JULIE BOTNICK (this article was first published November 7, 2012)
Each week, we rummage through the dark corners of our kitchen drawers to bring you an enigmatic item. We ask you to guess what it is in our weekly From the Back of the Drawer puzzle. To enter this week’s puzzle, visit this page. To read more descriptions of past items, visit this page. And, don’t forget to donate your odd items to the Southern Food and Beverage Museum.
This week, we found an oyster rake (also known as oyster tongs)!
These strapped-together rake contraptions were used by oystermen until recently, as fragile and depleted coastal areas have been blocked to oystermen. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, unregulated overharvesting led to a decline in the natural population. The millions of bushels harvesting annually, coupled with oyster diseases introduced in the 1980s, quickly decimated the population, and state and federal efforts were made to restore the ecologically and commercially important creatures.
Whether the tongs were scaled-down versions of European tools or adaptations of Native-American ones is unknown. When oystermen were forced to go deeper and deeper into the waters as sources dwindled, the length of the handles increased, giving the tongs their nickname, “widow tongs.” The long sticks would unbalance oystermen, sending novices overboard.
“High-tech” oyster tongs are patent tongs, pincers used to pick up bushels of clams before being pulled back up by rope or by a hydraulic system. A step up from tongs are dredges, devices that catch oysters by dragging along the bottom of the sea floor. The mechanical tools are harmful for the marine environment because they scrape the fragileecosystems of oyster beds, and many oystermen see hand tonging as a more environmentally-friendly way to pick up the bounty.
- Texas Oyster Tonging, 1933. Hand Tonging is a back breaking way to harvest oysters. The oysterman stands up on the washboards (sides of boat) and works at opening and closing until the basket is full, then hand over hand brings the tongs to the surface. The culler (another waterman) sorts out the oysters and puts the legal size oysters in the boat. He then scrapes the shells and little oysters over the side to settle back down on the oyster bed. Courtesy of NOAA
Our Rating: Save it.
Design: Average, they’re not beautiful to look at, but they have a DIY look that’s both terrifying and appealing.
Originality: Either excellent or poor, dependent on the true origin story being discovered one day.
Practicality: Poor, but potentially excellent, depending on your arm strength and future progress in boosting oyster population numbers.
You can check out the tongs in context in the Maryland exhibit at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum!