One of the benefits of living at the Jersey Shore is that we get to eat sea food straight out of the water. Let's not take that for granted! Have you heard of the Barnegat Oyster Collective? Let's show them some love...and the restaurants supporting them by keeping oysters on the menu. Especially with this year's Oyster festivals cancelled in both Red Bank and Asbury Park.

No wonder so many of us are fans of oysters. Not only are they delicious, but they are good for you, too! Oysters are low in calories, high in protein, and are rich in key nutrients like Vitamin D, Vitamin B-12, Copper, Iron, and Zinc. (Zinc is an important mineral for sexual health and probably where oysters got their reputation as an aphrodisiac. After all, history's greatest lover, Casanova, attributed his sexual prowess to oysters!)

Scott Lennox and Matt Gregg are co-founders of Barnegat Oyster Collective. They  represent a dozen New Jersey oyster farmers. Last year they sold 2 million oysters to 100 regular and part-time customers (restaurants.) This year, due to Covid-19, they will sell only about 60% of what they previously sold. In addition to selling to restaurants, Scott and Matt have added an online store selling directly to households in ice-packed overnight packages.

Although only a decade old, this is the second calamity their oyster business has weathered. Shortly after they established their oyster beds, Tropical Storm Sandy struck. At that time they were one of the first oyster farmers in our state in decades and the first on the Atlantic coast. They found themselves in the exhausting position of not only farming but also writing grants and educating the general public and the government. Scott and Matt realized that the industry could be better served and more successful if they took their accumulated knowledge about red tape and permits and acted as a distribution arm and an advocacy to oyster farmers. So, they loaned their state leases to interested oystermen and the Barnegat Oyster Collective was formed.

(Oyster farm, photo from Karen Irvine)
(Oyster farm, photo from Karen Irvine)

It takes 16 months to grow oysters. They are highly perishable and their availability is subject to so many challenges that farmers face throughout the seasons, like inclement weather, predators, tides, personal hardships, etc.. But our state offers the perfect location for farming oysters due to our barrier islands with bays that have numerous fresh water tributaries flowing into them. This is why we get oysters with so many diverse flavors.

Make no mistake, though, oyster farming is a daunting task and a tough business.

Oysters have a history here as a food source, too.  Native Americans fished the waters and shorelines, showing their fondness for clams and oysters. We can see this from the discovery of so many mounds of oyster and clam shells found along the shorelines during excavations.

When it comes to restaurant support for the local oyster industry,  Chef David Burke leads the pack, selling fresh oysters in all six of his NJ restaurants. This isn't always an easy task for restaurants, since NJ oysters are highly perishable, labor intensive, and  need specialized storage and care.

Oysters are an expensive product to serve, as well, and are usually the first item to be taken off restaurants' menus during hard times. Still, Chef Burke has kept them on during the pandemic -- especially oysters from the Barnegat Oyster Collective, because he believes oysters are important to his world-class restaurants' concepts, to our maritime heritage and to the farmers who diligently raise and harvest them.

The Barnegat Oyster Collectives is very appreciative of Chef Burke's support. They say it's restaurateurs like David who are keeping the industry afloat during the pandemic.

Visit any of David Burke’s restaurants to get your oyster fix. This Top Chef knows that these briny 'gems of the sea' are a luxurious staple on any world-class menu. Super fresh and immediately shucked to order, oysters are the perfect food. They come in their own container, they can be eaten raw, their flavors subtly express the clear ocean waters where they are harvested and they are fun, even sexy, to eat.

Chef Burke learned early in his culinary career that the closer the ingredients are to his restaurants the more his dishes stand out. So, when he was approached by the owners of the Barnegat Oyster Collective to sample their oysters, David tasted them and said, “Sign me up!”

You will find lip-smacking varieties from Barnegat Bay’s oyster beds, such as Laughing Gull and Tucker’s Island and six other varieties, harvested just hours away from any one of Chef Burke’s New Jersey and New York restaurants! (David also keeps Wellfleet and  Blue Point oysters on his menus.)  Chef Burke says,

“I want to support local oystermen. To keep a local industry alive and be proud of what you are serving is a good feeling. It’s always preferable to get foods that are harvested the day before as opposed to having them flown, then trucked here. As long as they meet our standards of quality, it’s a no brainer. It’s all about quality, freshness and working with people we know.”

Most of Chef Burke's restaurants feature oysters on the Happy Hour menu, too! The Barnegat Oyster Collective's Scott Lennox says,

“To have someone with David’s knowledge and star power giving our industry a solid leg to stand on means a lot. David has been a great help to us even before the pandemic. The restaurant industry is our bread and butter, but when Covid-19 struck we had to pivot and get into people’s kitchens, too. David was very helpful by spreading this news via his new social media cooking series with his sidekick puppet 'Lefto'.”

And during his quarantine cooking video sessions, the innovative David Burke and his puppet sous chef “Lefto” found a new, easy, foolproof way of opening the nearly indestructible oyster shells: Microwave them for 45-60 seconds and the hinge will loosen enough to open them with a butter knife! The process keeps the oysters raw so you can still savor the delicious briny liquor inside without maiming a digit or two.

Chef David Burke with his sidekick Lefto! Photo from Karen Irvine
Chef David Burke with his sidekick Lefto! Photo from Karen Irvine

You must see Chef Burke and his sidekick puppet Lefto on their Instagram cooking video series @chefdavidburke -- it is super fun to watch these two cook together!!!!! The Food Network's got nothing on this show!

So although there are,  sadly, no oyster festivals this fall, there ARE options for oyster lovers - either make a reservation at a David Burke restaurant or order them online from Barnegat Oyster Collective and have them shipped directly to your home. They overnight oysters and fun seafood packages all over the country for people looking to have a bit of the Jersey Shore year round.

Just to get your mouth watering, here are a couple of menu samples:

At Asbury Kitchen by David Burke in Asbury Park the oysters are served with lump crab and a peach-cucumber mignonette. Delicious! Pair that with their El Payaso cocktail, a passion fruit margarita with chili salt. Match made in heaven!! Happy Hour AsburyDB Daily 4-6

(Chef David Burke oyster dish, photo courtesy of Karen Irvine)
(Chef David Burke oyster dish, photo courtesy of Karen Irvine)

At DRIFTHOUSE by David Burke in Sea Bright, the view is enough to compliment the oyster but they do have a range of beers that compliment oysters, most notably Twin Lights Brewing Lager. A great pairing!!

And, check out this wonderful excerpt from Hemingway, who loved oysters:

“As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”

Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

And Shakespeare, too:

Why, then the world's mine oyster, Which I with sword will open."
William Shakespeare, 'The Merry Wives of Windsor'

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