White boots. Little knives. Cheap beer but it’s good because it’s so cold. Thousands and thousands of oysters and clams. The smell of fire. The taste of barbecue on mustaches and lips.
The 4th Annual Island House Oyster Roast felt like a family reunion. It felt like the celebration of a raised barn, a party to commemorate a massive catch that will feed the town for the rest of the year.
I ran into my friends Tatum and Jay, who run Shine & Rise farm, Ghent transplants helping change the way the world eats halfway up Shore. Jay introduced us to our newly re-elected state senator, Lynwood Lewis. His territory includes the Shore and parts of Norfolk and Hampton. There’s back-slapping and jokes. I ask him when we’re finally going to have marijuana legalized in Virginia because it’s the Island House Oyster Roast, and the master of ceremonies is upping the cost of the wooden duck by $100 a second, and everyone has had enough oysters and beers that it’s time to talk plain.
“My family has been making wooden duck decoys for decades,” a new friend shares with a conspiratorial look from side to side. “They’ve sold for millions.”
The fishing industry is central to the region’s identity on the Shore. Salt is a way of life. Shucking is a religious exercise. Raw oysters and close dancing. Hundreds of years of tradition and cigarettes and secrets on the deck overlooking Wachapreague Marina.
“Even though the Shore is so isolated, connections there are somehow more sacred to hold onto,” Tatum said as she went from stranger to stranger, the quick banter and easy smile of a carnival barker. “People remember you.”
Virginia’s Eastern Shore is 70 miles with some 45,000 people, and they were all squeezed into one bar and a few tents, laughing and licking thumbs, remembering and forgetting.
“It was a great equalizer of all Shore folk: farmers and watermen to Navy Seals to state reps,” said my travel companion, Charlotte Potter. “There was a unity and familiarity between everyone. It reminded me of the harvest festival in my hometown. It was time to celebrate the bounty of the sea. And land..”
Along with enough oysters (by HM Terry Co.) and steamed clams (by Cherrystone Aqua Farms) to build a small castle, there was barbecue folks were salivating for by Tommy Hines. The event benefited the Navy Seal Foundation because the owner of the Island House, Blake, is a former Seal himself and he admires how the Foundation sends the kids of Seals to a very important–and healing–camp.
“Everything about the event is special,” said Shine & Rise’s Jay Ford, who also works with Eastern Shorekeeper. “How Blake was a former Seal who fell in love with the Shore. How he wanted to create an event that celebrated his fellow veterans while highlighting the best of his new home. Perhaps most importantly how the community rallied behind the event so magnificently to help it sell out each year.”
The Island House Restaurant, they tell us, is designed after the Parramore Island Life Saving Station, which hasn’t been around since the 1800s.
“Oyster roasts are the epitome of what’s special about the Eastern Shore,” Jay said. “Fresh local seafood that was pulled from the waters surrounding us and a close knit community. Almost everyone there knows everyone else; in a region where it’s not uncommon to drive 30 to 40 minutes to visit with a friend an oyster roast brings everyone into one fun spot.”
Good people on the Eastern Shore living off the fat of the sea, celebrating like a community, spirits cleansed by the moon and a thousand stars reflected in the oyster-filtered waters.
A lot, I would guess, hasn’t changed.
For more on the Eastern Shore in AltDaily, click here.