Benjamin “Moody” Harney didn’t like oysters at first. The Brooklyn native got his first shucking job over a decade ago at a steakhouse in Daytona Beach, Florida, where he’d relocated to live with a girlfriend.
“I had really big hands and I was better at it than anybody else on staff,” Harney says. He learned to pry them open fast enough to accommodate the happy hour crowds, but took no pleasure in the Gulf selection, which he remembers as “big and brittle, didn’t have much flavor.”
It wasn’t until Harney made his way back up to New York City around 2011—and, tired of working in restaurants as a line cook, took a job as a shucker at Williamsburg’s Maison Premiere—that he acquired a taste for the merroir (like terroir, but for the sea) of the bivalves.
“I started getting enthusiastic, studying the importance of New York City oyster history,” he recalls. “I learned the names of all the oysters, and I could tell which region they came from by smelling the difference in the oyster liquor.”
After a few more shucking stints at spots like Grand Army and the Standard Hotel, Harney decided he was ready to strike out on his own. “I thought, ‘If I’m gonna work in the food industry, I want it to be my own thing,’” he remembers. “I’m passionate about oysters and I know how to sell them, how to get someone who hasn’t had one before to try it for the first time and enjoy it.”
Fascinated by the story of Thomas Downing, “the Oyster King of New York,” the 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, Harney envisioned operating his own oyster cart on the streets of New York.
In Downing’s era, though, things were a little different. The New York harbor was clean and fecund with oyster beds; New York City, the Oyster Capital of the World, where bivalves were large, plentiful and sold for cheap on the street. Today, the DOH won’t let you just set up on any corner peddling raw seafood. Overharvesting has stripped most of New York’s oysters from their beds, pollution rendered the remainder too toxic to eat.
To start, Harney built a wooden display case and began shucking at popup events and private parties, and during happy hour at King Tai Bar in Crown Heights. He sourced his oysters from Prince Edward Island and British Columbia—a selection of Malpeques, and West Coast varieties like Shigokus and Kusshis—where he says they taste the cleanest and briniest. Wearing a newsboy hat and a red bowtie and suspenders, Harney channeled an old-timey NYC aesthetic and called his one-man operation Marauder Shuckers—which he admits didn’t quite click. “The constant joke was friends would say, ‘You’re a bad mothershucker, huh?’ and I hated it but after a while I was like, ‘Uh huh, I am a bad mothershucker!’”
In the summer of 2018, while working as Man with a Van, he came across an abandoned ice cream cart and loaded it in the back. He fixed it up with a paint job and wood paneling, nailed a Mothershuckers sign on the front and got a little closer to nailing his original vision.
During Bed-Stuy’s annual TAMA (Tompkins Avenue Merchants Association) Fest in July 2019, Harney set up the Mothershuckers cart in front of Eugene & Co restaurant and sold oysters, shrimp and king crab legs to passersby for the first time. After that success, he started shucking during Eugene & Co’s Friday happy hours.
New York likely won’t return to its heyday as oyster capital of the world, but today’s oyster vendors can do their part to revive New York’s waterways. Harney, along with more than 75 purveyors in New York City, donates all his shells to Billion Oyster Project, an initiative to restore a billion oysters to the New York Harbor by 2035. The shells rebuild the reefs so that new oyster populations can grow—and while they’ll likely never be edible, they will greatly improve the water quality and stimulate a return of sea life.
While New Yorkers will never again buy five-cent bivalves from a street cart, Harney believes the oyster could regain its place as an everyman’s food. “A lot of times a raw bar is perceived as being kind of an elite thing, but it’s really not. It’s something that we’ve created as ‘fine dining,’ but crabs, shrimps—initially they were all peasant food,” he says.
He hopes to make eating oysters more of a pastime in the Black community, where he says its legacy is largely forgotten. “I want to expose people of color, people who look like me, who are maybe not interested in oysters—just like I wasn’t, until I got the proper introduction to it,” he says. “I want [eating oysters] to be more of a common experience for everyone.”
You can find Mothershuckers at Tailfeather Wine Bar on Thursdays from 6-9 p.m. and Sahadi’s on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 1-4 p.m. To book Mothershuckers for a private event, email therealmothershuckers@gmail.
This story was originally published in Oct. 2019.