Editor’s Letter: Consider the Oysterman
What does it mean to be a conscientious seafood consumer when you live some 500 miles from the nearest ocean?
It’s a question that’s been on my mind a lot these last few years, as oyster options proliferated among newer restaurants; as the Maine- vs. Connecticut-style lobster roll debate spilled over into the Midwest; and as more and more crustaceans continue to be found around metro Detroit bagged with corn, potatoes, and hard-boiled egg swimming in bright red sauces teeming with that holy trinity of spice, garlic, and butter.
What is seafood in a place like Michigan, surrounded on all sides by freshwater but tragically bereft of pretty much all edible crustaceans except for the humble crawfish? (We don’t do any better with mollusks. The invasive zebra mussels that now dominate our Great Lakes might be edible, in theory, but I’ve yet to know a single brave soul to test it.)
Five hundred miles might sound like a long way, but compared to the 8,000 miles shrimp from Thailand travel — a difficult journey often fraught with fraud and abuse — the oysters from a family farm on Duxbury Bay could be considered downright local.
Hazel’s chef-partner Emmele Herrold helps put things into perspective in this month’s Q&A, highlighting the fact that sustainably farmed seafood is not only better for the environment than livestock ranching for beef production — oysters don’t require feeding! they actually filter the water! — it also means that eating an oyster in Michigan helps prop up what is in many cases a family-run operation in an industry that powers entire regions of this country, helping to preserve a unique culture in the process.
At Hazel’s, Herrold and partner Beth Hussey have united the public around that very concept, honoring those cultures and those places.
“It’s not just feeding people,” Herrold told me. “We want to invoke a feeling reminiscent of a time where they may have been at these places.”
Because it turns out nostalgia is a hell of a force for a chef to contend with.
Perspective is everything.
That’s why Doug Botsford and Sean Morin of Juicy Oistre, this month’s FRAMEbar residents, chose the individualistic little bivalves as their main thing to focus on for their Ann Arbor-based mobile pop-up. After working in award-winning restaurants around the country and seeing customers berate the chefs because a dish didn’t perfectly line up with their childhood memories of it, the pair decided to focus on a food that can stand on its own.
“We’re trying not to fight with people’s nostalgia,” Botsford explains. “We fell in love with the idea of how simple it is. An oyster is this singular little package, like a present, that there’s nothing like in the world. And you either like it or you don’t and each one is its own special experience.”
Their FRAMEbar residency, Hazel’s offerings, and so much of the good seafood coming out of Detroit-area restaurants would not have been possible without a great purveyor, and I can’t overstate the impact Motor City Seafood Company has made on southeast Michigan’s dining scene since they entered — and quickly cornered — the best of the market.
To be clear, this is not sponsored content or a special partnership of any kind. Our goal at Frame is to showcase all the culinary talent that makes this region tick, and Motor City Seafood Co. founders Matthew Wiseman and Staci Hayman have been instrumental in cultivating a deeper seafood culture here by focusing on sustainability, traceability, great relationships, and service delivered at the highest standards from their team of pros. We are proud to feature their products and thankful to have such knowledgeable folks working behind the scenes, all so we can have the privilege of eating better seafood in Michigan.
This month, we hope to bring some of those behind-the-scenes conversations front and center. In this issue, you’ll find a column about pairing wine and oysters — both trickier and easier than it sounds — from Antoine Przekop, a certified sommelier who’s worked at the intersection of wine and restaurants in metro Detroit for two decades. He recently joined Motor City Seafood Co. as a sales manager and offers an expert take on terroir and merroir, having unique knowledge of both sides of the table.
Have you ever been intimidated buying shellfish at the store? Don’t know what kind of questions to ask your fishmonger? In this month’s Pro Tips column, Motor City’s Director of Shellfish Mike Bodi helps us navigate the seafood counter so we can find the freshest mollusks when cooking at home.
And we couldn’t possibly attempt to highlight oyster culture in America without calling out the Black history of the trade. Our friends at Taste the Diaspora remind us that the modern American oyster bar as we know it likely wouldn’t exist without Thomas Downing, an innovative oysterman and abolitionist who died as one of the wealthiest men in New York City just one year after the end of the Civil War, having revolutionized the industry.
We look to more recent Black history closer to home for this month’s feature, a profile of the English brothers, who brought the seafood boil craze to Detroit in 2009. When they opened the Crab House Ribs & Soul Cafe on the city’s west side at the height of the Great Recession, vacant buildings were more common on their block than viable businesses. That ratio has thankfully flipped in the intervening years and the brothers’ goal of making seafood boils as popular as Coney Island in Detroit seems closer than ever.
“We actually made people feel comfortable coming back to Seven Mile,” Charles English told me, beaming with pride.
Turns out, good seafood can be a positive force, even hundreds of miles from the nearest ocean.
— Mark Kurlyandchik