If you’d have told Ben “Moody” Harney ten years ago that, in 2022, he would be running his own successful oyster business, he wouldn’t have believed you. Why?

“Because I thought they were gross,” Moody says, laughing.

It’s a sunny Friday afternoon, and Moody is perched on a bucket outside Sunset Park’s Industry City, lacquering black paint on another new oyster cart.

“I was in Florida the first time I tried one raw. It was bland, fat and kind of boring. It was exactly what I feared it was going to be like.”

But fast forward, and Moody is now the founder of the Real Mother Shuckers, a rapidly-growing fresh oyster cart company with a vision of having the oyster regain its place as an everyman’s food in the city.

Ben “Moody” Harney. Photo: Vivien Sweet for BK Reader.

Many people don’t know that New York City was once the oyster capital of the world. In the 17th century, the New York metro area contained nearly half of the world’s oyster population. By the 19th century, New Yorkers were eating oysters as a common snack, and shipping them to cities across the U.S.

As the historian Mark Kurlansky writes in his 2006 book The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell: “The combination of having reputably the best oysters in the world in what had become inarguably the greatest port in the world made New York City, for an entire century, the world’s oyster capital.”

Many people also don’t know that Black entrepreneurs were integral to the oyster industry of the 1800s. Most oyster cellars in New York were owned by African Americans, the most famous being Thomas Downing, a son of freed slaves who peddled oysters on Wall Street in the late 1800s, and went on to open one of the most successful oyster restaurants of his time.

More than 150 years later, Moody, a Crown Heights native who grew up in a high-achieving theater family (his father is a Tony award-winner) found himself serving fat, flavorless Gulf Coast oysters in Florida for work.

Ben “Moody” Harney. Photo: Vivien Sweet for BK Reader.

At the time, according to Moody, he “didn’t know sh*t” about oysters or the history. And, frankly, he didn’t care.

It wasn’t until he returned to Brooklyn and started working at Williamsburg’s Maison Premiere that his interest in oysters was piqued. His first shift, the bosses had him wear a paper hat and sniff the oysters on both sides.

“I thought that was so annoying and gross and basic,” Moody recalled. “But then I started to do it and I started to smell different regions on different oysters. Some of them smelled really good, smelled tasty.”

So he tried the shellfish again. This time, he tried a Beausoleil oyster from Canada. It was a completely different experience this time.

“Every one was pristine, the same shape, really firm shells, easy to open… they’re beautiful oysters. I thought, these are so much different from what I’d been giving people previously, I wanna expose my friends to this.”

Soon, Moody was leaning in to his shucking job at Maison Premiere. He loved bringing in his friends, shucking hundreds of oysters a night, learning more about the regions and training others about the shellfish.

Delicious oysters from Real Mother Shuckers. Photo: Vivien Sweet for BK Reader.

While working there, the chef recommended The Big Oyster to him.

“It really took me down a rabbit hole, because it started talking about this Black history and how African Americans were involved, and the initial funding and creation of what was—for all intents and purposes—the American economy, through oystering and whaling.”

Moody went on to work for several other businesses doing oysters, before he decided he wanted to be his own boss. He already had a truck from a prop-handling business he had started, and so he made a cart and started selling oysters on Fridays.

By about 2019, Industry City had noticed him, and offered him a regular spot in the complex.

The business grew, with support from Together We Thrive: Black Business Network—a program created by the United Way of New York City to help Black-owned businesses—and now Moody has three carts and works multiple locations throughout the week, including BK Lobster.

If New York City is going to get back to being an oyster-eating city, people need to get reacquainted with oysters, says Moody. These days, much of his job includes convincing people to try the food and educating neophyte oyster-eaters about its health properties and history.

Oysters used to be a New York staple. Photo: Vivien Sweet for BK Reader.

Part of Mother Shuckers’ mission is also restoring the New York City reef to what it once was, for the benefit of the ecosystem, food security and education for young people.

Mother Shuckers, along with more than 75 purveyors in New York City, donate all shells to the Billion Oyster Project, an initiative to restore a billion oysters to the New York Harbor by 2035.

Real Mother Shuckers is expanding. Photo: Vivien Sweet for BK Reader.

Recycling the shells rebuilds the reefs so that new oyster populations can grow—as well as improving the water quality and stimulating a return of sea life.

“This is one of the types of initiatives that we need to put onto our government,” Moody said. “It’s not something that’s a quick fix, but once it’s set up, it’s gonna be beneficial to everyone and everything.”

Meanwhile, Moody is about to expand again. He’s set to open his first kiosk inside a “busy” indoor space in Manhattan, and he’s working on an upcoming food education campaign, in which he hopes he can get Beyonce and Cardi B to tell the world to “eat their mother shuckin’ oysters.”

“If you haven’t had an oyster experience yet, come out and try some oysters, straight off the farm, hand picked, hand selected from someone who didn’t like oysters,” Moody grins.

The Mother Shuckers cart is located in Industry City on 35th street at 3rd Avenue, inside of Sahadi’s grocery Friday to Sundays, 2-7 PM. Mother Shuckers can also be found at Tailfeather wine bar (581 Myrtle Ave.) on Thursdays, along with BK Lobster locations and special events.

Jessy Edwards

Jessy Edwards is a writer based in Bushwick. Originally from New Zealand, she has written for the BBC, Rolling Stone, NBC New York, CNBC and her hometown newspaper, The Dominion Post, among others.

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