Jim Bradshaw: Too many tongmen, not enough oysters
One of my uncles always contended that the first man or woman to eat a raw oyster was either the bravest person in the world or the hungriest. That would have been long before we had hot sauces and other condiments for dipping, or even a cold beer to wash them down, so he might be right.
But, whoever that person was or whatever the reason, he or she did the folks of south Louisiana a huge favor. That first gourmand not only introduced a delicacy that is a staple of our cuisine, but also one that for years has been a substantial contributor to our seafood industry.
The oyster marketing people say that more than a million Louisiana oysters are consumed every day across the United States, making Louisiana the top producer of oysters in the nation. One indicator of their historic importance is the fact that the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries was first established in 1872 as the Oyster Fishing Regulatory Board.
Water conditions, temperatures, and other things help Louisiana oysters grow plumper than those harvested on the Atlantic coast. Connoisseurs also claim our oysters have a special flavor that isn’t found in oysters from any other place. That’s something that apparently has been known for more than a century. It’s a reason that the Abbeville Meridional and Cameron Pilot had cause to complain in February 1900 about “pirates” coming from other places to harvest oysters that should be saved for local folk.
“Vermilion Bay and the coast are the location of many fine oyster reefs,” the Meridional reported in February 1900. “They properly belong to our people, but are now the prey of a lot of oyster pirates from God knows where.”
The Pilot said the appeal of Calcasieu oysters brought “wandering, wifeless, childless usurpers” to Big Lake (Calcasieu Lake) and coastal waters, that the pirates kept growing in number, and they threatened to destroy the business for everyone.
“Each of these fellows have forty relations and the last jack of them tongs oysters,” the Pilot claimed. “You tongmen who last week were praying for a cannery will, in three years, be praying for oysters.
“If the reefs are to be looted by wandering lugger-men the resident tongmen may as well begin looking for cotton ranches. These fellows who are here today and there tomorrow will scrape the river bottom clean. They will lather and shave the reefs until there is no longer stubble left. Add to this a cannery and the goose stops laying.”
The complaint had some merit. Most Louisiana oysters in those days were harvested from waters in southeast Louisiana below New Orleans. The first extensive map of Louisiana oyster producing areas was done by H. F. Moore in 1898, when the legislature was trying to come up with the state’s first regulations for the oyster harvest.
It showed “a small area of highly productive reefs in South West Pass” off Vermilion Parish (Karen Wicker, The Development of the Louisiana Oyster Industry in the 19th Century, LSU dissertation, 1979), as well as smaller areas “in the lower reaches of Calcasieu Lake,” and still smaller areas in Atchafalaya Bay and Vermilion Bay. Most Louisiana production was east of Four League Bay in Terrebonne Parish, and most of that was near the mouth of the Mississippi.
Wherever they were harvested, oysters were regarded as a culinary necessity. Practically every restaurant advertising in the New Orleans newspapers in the early 1800s promised fresh oysters every day, and consumers in the city moaned about their cost.
As early as 1837, the Times-Picayune complained in an editorial that oysters could be bought for 12 cents a hundred directly off the boats, but that the price more than doubled by the time they got to New Orleans markets.
“Oysters are too dear,” the newspaper argued. “There is no reason why they should not be the cheapest article of food in the market. … This is a subject that interests every man, woman, and child in New Orleans; for who does not love oysters? Something must be done.”
Just two years later, 1839, the New Orleans True American complained, “It is a shame why oysters, so plentiful in the city, should … be sold higher than fifty cents. Now they cannot be obtained under one dollar or one dollar and a half, and we have even seen them sold at ten dollars [for] one hundred.”
In 1900, when the Meridional and Pilot made their complaints, there was little concern about nurturing the oyster beds close to New Orleans and they were being rapidly depleted. That caused cut-throat competition among the fishermen, kept prices high in New Orleans, and caused oystermen to wander farther afield.
That might offer a clue as to just where those wandering, wifeless, childless usurpers raiding south Louisiana beds were coming from.
A collection of Jim Bradshaw’s columns, "Cajuns and Other Characters," is now available from Pelican Publishing. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.