The legacy and passion behind Alabama oysters

Chargrill them. Steam them. Fry them. Serve them raw. No matter how you prefer them, there’s something special about feasting on fresh, Alabama oysters. But it isn’t just about the meaty, sweet taste of our oysters—it’s about the legacy and grit that local oyster farmers put into growing and harvesting them.

The Depe’s Oysters pier on Mon Louis Island

Alabama Gulf oysters yield a variety of unique flavors depending on where they’re grown, how they’re grown, when they’re harvested and more.

Alabama is one of the largest oyster processors in the United States, and dedicated farmers are bringing Alabama Gulf oysters to tables. There are over a dozen oyster farmers in the Gulf, and while each oyster farmer may have different operations or unique subtleties in flavor, they have a passion for the tradition of oyster processing in common.

Alabama oyster farmers deal with unstable weather conditions, a lack of available laborers, permitting obstacles, and an ever-changing climate. But despite the difficulty surrounding growing and harvesting oysters, there’s a clear reason to continue: oysters are one of the most sustainable food sources available. Oysters can filter 50 gallons of water a day from pollutants, and oyster farms provide a unique habitat for other fish species.

“Oysters are the solution for so much of the world’s problems. And eventually, they’re food security,” said Andy Depaola, owner of the oyster farm Depe Oysters and the man behind the Shellevator. “The folks I know [harvesting and processing oysters] are doing it to make the world a better place. They have a passion.”

Andy grew up in North Carolina and fondly remembers oyster roasts with his family. When he moved to Alabama, he discovered Gulf Oysters and fell in love with their taste. After building his own pier in 2013 he started growing them on Mon Louis Island in Mobile Bay. Depe Oysters, named for Andy's father, farms and sells an oyster they’ve named Lil Salty Bastards.

“I was really amazed by how these little baby oysters would start as a seed, a quarter of an inch long. Within a couple of weeks, they’d quadrupled in size. They were really beautiful, single, deep-cupped oysters,” he explained. Now, Depe Oysters is the culmination of Andy’s passion for delicious oysters and ambition to refine oyster farming.

Beyond that, he’s invented a machine to eliminate the intensive labor behind growing oysters: the Shellevator, a mobile oyster production machine that automates the strenuous work of an oyster farmer.

The Shellevator doesn’t just save valuable time. It can also provide security for oyster crops in the face of inclement weather conditions or polluting events like oil spills. Because the Shellevator automates moving oysters, it can act as a mobile watercraft that seamlessly transports large-scale oyster productions, all without having to handle gear or oysters.

For Andy, every day at work is another chance to go back to his roots and passions.

“When I retired, I wanted to spend more time in the water. Oyster farming was a reason for me. Since I was a little kid of seven years old, I would go in the water. Now I get to do it again as a seventy-year-old,” added Andy.

Oysters don’t just bring a delicious meal to consumers and an income to farmers. Oyster processing can help a community thrive, too.

That was one of the driving goals for Daryl and Christina Steiner and one of the reasons they’ve turned their love of oysters into a career. The Steiners work with Andy at Depe Oysters to farm oysters as business partners and laborers. And, with their food truck, the Roaming Oyster, they bring the Lil Salty Bastards in all their forms to hungry customers—from raw shooters to chargrilled.

Alabama oyster farmers work long hours — but they get to see sunsets like this.

Daryl grew up working alongside his mom in a restaurant. For years, he and his wife Christina dreamed of bringing their passion for oysters to a restaurant; instead of starting with a brick-and-mortar, they decided to focus on a food truck. Thanks to the Steiner family’s work and partnership with Depe Oysters, they have a local source for delicious oysters. The Roaming Oyster is located in Bayou La Batre, but thanks to its mobile nature, it’s available for booking and travels to different bars throughout Dauphin Island.

For farmers and chefs like Andy and Daryl, taste is just a part of why they’re drawn to oysters and passionate about harvesting and serving them. Oysters are also about the legacy of the community.

Daryl explained, “Our grandfathers and great grandfathers, this is what they did—they oystered, they shrimped, they crabbed. Carrying on that tradition is very important to me. What better place to do it than right here where we’re from?”

Oyster farming is a family business for many in Alabama.

Oysters start as seeds and quadruple in size.

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