In the South, anytime you hear something referred to as a "coon" anything, the assumption is that it's a derogatory reference to African Americans, as coon is a well-documented racist caricature.
My reaction the first time I heard oysters referred to as "coon," I immediately thought the Southern oystermen I was interviewing were connecting a certain type of wild oyster to a insulting image of a black person. Today, the oyster industry I'm reporting on is about 70 percent white. At the Georgia oyster industry's peak, between the late 1800s and through the second World War, the industry was white owned and the harvesting and cannery employees were all black. This remained the case until the traditional industry disappeared for good in the 1980s. This is, of course, only the beginning of a discussion about the oyster industry and the labor of blacks, women, and children. Children were common in many canneries, and the early Florida oyster industry excluded African Americans.
When I ask current oystermen what exactly is meant by coon I'm told it's because this specific oyster's shape - described by Georgia oyster godfather Dr. Arminius Oemler, himself a white oyster company owner, as " growing vertically, long, thin, and very sharp, like trees too crowded in a forest" - is desired only by raccoons. The term coon oyster is used by many oystering communities in North America.
Writing in 1910 about North Carolina fisheries, James Lawrence Kellog wrote:
Coon oysters are the younger, clumping oyster that defines the wild, intertidal bivalve. Their still-forming shells are sharp enough to slice skin or even a rubber boot. But when we talk about a traditional oyster roast oyster, it's a coon that we're discussing. Let's face it, they're not much good for anything else, raccoons and beach parties, and certainly not prepped for restaurants.
Diane Wakeman's University of South Florida dissertation finds coon oyster references that date back to 1875, and writes that it's ease of access that makes these oysters important to coastal humans and wildlife:
Because of their easy accessibility in intertidal waters, coon oysters provide a ready excuse for a family outing culminating in an oyster roast. A Gulf coast favorite, the coon oyster is so named because of its ready availability to both humans, and, particularly, raccoons for whom oysters provide a tasty treat...
Some claim the coon oyster is nothing more than a smaller and narrower version of the Crassostrea virginica oyster.40 Precise oyster species identification can be challenging; some suggest the coon oyster belongs to the species Crassostrea rhizophorae, commonly referred to as the “Mangrove” or “Caribbean” oyster. These smaller oysters grow in clusters attached to mangrove roots and tolerate tidal flows that leave the oysters exposed to air for hours at a time. In Florida coon oysters are easy to harvest because they are closer to shore—within wading distance and often exposed at low tide—and therefore within reach of raccoons as well as humans.
Wakeman's 2009 paper goes into the racism and labor problems within Florida's oyster industry, so it would seem odd if she had found any racist links to the "coon oyster" and not reported it.
In 1910, U.S. Bureau of Fisheries' Ernest Ingersoll remarked as such about coon oysters, getting at the cluster growth that causes the spire-like clumps:
"As these grow, they sink and gather in the mud, and crowd each other for lack of room to enlarge...Before they are half grown a second season bestows upon them a new collection of young oysters, which must struggle in a similar way, and thus there arise clusters or bunches or columns of oysters, sometimes three or four feet high and several inches thick....These are called raccoon oysters...and are collected, knocked to pieces, and sold in market, chiefly by colored men. Though some of them will not furnish a meat much larger than the thumbnail, they are sweet and well flavored when bought from a good locality."
Well, maybe I see the worst in people. but part of me isn't entirely convinced there's no bit of racism attached to the term, or at least responsible for its continued use. Back to research.