I was baptized into loving oysters by my grandparents who live in Quincy, Florida, a small town on the Panhandle.
When I was a child, they insisted I use a saltine cracker as the vessel for which I could muster up the courage to eat one, and it worked. I was so proud of myself as a young girl, taking an affinity to this slimy, gooey food, forked out of a Ball jar. I went on to discover fixings – hot sauce, cocktail sauce, lemon, horseradish, pepper – a world of options and nose-burning sensations. Time and time again, I’d drown my oysters in acidic torture, numbing my mouth under mischievous smiles.
Growing up, my family and I lived in Maryland, but every December was spent on the Florida farm. Our annual road trips down the 95 were grueling, but as soon as the smell of moss filled the air, I knew we were close. My face would smell of dewy White Pine and heat. The anticipation of acreage, sweet tea, and Grammy’s hugs was enough to make my heart surge. At the farm, my siblings and I passed the time leaping atop hay barrels, scaring the neighbor’s cows, and rummaging through old tobacco barns in search of broken teacups. We knew nothing of Disney World. This was our paradise.
As the years went on, our time on the Forgotten Coast became, well… a little forgotten. My grandparents bought a second farm in Virginia to be closer to us on the holidays, so time was often spent there instead, out of ease. I went on to college in DC, began my career and continued to move further north. The Florida farm became more and more distant – a lost past and a shameful reminder that I had not visited out of convenience. My grandparents had found a way to come to me. Oysters and saltines still graced our tables, though only once or twice a year.
Ten years after graduating, I realized that I had devoted so much energy to my work, that the creative side of me was wilting. I was growing professionally, but it was becoming clear that I had to find a way to rehabilitate my body and mind from achy airplane seats and sales pitches. I needed a hobby; a second love. Something cathartic, simple, and a contrast to corporate life.
I woke up one day and decided that it would be oysters. At first, I couldn’t explain very well why I chose oysters. I equated it to my Maryland roots, moving to Boston, spending all my money in raw bars, and my attraction to the coasts. Subconsciously, however, there was more meaning at play.
My gastronomic muse snowballed into a serious affair. Every weekend I was touring oyster farms, reading oyster books, and making oysters my primary source of protein. I was sharing, like a songbird, these beautiful stories about oyster farmers, their lives on the water, and their passions. My project became much more than a reprieve. It was a way for me to serve others; to elevate voices and join a community. Thousands of people began to listen, share, and take part in energizing this mission.
When my grandparents found out about my hobby, it opened a new door. I rediscovered the Gulf Coast’s connection to oysters and with that, a world of stories that my own family could share. Our time together became more than just catch-ups on life. We had new things to celebrate and learn from one another.
After fifteen years of being away, I finally returned to the Florida farm. It was an emotional reencounter of all the memories I had tucked away for half of my life. There were photos of me as a child everywhere. I was meeting younger me all over again.
During that visit, my Grandfather gave me an oyster tour of the Forgotten Coast to see the world that always was. My Grandmother and I took the backseat, poured wine into cups, and beamed out at the water as we drove across the Big Bend Bridge into Apalachicola. Wherever we stopped, I listened to their stories of past and present, and soaked up every moment with them under the warm Florida sun. Out of tradition, I poured senseless amounts of lemon, hot sauce, and horse radish onto my oysters, puckering at the tingles. This trip with my grandparents gave me the deepest feeling of “home”. We laughed a lot that day. We cried a little.
For so long, I thought I needed an outlet to create new joy in my life. But in doing so, I found the old joy. The tender, childhood kind, that’s crunchy like a saltine and soft like a grandmother’s hug. Sometimes, our choices reveal what’s deep inside us. They remind us of who we are and who we love.
Virginia Shaffer is the Founder of Lady Oyster, a blog dedicated to celebrating oysters and the passionate people who make them their world. For the last four years, she has documented the stories of shellfish farmers, oyster artists, bars, festivals, and enthusiasts. Virginia now lives in Boston with her husband and spends her weekends touring oyster farms or trying new raw bars. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow her on Instagram at @Lady_Oyster.