A North Carolina Oyster Oracle

Ryan Bethea wants everyone in the state to be able to get their hands on fresh bivalves

Photo: Jeyhoun Allebaugh

Bethea in the waters of Westmouth Bay off Harkers Island, where he farms his oysters.

Ryan Bethea is an oyster farmer with a side of road warrior. The founder and owner of Oysters Carolina, he starts most days on the water, harvesting bivalves from his lease off Harkers Island in the southern Outer Banks before heading inland to deliver them fresh to any spot in North Carolina, logging some fifty thousand miles a year.

Age: 36

Home base: New Bern, North Carolina

photo: Jeyhoun Allebaugh
Bethea spreads out oysters in the morning for the day’s delivery.

An acquired taste: “I grew up in Durham. I didn’t taste my first fresh oysters until I was in my early twenties.”

Fortuitous find: “One night after a bartending shift, I noticed a North Carolina Farm Bureau magazine on my parents’ coffee table. It happened to be flipped open to an article about the untapped potential of growing oysters in the state. It hit me like a calling. I could hardly sleep that night.”

His oyster path: “For the first three years, I taught middle school science in Franklin County all week and farmed oysters all weekend. I loved my students, but I love oysters more. Now I’m educating people about elite North Carolina oysters.”

What’s in a name? “There are the little Beau Sels, which means beautiful salt, and buttery Native Sons. Sea Monsters are my best sellers in the winter. They’re whoppers. All of them are really crisp, clean, and very salty. I’m basically handling a bunch of sharp rocks with delicious food in them.”

Extra briny: “It’s the taste of Westmouth Bay. It’s only slightly less salty than the nearby Atlantic. Perfect water for oysters.”

Oyster equity: “All North Carolinians deserve equal access to fresh oysters, no matter their means or where they live, even if that’s in a food desert. It’s why I charge a dollar apiece with no minimum order and deliver for free.”

Who says just the R months? “I eat oysters every day of the year. Farmed oysters are different from wild, and these days we have safe, temp-controlled transportation, so we don’t have to skip the hot summer months.”

Serving tips: “Grill them on the half shell over a fire, or put them on a cracker and hit ’em up with fresh lemon and hot sauce. The cracker makes sure people chew and actually taste the oyster. I don’t want people slurping them down like they’re trying to get it over with.”

On shellfish evangelism: “I always carry a few extras to hand out to people I meet on the road. I once met a guy from Kentucky at a service station who’d never seen a fresh oyster and worried it might bite him. I convinced him to try one, just one, and he wound up driving away with a bag to take home to his family.”