Ode to an Oyster Shucker
V.G. Burrell, Jr. was an important shellfish biologist and Department of Natural Resources staffer in South Carolina. He produced countless research papers that sought to understand the complex ecology of Southern marshlands. Before his death in 2009, one of the last few publications he produced, in fact, was a history of the South Carolina oyster industry, written in 2003 after decades of research and interviews.
Within the 80-page text is a poem written about a huckster, or one of the street peddlers who sold shellfish on the streets of Charleston in the 1800s, named Old Kate. It was published in the Charleston Courier in 1846, and you can get a sense of how hucksters operated, prepping oysters and clams for sale, pushing a cart on cobblestones. "Oysters, Clams and Cockles" has some history:
“Old Kate, the Oyster – Wife –
by Ralph Rhyme
She’s dead ! old Kate the oyster wife,
You’ll hear her cry no more,
As, “oyesh-taa! Lady oyesh – taa!” She,
Was wont to cry of yore.
She’s dead, old Kate, the oyster wife,
Her oyster days are o’er
And many a sable fishwife weeps,
Who never wept before.
“Yaa, oyesh-taa! Lady oye-esh-taa!”
Who hath not heard her cry,
And stopt and listen’d to her notes,
Ere they pass her by?
And stopt again, and listen’d aft,
As echo backward rung,
“Yaa, oyesh-taa! Lady oye-esh-taa”
As plain as Kate’s own tongue?
But, now the steps where on she sat
The live long winter’s night.
And “oyesh taa! Lady oyesh taa!” cried
With all her main and might.
So silent and so sad they seem
So darksome and so drear,
The pany-cake, groundnut girls,
No more assemble there.
Her bucket and her calabash,
Have pass’d to other hands,
And e’er her rusty oyster pot
On stranger bricks now stands.
While laughing damsels as they list,
And learn the old wife’s fate,
Walk slower past the market steps,
And, sigh, “alas, poor Kate”!