The Black Oysterman Taking Half Shells From the Bar to the Block
On a latest afternoon in Brooklyn, Ben Harney Jr. stood behind his darkish blue cart in entrance of the Bushwick location of BK Lobster, gingerly prying open Fanny Bay, bluepoint and Prince Edward Island oysters along with his shucking knife and presenting them to prospects on a mattress of ice. Often, a curious passer-by would ask him what he was doing, to which he replied, “Promoting oysters,” elevating his voice loud sufficient to be heard over the rumble of the J prepare overhead and the hip-hop music enjoying from a transportable speaker.
Mr. Harney, a 37-year-old Crown Heights native often known as Moody, is the proprietor of the Actual Mom Shuckers, a small enterprise he based in 2019 to supply a extra approachable oyster expertise.
“Folks could be a little leery of a man promoting oysters on the road,” Mr. Harney stated. “So I’m serving them in a snug approach in order that some can have the expertise and decide for themselves.”
At $3 to $4 per oyster, prospects can get their shellfish both “bare” or “dressed,” which incorporates three choices: a traditional mignonette; “sushi”-style, with skinny strips of seaweed dotted with cucumber and ponzu; or “sweet apple,” with inexperienced apple, tart yuzu and scorching sauce.
Utilizing a cellular cart, Mr. Harney sells oysters at venues throughout Brooklyn. Beginning July 4, he may even deliver his Mom Shuckers pop-up to Governors Island.Credit score…Douglas Segars for The New York Instances
Though they’re now related to town’s luxurious uncooked bars and seafood towers, oysters had been as soon as ubiquitous throughout New York, served uncooked, smoked, pickled, in creamy stews, fried complete or blended with bread and stuffed as oyster dressing. Within the 1800s the decrease Hudson River estuary was house to some 350 sq. miles of oyster beds, and road stalls the place oyster snacks could possibly be bought had been a standard sight.
“Earlier than the twentieth century, when folks considered New York, they considered oysters,” wrote the journalist Mark Kurlansky in his 2007 e book, “The Large Oyster: Historical past on the Half Shell.” “New Yorkers ate them continuously. In addition they bought them by the hundreds of thousands.”
Mr. Harney knew nothing about this historical past whereas rising up in Brooklyn, and it wasn’t till he lived in Louisiana that he encountered uncooked oysters. The meaty, plump spherical flavors of Gulf oysters didn’t attraction to him at first, however when he returned to New York in 2016, he began working as a shucker at Maison Premiere, a trendy oyster and cocktail bar in Williamsburg, the place he familiarized himself with greater than two dozen styles of bivalves. “It made me respect the oyster for the primary time,” Mr. Harney stated.
The method of shucking, smelling and serving a whole bunch of oysters an evening despatched Mr. Harney down a rabbit gap. He learn “The Large Oyster” and commenced following the work of organizations just like the Billion Oyster Mission, a nonprofit devoted to restoring oyster reefs in New York Harbor after overharvesting and air pollution led to the decline of the oyster inhabitants within the 1900s.
He additionally discovered that most of the metropolis’s oystermen, seamen and whalers had been African American. “Seafaring was central to the liberty wrestle and central to financial survival,” stated Jeffrey Bolster, a professor of historical past emeritus on the College of New Hampshire and the writer of “Black Jacks: African American Seamen within the Age of Sail.”
Oystering and seafaring supplied Black males standing within the 1800s, Mr. Bolster added. One of the vital distinguished oystermen of the time was Thomas Downing, an African American businessman and abolitionist who opened Thomas Downing Oyster Home in 1825 at 5 Broad Avenue in Decrease Manhattan. His oyster saloon was one of the vital in style eating places within the metropolis and likewise served as a cease alongside the Underground Railroad.
When Mr. Harney opened his pop-up exterior of his favourite bar in Brooklyn, he started telling anybody who stopped by about Mr. Downing and the historical past of oysters in New York. He particularly wished Black folks to know these tales. “We’re to this point faraway from the historical past of boats and oysters that after we see an oyster we go, ‘Ew, that’s white folks [expletive],’” he stated. “However that’s not true, and we’ve been so instrumental on this story.”
“Ben Moody is an important particular person as a result of he’s the Black oysterman,” stated Stephen Satterfield, a TV host and a co-founder of Whetstone Media, who featured Mr. Harney on the primary season of the Netflix present “Excessive on the Hog.” “He’s part of the Black oysterman custom in New York and an excellent ambassador of that legacy in New York. He’s a showman and a instructor.”
Earlier this summer time, Mr. Harney constructed a completely collapsible cart in order that he can cater non-public occasions along with his weekly rotation of appearances at BK Lobster, Sahadi’s in Trade Metropolis and a kiosk at Governors Island that can open on July 4.
Different plans for his firm embody franchising, creating oyster applications at eating places and working a brick-and-mortar house the place he can expose college students to oysters and shucking.
In the end, Mr. Harney desires oysters to change into a standard meals — for everybody — once more. “New York was the oyster capital of the world,” he stated. “And we’re consuming scorching canine?”
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