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Music and the half shell at Cat's Cradle

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In Old North Durham last week, hundreds of people waited outside Motorco Music Hall for the NC Fresh Catch Winter Oyster Tour. There isn't a food much more DIY than oysters.

NC Fresh Catch is a hodgepodge of musicians with an allegiance to seafood. For four years the group has traveled throughout the state to combine a huge multi-act concert with an oyster roast.

The final stop on this season's Triangle tour is Sat., Feb. 15, at Cat's Cradle in Carrboro.

Two longtime band members from The Dye Wells, Michael Kaina and Michael O'Neal, started the tour to support some of the fishermen O'Neal grew up with on Ocracoke Island. The tour is intended to bring oysters to North Carolinians who don't live near the coast, to give exposure to local bands and, if possible, raise money for a local community organization.

Motorco's event raised enough to pay all nine bands, as well $1,000 for Rebound, a new Durham nonprofit offering at-risk teens an alternative to out-of-school suspension.

Our state's recorded oyster history began in 1709, when British colonial explorer John Lawson reported back with a gourmand's tale from North Carolina in his book, A New Voyage to Carolina:

"Oysters, great and small, are found in almost every Creek and Gut of Salt-Water, and are very good and well-relish'd. The large Oysters are excellent, pickled."

Bassist for The Dye Wells, O'Neal has an affinity for oysters that echoes Lawson's description of the pleasure they bring to the palate.

"I grew up in an area where you had salt, pepper and water," said O'Neal, who helped run the event while shucking and steaming. "That's all you needed."

Shuckers, some professional and others volunteer, worked for hours. Chris Davis was among the pros. He wore a bright blue, thick latex glove on his dominant hand, tied at the wrist with a kitchen cloth to get a steady grip on the palm-sized oysters. The towel doubled as a catchall for the grit and grime soon to splatter.

His free hand gripped an oyster knife, its blade angled and dull. The tip pierced into the oyster's seam, sliding it along the shell like a zipper to unveil a wiggling delicacy deluged in salty water.

"North Carolina has some of the most amazing seafood," Davis remarked as he shucked a half dozen in just a few minutes. "Most everything you get in restaurants is from the Gulf or the Northeast. But we have some of the most beautiful beaches, the cleanest waters."

He pinched out a tiny crab found hidden in the shell, half the size of his thumb, and handed it to me.

Barely a morsel, the crab's paper-thin shell snapped beneath my teeth, revealing a glimmer of the complex flavor you get in a fully grown soft shell crab: an alkaline start finished with an ambrosial, sweet mushiness. I slurped it down with the raw Wanchese oyster it came from, tiny flakes of the cracked shell mixing with the briny water and thick meat.

A total of 20 bushels of oysters from the Pamlico and Abermarle sounds were served, in addition to 900 clams, nearly 40 pounds of fish and, not to dismay a true Southern eater, 60 pounds of pasture-raised pork from Green Button Farms in nearby Bahama. The seafood from O'Neal's Sea Harvest in Wanchese, N.C. (no relation to Michael O'Neal), Triangle-based Locals Seafood, Fishmonger's Oyster Bar in Durham, and Newman's Seafood in Swan's Quarter.

The oysters were roasted, steamed, fried and stewed by local chefs, including Roberto Copa Matos of Old Havana Sandwich Shop and Mel Melton of Papa Mojo's.

It's a good year to celebrate a resurgence of the oyster harvest, one that dropped dramatically in the last century from 800,000 bushels to 35,000 bushels in 1994. Biologists have attributed the decrease to habitat loss, pollution, diseases and harvesting practices to meet the demand for oysters.

Clustered together on their reef, a bed of oysters resembles a muted Monet painting, their shells curling up like hardened strokes of paint. They stay in one place their entire lives, filtering our ocean's water. Oysters spawn on their own shells but don't replenish. The event at Motorco recycled 20 bushels back to the shores.

This article appeared in print with the headline "True oyster cult."

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