Oysters evoke thoughts of passion, sex, and pure decadence. But Rob Coad doesn’t think about any of that when he’s harvesting oysters from the bottom of Edgartown Great Pond on a chilly January morning.

You can make a good case that the oyster is the most romantic food on the planet. It’s inspired lyrics, poetry, and passages in great literature. It’s the most fabled of aphrodisiacs. And it’s the perfect foil for Champagne. Hunting and gathering them, however, is far from glamorous. And it’s getting harder to do all the time.

Coad, fifty-six, who goes scalloping, quahauging and tuna and charter fishing when he’s not harvesting wild oysters, begins his work around 7 a.m. His boat is a twenty-foot, flat-bottomed skiff outfitted with four bar dredges. The oysters lie on the hard bottom of a coastal pond. The bar bounces over the bottom, prying up the oysters and depositing them in a chain-ring net and bag attached to the dredge. It takes four to five hours to gather the daily limit of two baskets. (Oyster harvesters use a standard plastic bucket; two full buckets contain about three bushels.)

Coad wears insulated boots, lined jeans, a sweater or sweatshirt, and a foul-weather jacket. For the bitterest, windiest days, it doesn’t look like this would be enough. “I’ve been doing this for thirty years,” Coad says. “I’m used to the cold. I pull dredges by hand, so that keeps me warm. When I get cold, I work faster.” Coad is in the hunt about five days a week, and says the pond is protected enough that he can do this job in any kind of weather. The dates of the wild oystering season change each year, but it can start as early as January and run as late as May, depending on when the year’s quota is reached. On a given day, he might see five or six other oyster harvesters in Edgartown Great Pond.

“If you don’t have a skiff, you can walk along and scoop up oysters with a rake,” Coad says. “If you’re lucky, you can get a few that way, but it’s been really hard in the last few years.”

Twenty years ago, the commercial oyster harvest on the Vineyard was vast; now the only Island ponds open to the commercial fishing of wild oysters are Edgartown Great Pond and, to a limited degree, Squibnocket Pond in Chilmark and Aquinnah. A microscopic parasite called dermo, migrating up the coastline from the South, began to infect Island oysters about twelve years ago. It wiped out most of the oyster population in Tisbury Great Pond, shared by West Tisbury and Chilmark, and Oyster Pond in Edgartown. And it took a heavy toll on the oysters in Edgartown Great Pond. Managers see signs, however, that the isolation of the Edgartown Great Pond stock may be helping them to develop a resistance to dermo, and scientists are beginning to study them to find out how. (Dermo does not present any danger to people who eat oysters – even infected ones – so long as they are caught live.)

There are other modern challenges to commercial oystering. Oysters grow wherever there’s salt water, but the greater the salinity, the more likely the oysters are to be attacked and killed by oyster drills – tiny snail-like creatures that bore through the shells, killing and devouring the oysters. That’s why there are so few oysters in embayments that regularly exchange fresh salt water with the sea, such as Lagoon Pond in Vineyard Haven, Sengekontacket Pond in Oak Bluffs and Edgartown, and Cape Pogue Pond on Chappaquiddick.

Oysters do much better in coastal ponds where salinity levels drop between seasonal openings of the pond to the sea. But as warm weather approaches, abutters fertilize their lawns and gardens. Septic systems fill and leach. As a result, nitrogen levels in the pond rise, and algae begins to grow, clogging the bar dredges of oyster harvesters. The algae, blocking out sunlight and throwing the ecosystem out of whack, may even limit the numbers of oysters that can reach maturity. Fewer oysters mean less filtering of the pond, which means more nitrogen – and thus even more algae. As the numbers of oysters have declined, licensed oystermen fishing with rakes find themselves at a disadvantage on the pond.  “To be productive,” says Coad, “you really need to use a boat.”

There is one benefit, from a purely economic perspective. Five years ago, oysters sold for eighty to ninety cents per pound. It’s a sign of the increasing rarity – and value – of the incomparable Vineyard oyster that Rob Coad is now selling them for up to twenty-five cents apiece.

