Oysters have been a staple at Thanksgiving dinner tables longer than turkey — and this year, they’re coming back.
Maine oyster growers and sellers are reporting a boost in sales this year as Thanksgiving approaches, which is welcome news to an industry that suffered in 2020 due to pandemic related closure and decreased demand. The state’s renewed focus on promoting its oysters, coupled with the general love for local cooking, is likely driving the demand.
“We have noticed an increase in direct to customer sales,” said Kelly Punch, catering and events manager of Mere Point Oyster Company in Brunswick. “People want oysters and are not afraid to shuck them themselves.”
Oysters were an easy food source in colonial America, and were much more likely to be on the table at the “first Thanksgiving” (as flimsy as that myth may be in its own right). Native Americans frequently dined on oysters, and colonizers were so voracious in their oyster habit that the populations dwindled to dangerously low levels by the 19th century, so much so that the once-common treat turned into a luxury item.
In 1954, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service even went on a media blitz to try and revitalize the Thanksgiving oyster, though traditional dishes like oyster stuffing were still popular in some areas of the country, like New Orleans.
“Oysters have been on Thanksgiving tables longer than the turkey and we intend to keep it that way,” Punch said.
The experience isn’t universal for oyster sellers. Some oyster growers say that sales are always high around the holidays, and this year is no different. Others shut their doors before the Thanksgiving season, even as early as October.
However, with COVID vaccinations making in-person Thanksgiving gatherings safer this year, Joshua Edgcombe at SoPo Seafood in South Portland said that the business has seen an increase in oyster sales for both pick-up and delivery.
“I think people love to enjoy oysters at this celebratory time of year,” Edgcombe said. “Getting together with family and friends and shucking some oysters is a tradition for many families.”
Edgcombe sees the increased demand as part of a larger trend for Maine seafood, too. Oysters have been making a comeback in Maine due in part to aquaculture, and oyster production projects in the state have received federal funding to promote their growth. The Maine oyster industry had a record year in 2019, and this June, Maine Sea Grant officially relaunched the Maine Oyster Trail, which has drawn renewed interest in the state’s oysters.
“More generally, the popularity and demand for oysters is growing,” Edgcombe said. “Furthermore, we are blessed with some of the best oysters and oyster farms in the state. We get a lot of local customers, so the demand locally is very real and strong.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the name and location of SoPo Seafood. It has been updated.