Oyster harvesting is rough labor rife with risk, so when I learned that the men of Virginia’s Pleasure House Oysters handled every aspect of their operation by hand, I was a little skeptical.
To put things in perspective, I had just visited another first-class operation in a different corner of the Commonwealth, Rappahannock Oyster Co., whose boats were outfitted with mechanized cranes for lifting bulky cages from the river. On top of that, Rappahannock’s oysters (which I highly recommend) are tumbled and graded (terms which I’ll explain shortly) using a cylindrical steel contraption that takes part of the burden off the bodies of its workers, and it was tough to imagine how those crucial steps could be duplicated without heavy equipment.
But, then I had the privilege of hopping aboard a Pleasure House boat to check out the process firsthand, and it was a remarkable experience.
Led by owner and founder Chris Ludford, Pleasure House Oysters is based in the Lynnhaven River, a tidal estuary of the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia Beach, Va. In America’s early days, Lynnhaven oysters were deemed exquisite eats by European royalty and constantly shipped back, but in the 1960s, the river was closed off to shellfish farmers because of toxicity issues that arose from over-harvesting and pollution. Oysters are a natural water filter, so when populations are depleted, chemical and mineral levels rise to dangerous heights; add in bacteria buildup from storm water runoff and antiquated septic tanks, and it equates to an array of aquatic issues that make seafood unfit for human consumption.
Fast-forward about five decades, and with the determination of nonprofits like Lynnhaven River NOW and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF), the river was partially reopened for shellfish farming in 2007. This inspired Ludford to learn everything he could about oyster farming and aquaculture. Then, in 2012, these organizations fought like adrenalized boxers to have the state preserve Pleasure House Point, a historic stretch along the Lynnhaven that, according to local legend, was named after one of America’s first watering holes (despite the name’s implication, it’s not named after a brothel). Developers were ready to raze hundreds of trees and destroy wetlands abundant with wildlife to build condos yards from where Ludford now keeps a trove of oyster cages, and he knows he wouldn’t be able to pursue this passion if those high-rises had been erected.
Gliding across the Lynnhaven’s shallow waters in Ludford’s motor boat (which is the sole piece of machinery he and his crew employ) and listening to him talk about his trade, you instantly realize how connected he is to the area and how dedicated he is to perfecting his craft. You also get the sense that he is a man who rarely sleeps. Dressed in a sun-bleached camo cap and a gray collared fleece covered with faded olive green Frogg Toggs waterproof overalls, he guided us to a secluded section of river next to a tall patch of cordgrass. He leaped into the brackish with youthful exuberance you would not expect from a man with golden-gray hair and ambled through knee-deep water to his cache of cages.
Ludford then lifted and lugged a hefty enclosure from one of the stacks (using upper-body strength he acquired from his other full-time job as a fireboat captain — no kidding) and trudged his way back to the edge of the boat (exhibiting patience he cultivated as a dad with three little boys — confirmed: he never sleeps) where he placed it like an infant in a crib. Unlatching it, he removed the top and plucked out a red sea sponge — one of many common (and colorful) guests who show up uninvited to mess with his oyster collection — before removing a handful of prized Lynnhavens.