Water Song

BY Michael McCarthy | June 29, 2017 | Feature

When a small island on the Chesapeake called, Tim Hickey listened.

Tim Hickey isn’t crazy. He’s simply a former The New Yorker writer and college instructor in his mid-40s who dramatically changed his life’s path. A few years ago, he fell in love with Tangier Island, a thumbprint of sand in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay inhabited by roughly 700 watermen and their families. The island can be reached only by small planes and boats. “Tangier looks to me like a different model for living, one I admire and respect,” says Hickey. “Many felt the island was in decline for complex reasons, and oystering looked like it could be part of the solution.”
Hickey, a Richmond, Va., native, threw himself into creating the improbable Tangier Oyster Company
(, but he first had to convince the local watermen—longtime crabbers—to take more control over their livelihoods and switch from hunter-gatherers to an agrarian mindset. “We made clear our respect for the island and the people,” he says. “That we were willing to jump overboard to screw 3-foot anchors into the bay bottom in lousy conditions went a long way toward establishing our seriousness.”
This is the first year of full-scale operations, notes Hickey. The company now sells every oyster it pulls from Tangier Sound to upscale restaurants in DC, Baltimore and New York, among other locales. “The taste of an individual oyster really is an expression of the place it’s raised, akin to the terroir of a grapevine in winemaking,” says Hickey. “We raise ours at the top of the water column way out in the open water, where the oysters are shaped and fed according to the tides and weather.”
For Hickey, this midlife venture isn’t a lark. “I’ve learned the pull to work in saltwater was stronger in me than I thought,” he says. “One day, I was leaving the island on the mail boat, and to get my attention over the engine noise, a Tangierman who didn’t know my name called out, ‘Hey, oysterman!’ I realized he meant me. That was one of my prouder moments. I wouldn’t have predicted that for my life.” $36 per dozen, The Smith, 901 F St. NW; $30 per dozen, Whaley’s, 301 Water St. SE

Photo shot at The Grilled Oyster Company

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