The Alabama Oyster Social: A Celebration of Farm-Raised Oysters from the Gulf

It’s 3:00 p.m. and David Bancroft has a buzz going. In another three hoursAcre, his Auburn restaurant, will be full of people sampling Alabama’s farm-raised oysters. His “Alabama Oyster Social” will be a whirl of women in fur and pearls, oysters raw and cooked, bearded men in sport coats, whiskey, wine, and beer. But for now, there is a different whirl of activity. Visiting chefs and their assistants prep their dishes; hand breading, finely chopping, deftly shucking — soundtracked by the sound of metal clanging against metal, the pop of a shucked oyster, and courtesy “behind you’s” spoken as hotel pans make their way from prep area to staging area to the restaurant’s show kitchen.

Photos by Jay Wilkins

Bancroft is hosting, not cooking, so his prep punch-list is short. Unneeded in the kitchen, Bancroft can sip whiskey while he mingles through the restaurant, lending a hand here-or-there, joking with his staff, making final tweaks to table settings and presentations. He’s in the mood to celebrate after months of party-planning nears fruition.

Bancroft stops to check on Rob McDaniel, executive chef at SpringHouse. McDaniel has prominently supported Alabama Gulf Seafood for years. McDaniel will readily admit that Alabama seafood costs more than factory-farmed imported seafood, but in his restaurants, taste matters as much as price. Imported seafood can spend six weeks or more frozen, traveling from Southeast Asia to the United States, each mile traveled a further drain on the seafood’s flavor. Rob’s preference for Alabama seafood, however, goes beyond taste. McDaniel also believes in supporting his home state, saying “Alabama seafood purveyors are real people with real jobs. We have to support them and educate our customers about the benefits of eating locally sourced seafood.”

Photos by Jay Wilkins

Although hard to believe given today’s scene at Acre, only one year ago, Alabama did not have sufficient oyster aquaculture for Bancroft to offer only locally-sourced oysters at his party. “Last year, we were a brand new restaurant, and we wanted to celebrate our first football season,” Bancroft explained,“that’s why we had the first oyster social. We wanted to involve Alabama oyster producers, but Alabama just wasn’t there yet.”

Instead of local oysters, Bancroft invited the Virginia-based Rappahannock Oyster Company to Auburn. Guests marveled at the Chesapeake Bay oysters, their flavor ranging from briny to buttery, their deep oyster-liquor-cradling cups, their consistent shape. For those accustomed to traditional Gulf oysters, the merroir of the Chesapeake was eye-opening. Now, Alabama waters boast their own boutique oysters; the Oyster Social is their debutante ball.

Just outside the front door of Acre, Caleb Fisher from the Auburn Hotel sets up the raw bar. Fisher and his assistants array the locally-sourced oysters over hills and valleys of rock salt. Seven Alabama families are involved in oyster farming — the Crockett’s, McClure’s, Zirlott’s, Duke’s, Eubanks’s, Cornelius’s, Ricard’s, and Saucier’s — and all seven of their oyster farms are represented tonight. Bancroft walks the length of the raw bar, calling out names. “Turtle Backs,” “Point au Pens,” “Southern Pearls,” “Isle Dauphines,” “Mon Louis,” “Bonus Points,” and “Murder Points,” he says as he walks, gesturing toward the piles of each. The look of these oysters is striking. Incredible uniformity, no giants or midgets, an abounding roundness.

Photos by Jay Wilkins

Looks matter, but taste is king, and Alabama’s farm-raised oysters taste exceptionally good. Some faintly briny and sweet, others cucumbery and vegetal, each bay infusing its oysters with its own ecological mix. Farm raised above the seafloor, these oysters take on none of the Gulf’s sedimentary muckiness. Instead, they are delicate and tightly flavored, still firm in texture despite growing in warmer water. On the whole, the Alabama oysters ate like a good cider: crisp, clean, with an abrupt and acidic finish.