Oysters from the farm

Harvesting oysters is the old-school way to bring oysters to your table, but there are nowhere near enough of them in the wild to supply an Island filled with oyster-loving inhabitants and visitors, not to mention mainland restaurants eager to serve Vineyard fare. Aquaculture is making a small but growing difference. Well looked after, farmed oysters can be plumper, cleaner, and more reliably plentiful than the wild bunch. But tending a crop in a hatchery and on the water is at least as hard as hunting them. Farmers inspect their crop, oyster by oyster, every day. They clean the shells and worry about storms that can tear up the platforms from which they work and the cages in which their crops are housed.

One frigid January morning, Will Adams, an oyster lover, and I checked out the Wampanoag tribe’s aquaculture setup in Menemsha Pond. This is the source of Tomahawk oysters, which are quickly becoming renowned, on the Island and around the country, for their succulent meat and salty bite.

Our guide was Bret Stearns, the natural resources director for the tribe. He took us through the hatchery, which had just begun pumping fresh sea water from the pond into a set of well-lit, well-monitored tanks, where the seed lives on phytoplankton or algae grown at the facility. At about one millimeter, the seed is transferred from the hatchery itself to an indoor nursery, where it lives until early May. From there the staff moves the crop, growing faster than it would in the wild, to an outdoor tidal upweller, and finally to a “grow-out site” – meaning the pond itself – where the crop will keep on growing until harvest.   

Tribal member and farm field manager David Vanderhoop picks us up in a workboat. He takes us to an offshore tract of oyster cages, which float just below the surface of the shallow water.  We motor over to the harvesting station – a windblown platform out in the middle of the pond – where staffers clean, sort, and select the best to sell.  

I stop shivering for a moment when Vanderhoop plucks a few oysters from the keep pile, shucks them with a quick flick of his knife, and hands them to us. They’ve been out of the water for all of three minutes, and they are practically perfect: juicy, cold, and tantalizingly saline.

“Each stage of oyster farming has difficult aspects,” Stearns says. “The spawning can be hit or miss, there’s a tremendous amount of detail involved in getting them to be large enough to survive, and caring for the product the right way is extremely labor intensive.”  What’s more, storms can wreck the cages, ice can make them inaccessible, and a cold snap can shorten the growing season. But Stearns and the rest of the staff take it in stride. He laughs
and says, “What’s the old saying? If farming were easy, everyone would do it.”

Oysters at the table

Well, we’ve seen them caught in the wild and harvested from a farm. Warmed up and cleaned up, we head to Fred and Carlene Condon’s house in Edgartown for an oyster-themed dinner party.
“I just wanted to have a get-together,” Carlene says. “After the hectic pace of the holidays, I really wanted a grown-up party where we could put on our Vineyard dress-up clothes and have a great time. Oysters fit perfectly into that picture.”

Her vision of the party is simple: lots of oysters, Champagne, firelight, and candles. She hired chef Tina Miller of West Tisbury to plan the menu and prepare the food, which consists of raw oysters on the half-shell, perfectly crisped fried oysters, an assortment of baked oysters, and an oyster pan stew.
“Everyone is so excited for this,” Carlene says as her guests arrive. “This is a group of oyster lovers. No one wanted to miss this.” Tom Engley, a private chef from West Tisbury, shucks Tomahawk oysters farmed in Menemsha Pond. Lila Fischer of West Tisbury serves and pours Champagne and crisp white wine to get guests started. The fireplaces roar, the candles are lit, and the greenery and flowers from Donaroma’s nursery in Edgartown, styled by Carlene with help from her friend Wendy Wheeler, lend a fresh, springy feel, even on this cold Saturday night.

After dessert, guests keep sneaking oysters. It seems even on a night like this, with all the oysters anyone could ever want, they still can’t get enough.

Baked oysters with prosciutto, herbs, and pecorino
Serves 8 to 10 as an hors d’oeuvre (2 to 3 oysters each)

• 24 oysters, shucked, in shell, top discarded, chilled
• 4 tablespoons butter, at room temperature
• 1/4 cup pecorino cheese, grated
• 1 shallot, minced
• 1 clove garlic, minced
• 2 tablespoon fresh parsley, chopped
• 1 tablespoons fresh rosemary, chopped
• 1/4 cup bread crumbs (preferably panko, or Japanese bread crumbs)
• 8 slices prosciutto, not too thin, cut into large dice

1. Preheat broiler.

2. Cream together all ingredients except oysters, adding prosciutto last.

3. Place oysters on a baking pan, shell-side down. Spoon prosciutto mixture evenly over oysters and broil on the second rack from the top for 7 to 10 minutes.

