform, we clip zip-ties to separate the sections, then dump one section’s worth of fat oysters onto a wide table. Mate scoops the oysters and feeds them into the washdown tumbler to clean off the mud, and they come out white and gleaming.

Soon we have built up a small mountain of oysters for Mate to wash, so I move over to Herb and Thomas to help sort. No one says to go here or do that, we just flow to wherever it looks like hands are needed. I get into the rhythm of the count, putting oysters into a red mesh bag (held open by a simple but ingenious funnel) or different baskets for those not big enough yet or dead. We also pull out the largest oysters – 4” and larger – to place into different bags for customers who prefer that “Rockefeller” size, as Dad calls them. There is a flurry of motion on the sorting table as six or eight gloved hands alternately grab and push oysters around, much like in a game of Hungry Hungry Hippos. As I am nearest the end of the tumbler where the cleaned oysters emerge, I regularly pivot to lift and dump a new basket of oysters to sort, or replace a full mesh bag with a new empty one. A morning breeze kicks up to cool us down (as does the mist off the washdown pump!), and as we enjoy some Willie Nelson that Thomas has cued up, we work quickly. Sort. Drop. Turn. Lift. Dump. Repeat.

We insert a paper tag with details on the harvest date and location into each mesh bag and tie it off before moving them into a massive refrigerator, where they’ll stay overnight before being driven north to the restaurants Lighthouse Oysters supplies. Within a few hours, we have lifted, cleaned, and sorted enough oysters to fill 48 bags of 100 oysters each. It doesn’t seem like we could have possibly handled almost 5,000 oysters, but a beautiful morning on the Bay, good people to laugh with, and working with your hands on the water have a way of making the work lighter. It’s also tough to beat my “take-home pay”: a cooler of fresh, delicious Lighthouse Oysters!

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