On the way to the bar for a refill, Bancroft nods toward Chef Wesley True. True, wearing his signature apron designed by R.C. Hagans, slowly stirs a stew of oysters, cream, collard greens and ham hock. True says he doesn’t “like to cook Southern Food,” but the combination of briny oysters, vinegary greens, smoky ham hock, and cream speaks to him. True shuffles the french bread and fire logs he’s using for his table decoration, the finishing touches on his dish’s presentation.

As he walks into the bar, Bancroft explains the role played by the Auburn School of Fisheries in Alabama oyster-culture’s incredible growth. “People have been farm raising oysters for a long time. Now people are learning how to raise oysters in cleaner, more controlled environments,” Bancroft said. The School of Fisheries teaches oyster farmers about off-bottom farming, a method that keeps the oyster baskets underwater, but above the sea floor. About once a week, oyster farmers raise the baskets out of the water to expose the oysters to sunlight and air. This kills the fast-growing barnacles and seaweed that cover oysters and stifle their growth. The result: great tasting oysters that, according to Bancroft, look “like they’ve already been pressure washed when they arrive at the restaurant.”

Photos by Jay Wilkins

Back in the kitchen, Chef Adam Evans readies his oysters for broiling. Evans is an Alabama native, an Auburn graduate, and a supporter of Alabama Gulf Seafood at the Optimist restaurant in Atlanta, where he serves as executive chef. Evans wanted to showcase the flavor of his oysters by preparing them as simply as possible. His purist presentation consists of oysters charbroiled with parmesan and black pepper and oysters raw, punctuated with horseradish mignonette. Bancroft says Evans plans on taking two cases of Alabama oysters back to Atlanta where they will wind up on the raw bar at the Optimist. Evans is an Alabama seafood evangelist, ever spreading the good news. But the news was not always so good.

Only a few short years ago, the BP oil spill devastated Alabama’s seafood industry. In response, the state created the Alabama Seafood Marketing Commission. You’ve probably seen the Commission’s “Alabama Gulf Seafood” billboards and magazine advertising. The Commission’s purpose is to further Alabama’s seafood industry, bringing awareness of Alabama’s high-quality seafood to consumers, restaurants, and their chefs, both within and outside the borders of Alabama. Bancroft reached out to Alabama Gulf Seafood and the Commission agreed to purchase all of the oysters served at the Oyster Social. The people behind Alabama Gulf Seafood understand that magazine ads and billboards work to a certain extent, but there is no substitute for teaching consumers the benefits of Alabama seafood by feeding it to them.

Photos by Jay Wilkins

At just before 6:00 p.m., Bancroft and his team of visiting chefs are ready to feed the people. Chef Jason Stanhope, executive chef at Fig in Charleston, works behind Acre’s charcuterie counter. He has already breaded his “Gulf Coast Fritto Misto” — black grouper, oysters, and royal red shrimp from the Gulf along with tiny Vidalia onions from his home state of South Carolina — and now the first batches are coming from the fryer, ready for a healthy pinch of fresh herbs and a splash of buttermilk vinaigrette. Stanhope’s dish throws shade at lesser quality seafood by implication: if it is possible for fried seafood to taste this good, what is everyone else doing?

The Oyster Social’s sell-out crowd begins arriving promptly at 6:00 p.m. Not only are Bancroft’s guests learning about Alabama Gulf Oysters as they eat, but a portion of the proceeds from the event go toward the Auburn Fisheries program. “Next year, this will be even bigger, and I hope to move it to the Red Barn in Auburn’s Ag Heritage Park,” Bancroft says as excited patrons hit the raw bar like a wave against a sea wall. A venue of the Red Barn’s size would allow Bancroft to grow the Oyster Social toward his eventual goal: raising enough money to create scholarship opportunities for students who want to study oyster aquaculture at Auburn.

Guests move on from the raw bar and into the restaurant. Bancroft watches them interacting with the oyster farmers, the guest chefs, and each other; a quiet room now filled with the sound of cocktail chatter and River Dan’s band. Every person who comes tonight will leave a fan of Alabama farm-raised oysters. Alabama’s oyster farmers better be ready: their secret is officially out.

Photos by Jay Wilkins

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.