Baked oysters with ginger, lime, and cilantro butter

Serves 8 to 10 as an hors d’oeuvre (2 to 3 oysters each)

• 24 oysters, shucked, in shell, top discarded, chilled
• 4 tablespoons butter, at room temperature
• 2 teaspoons ginger, very finely grated
• 2 tablespoons cilantro, finely chopped
• 3 scallions (white part), finely sliced
• Zest of 1 lime
• Juice of 1 lime
• 1 tablespoon mirin
• Salt and pepper

1. Preheat broiler.

2. Cream together all ingredients except oysters.     

3. Place oysters on a baking pan, shell-side down. Spoon ginger mixture evenly over oysters and broil on the second rack from the top for 7 to 10 minutes.

Oyster pan stew
Serves 8 to 10

• 4 tablespoons butter
• 1/2 cup onion, very finely chopped
• 2 leeks, white part only, washed and thinly sliced
• 1/2 cup cream sherry
• 2 tablespoons ketchup
• 4 dozen shucked oysters with their liquor
• 6 cups heavy cream
• 8 dashes hot sauce
• Salt and pepper

1. In a large, heavy saucepan, melt butter over medium heat. Add onion and leek, and cook for about 5 minutes, until soft.

2. Turn up heat to medium-high, add the sherry, and continue cooking, letting the sherry reduce a bit and evaporating the alcohol.

3. Add the ketchup, followed by the oyster liquor. Cook for about 3 more minutes.

4. Pour in the heavy cream.

5. Add the oysters, hot sauce, and salt and pepper to taste, and cook for about 2 minutes. Serve immediately in shallow bowls.

Fried oysters with caper mayonnaise
Serves 8 to 10 as an hors d’oeuvre (2 to 3 oysters each)

• 24 oysters, shucked and removed from shell
• 1 quart canola oil
• 1 cup cornmeal
• 1/4 cup flour
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 1 teaspoon pepper

1. In a deep, heavy pot or small fryer, heat oil to 375 degrees.

2. Mix dry ingredients in a medium bowl.

3. Dip oysters in cornmeal mixture and gently coat. Shake off excess and fry carefully in small batches, turning oysters until golden on both sides. This should take 2 to 3 minutes.

4. Drain oysters on heavy paper, such as a paper bag. Serve immediately with fresh lemon wedges and caper mayonnaise.

Caper mayonnaise
Makes about 1 1/4 cups

• 1 cup prepared mayonnaise
• 1 shallot, minced
• 2 teaspoons capers, drained
• 2 tablespoons lemon juice
• Zest of 1 lemon
• 2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped

1. Combine all ingredients and mix well. Serve immediately with fried oysters, or refrigerate until ready to serve.

Raw oysters with two sauces

Makes about 2 cups

• 2 tablespoons shallots, minced
• 2 tablespoons red pepper, minced
• 2 tablespoons black pepper, coarsely cracked
• 2 cups cider vinegar

Combine all ingredients in a bowl. Cover and let mixture sit at room temperature for at least 8 hours. Serve with raw oysters.

Red onion cocktail sauce
Makes about 2 cups

• 1/2 cup ketchup
• 1/2 cup red onion, minced
• 1/2 cup tomato, diced (canned or good fresh ones)
• 2 tablespoons prepared horseradish
• 2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped
• 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
• 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
• 4 dashes hot sauce

1. Combine all ingredients in a bowl and serve with raw oysters.

Baked and fried oyster recipes courtesy of Tina Miller. Recipes for the red onion cocktail sauce and oyster pan stew adapted from Vineyard Harvest: A Year of Good Food on Martha’s Vineyard, by Tina Miller with Christie Matheson, and photographs by Alison Shaw (Broadway Books, 2005, a division of Random House, $35 hardcover, 272 pages).