Oysters Here and There, Then and Now, Past and Present

I was born in Atlantic Canada, on Prince Edward Island, to two Acadian parents. This attached me to a lineage of fishing and seagoing people going back to the Northern coast of France. Since the 1700s, my ancestors fished cod, lobster, and oysters from the waters around P.E.I. and New Brunswick. My parents' generation and mine lost a direct connection to the sea; we ignored our rural idyll for dependable but sedentary paychecks from factories and offices.

A few factors helped keep us away. Cod disappeared from our stretch of the North Atlantic. Lobster catches diminished year upon year. Large farms gobbled up inland potato fields, minimizing the other main agricultural labor available on the island. How humans wrest sustenance from nature was changing: we didn't fish and farm to feed ourselves anymore, all our haddock and potatoes had been promised to McDonald's, not our neighbors. So if the baby boomers didn't leave, their children did.

I was part of the first crop of Islanders born unaware of what the ocean had meant for our families. Fishing boats unmoored hours before we woke and returned to dock as afternoon Sesame Street flickered on TV. We enjoyed their efforts as consumers down the end of a food chain with too many extra links.

Most memories from home are scented with fry oil. I can recall the exact dairy bar that served my father’s favorite fish and chips. My brother and I survived on the bouldery, golden brown fish sticks baked by our mother; we swallowed the once-frozen filets with hardly a chomp, as cod and haddock swam in the Northumberland Strait only a few miles away from our dining room table.

Sampling oysters, despite their proximity along the bottom of the island's natural harbors, would elude me until my teens. It's not their fault.

We moved away when I was young, settling in Georgia's Appalachian foothills. We were part of a great migration from the Maritimes that shows no sign of stopping. Had I stayed, odds were that I would have left for college and never returned. Had I stayed, I'd be flying out for profitable stints working Western oil fields to feed a family. Home became a cool weather getaway rather than a reality that lacked opportunity.

The summer I was 14, I made my best Southern friend accompany me on a family visit to Prince Edward Island. I took him to a dockside seafood shack and he confidently shelled out a chunk of his spending money on a dozen half-shell oysters. He'd spent time at the Gulf of Mexico and knew what to order when brackish waves broke nearby. He forked out oyster meat onto a Saltine, dashed hot sauce on top, and offered me a sample. A bracing salt water washed down my throat, the flavor piqued by dabs of pepper sauce, and muddled by cracker. Fine, but not nearly as satisfying as battered haddock or butter-dipped crustaceans.

Dockside oysters, as authentic an Island experience as one can get, somehow resonated less than fried fish for me. Lobsters, cooked from blue to bright red in scalding pots, commanded attention at family gatherings, weddings and the like; golden-fried haddock sated our regular greasy needs; but oysters, as well as clams and mussels, escaped frequent feedings.

It wasn't that we weren't connected as a family to oysters. My grandfathers and great uncles raked oysters from Malpeque Bay, one of North America’s most revered and earliest oystering grounds. Malpeque's healthy waters flowed from short tidal rivers, past bay-forming slivers of red dirt, and washed into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, mingling with North Atlantic currents farther out to sea.

A horrible irony was my father, buoyed by his father’s lobstering to be the first on the line to attend college, became allergic to shellfish while matriculating.

Living 1600 miles away from the Island, I've overfished memories of home for the confidence of character nostalgia offers. I've kept these memories salted away and I unpack them to prove to myself that my roots are blue-collar: My grandfather's lobster traps stacked in a tall triangle beside the clapboard home he built by hand; paint peeling from his blue home-made boat in the yard, only a few flecks left as artifact of its original hue; a photo of my cousins' grandfather leaning on a barrel of Malpeques packed and bound for Europe (pictured above).

Life on the water calls to me, I've told others; it's my birthright. I pretend that the responsibilities of family and community demand that I do not answer. It's often said that journalism is a way to live a large life in one lifetime, a special lens through which we can see the world, it's just that not everyone can safely look through it. For me, journalism, and it's not too far of a stretch to say this given my book project, allows me to investigate a life I would've lived under different circumstances. I record and revel in a waterman's life, but suffer none of its troubles.