Doing Well by Doing Good: A Day at Matunuck Oyster Farm

By Lisa Helme Danforth

If given the chance to spend your birthday with your adult children, what would you do? We opted for a nearby adventure by taking them to Matunuck Oyster Farm in Wakefield, RI. Where else could we spend time together on the water, and also find tales of passion, money – even sex – wrapped in lessons for entrepreneurship and environmental stewardship?

The group was skeptical “Mom – you know I don’t even like oysters. Yuck.” But all had agreed to come from as far away as LA and VA to spend my 60th birthday doing whatever I wanted to do. Years of adventure travel “that wasn’t funny mom, that guy had a gun’ had made them cautious, but they dutifully gathered early on a sunny June morning at Perry Raso’s now-famous Matunuck Oyster Bar for an experience they will never forget.

Matunuck has a special place in our hearts. When Mike and I launched Coastal Angler Magazine Rhode Island 6 years ago Perry’s Oysters Rockefeller was the star of our first Sea-to-Table recipe, along with highlights of the resurgent oyster farming industry which has continued to grow exponentially. What separated Matunuck Oyster Bar from the pack of restaurants we could have covered was the oysters. Then the calamari. Oh my. And I don’t think we covered the Coquille St. Jacque, it was mind-blowing. And then there is Perry himself.

Perry’s history of working for $40 daily harvesting wild shellfish in school is well-known. He’s been well covered on TV, magazines and newspapers not only in the United states but in Asia and Africa where he travels to share his knowledge of modern aquaculture techniques worldwide. While humble about his success, it’s clear that what he ascribes to luck was where exceptionally hard work met a bit of opportunity – a great lesson for the kids that day and an important reason we wanted them to experience Matunuck from the business to the delicious food.

Perry offers tours to school groups and committed others, often leading them himself to share his passion for fishing, farming, oysters and scallops, but his urgent message is about sustainable aquaculture meeting the need of feeding the world. There is never a dull moment as he hooks the group with his passion and commitment, and rapidly takes them from the gathering spot to his pontoon boat for a hands-on tour of the oyster farm.

Our group was comprised of Mike and me, our 6 children and our 1-year old granddaughter. Just having them all in one place made the day for me, but to be able to share our love of Rhody waters, the importance of sustainable farms and fisheries, and end it all with a mind-blowingly delicious lunch made the day awesome.

Potter Pond, the 7-acre pond named for Capt. John Potter in the 18th century, is beautiful in its own right. Through Perry and team’s hard work it now hosts millions of tiny oysters, contained in 10,000 bags. Touring the pond you see the team gathering the flats of oysters to be measured and moved through their cycle of placement for maximum growth. You feel the peace and rhythm of the place. This is a different type of work than the children are used to with nothing blinking, beeping or ringing. Pace is set by the workers, not the incessant demands of computer screens and cell phones.

But just as the peace settled on the group Perry slowed, pulled on waders and leapt over the side of the pontoon boat with a quick “and now I need you all to follow me.” This snaps the group to attention. Two daughters, Liz and Allie, look at each other wondering if this is the “mom moment” where adventure can cross over into something else. “Only kidding but gather around” says Perry as he shares the secrets of his prized oysters with the group.

His story of oyster farming is a tale of love, passion, back-breaking work, with a smattering of sex. He explains to the group that oysters start life as male but can transform to female at 1-2 years old. They can transform back to male. Our sons Chris and Hunter look at each other, not sure what to make of that.

Perry moves on explaining the process. Along the way he speaks of mistakes made, but also not being afraid to ask for favors. The group listens hard, and the oysters themselves glisten in the sun, dazzling in their beauty.

We watch the faces of this group of millennials as they take in the sights, smells and sounds, not sure what they are thinking.

Our daughter Kendall is an advertising whiz. Perhaps she is thinking about branding as Perry describes the seed that most Rhody and Northeast oysters share and rattles off the branded names derived from their location. The group learns that oysters’ flavor comes from their environment and there are special words to describe flavor beyond salty or not. I don’t think he uses the word merrior (like terrior to describe the unique flavor of a wine grape) but being obsessed with all things oyster, we think it.

Through hard work and longer hours (you’ll still see Perry bussing dinner tables after being on the water and in the restaurant all day) he has developed the seven-acre commercial aquaculture lease into a business that supports his world-class oyster farm and now scallop farm – the first restaurant to serve RI farm-raised bay scallops. As his restaurant grew, he extended his campaign for fresh, sustainable food to the organically certified greens, herbs, and much more he grows on his farm. Now Perry is part of a growing scene of aquaculturalists making it big not only in Rhode Island, but around the world.

Perry continues to do well by doing good. Oysters are natural filters, cleaning the water they live in actually improving water quality. Matunuck hosted its 10th annual “cleanup the beach” on Earth day this year, hauling trash from Potters Pond, Matunuck State Beach and Succatash Salt pond then treating workers to refreshments and oysters. He travels to wherever there is a platform to share his experience to help others grow and improve aquaculture and feed the world responsibly.

And he serves the best oysters, bar none from all over the world, that we have ever enjoyed.

After the tour of the farm and ponds we enjoyed raw oysters with Perry’s delicious Mignonette sauce, Oysters Rockefeller, Calamari (the best!), and so much more! Thanks to Mike for making the day so special and to Liz, Allie (and little Adi), Chris, Julia, Kendall and Hunter, and Jason and Emma who traveled, took vacation time and just made the effort to get together for yet another adventure – many more to come- and to Perry, Terra and the team at Matunuck for giving us a day we’ll always cherish!

The pond and farm tours were started with support and help from the Ocean State Aquaculture Education Project in 2002, but Perry takes time to continue them to increase understanding of aquaculture and RI’s estuary environment.

Do yourself a favor and head to the oyster bar for lunch or dinner, it is fabulous. But if you really want a life-enriching experience, bring your family/scout troop/wedding party/reunion group over to Potter Pond for a tour of the oyster fields you will never forget, and then have that delicious lunch!

For information regarding private tours, please call or email 401-783-4202 ext 2,