Utter dread isn’t a feeling usually associated with a day at the beach. But, it’s exactly what Anita Arguelles felt as Hurricane Zeta barreled toward the 62 miles of beautiful Coastal Mississippi last October. “[It’s] the cone of uncertainty, the kind that takes two or three states,” she says of her reason for trepidation. It’s not always the smoothest of sailing, but for the love of Anita and her husband Mike’s new boutique oyster farming business, French Hermit Oyster Co., the pair will wait out the storms every time.
After earning an engineering degree from the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, Mike, a Biloxi native, made his way to Memphis for work. It was there that Mike and Anita met back in 1993; three years later, they began dating and later married. At the time, Mike had a recreational tonging license, and on his visits back home, he would go tonging, using the large tools to harvest oysters from the Mississippi Sound. “This is very physical [work], and you have to be strong,” says Anita of tonging. “No underarm dingle-dangle on these guys!”
It was the sacks of wild oysters Mike harvested from the Mississippi Sound and brought back to Memphis that became his chosen way to make friends in the Bluff City. He served oysters off the back of his truck as a way of educating locals about how irresistible these marine creatures are. “I don’t think it is an acquired taste,” Anita says of oysters. “The people who don’t like oysters are all too ready to tell you why. But even these so-called raw oyster haters always learned something interesting [from Mike] that they could pass on to their friends and family.”
The consumption of oysters dates back to prehistoric times. An excellent food source along the coast, oysters are rich in calcium, zinc, selenium, and vitamins A and B12. They’re also a great source of protein and are quite low in food energy, which has a direct impact on metabolic rate. Top that with scientific proof that they increase human libido, and oysters are considered a delicacy in many cultures. Still, shrimp were more in vogue at the time of Mike’s impromptu tailgating events in Memphis. According to Anita, “I was 39 years old and had never eaten them raw until I came home [to Biloxi] with Mike. I approached my first raw oyster like it was an adventure. Something to brag about — ‘Yes! I eat raw oysters!’”
Now the couple lives in Coastal Mississippi, and Anita, who affectionately refers to Mike as the “Oyster Evangelist,” is employed by the University of Southern Mississippi at the Marine Education Center as the marketing and communications specialist. This position as well as the marine contracting business the couple owns means they are well-versed in aquaculture. In fact, Mike developed the infrastructure on the Deer Island Commercial Aquaculture Park, work commissioned by the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources (MDMR). So when the MDMR offered its first oyster aquaculture training class in 2018 at the park, Anita and Mike joined 24 other people and learned how to grow oysters in floating cages. Upon completing the class, students like Mike and Anita could then lease an acre of water in the park from the State of Mississippi and raise oysters. Also, as part of the program, they were given 12,000 tiny oysters (called seed) to get them started. When Mike and Anita’s oysters grew and became market-sized (meaning ready to sell at about 3 inches long), she remembers, “It was then that I thought this hobby might be a business.” The Arguelleses bought some cages, more oyster seed, and got to work creating French Hermit Oyster Co.
The company’s name is a nod to Jean Guilhot, a native of France who moved to Biloxi in 1920 and married a woman from Deer Island, a small island off the coast of Biloxi, where the couple chose to live. Jean’s wife passed away in 1933; he remained on Deer Island after her death. The Sailfish, a local boat that took tourists out to the island, would also drop off the local paper and groceries for Jean each week, thereby enabling his preferred hermit lifestyle. He became known as the “French Hermit,” and he would row out to The Sailfish to collect his deliveries while singing tunes in French for the tourists, who then paid him for his songs. Tending an oyster reef on the south side of Deer Island, Jean ran anyone off that came to “coon” or harvest the oysters.
French Hermit Oyster Co. currently consists of five oyster farms, something Anita calls “a happy accident.” She says she never dreamed she’d be in the oyster business, but the work is now her passion. Balanced salinity, a mild flavor profile with deep cups and flat tops … those qualities are the gold standard for oysters that French Hermit Oyster Co. wants and chefs need. It’s this pursuit of quality that is quickly ranking them one of the most desirable oyster producers in the Southeast. But, along with that standard comes hard work.
Wild oysters like the ones Mike wielded in the name of education back in Memphis years ago can take up to three years to mature; Mississippi-farmed oysters require less than 11 months. “Oysters are like rocks,” Anita explains, adding that they must be tumbled, or given a “manicure” — a process called desiccating — to remove the barnacles and other fouling that attach to them. Oysters can live through the desiccating process; the fouling cannot. That’s really where the labor amps up. The area where Anita and Mike farm is more suited for the floating cages that keep the oysters close to the surface to yield a large crop — it’s there that the sunlight helps the phytoplankton to grow, which feeds the oysters. Given her slight 5-foot stature, Anita, often wearing pigtails and waders, says she’s underestimated at times, though never belittled. “Buddy, if you go work on the oyster farm like I do, you get stinky. You go out there and dump this box — there’s all kinds of things in there,” she says. “It’s just fascinating. I try to save everything that’s not the oyster, such as the blue crabs, which go right back in the Mississippi Sound.”
With three of the eight French Hermit farmers being female, Anita says that the collective has a certain mothering approach. “We’re raising little animals. We’re concerned about the health and well-being of our oysters.” So, as they prepared for Zeta to make landfall late last October, the French Hermit farmers made the call to sink their cages to hopefully prevent damage to the equipment and oysters within. Once the storm was over and the subsequent days of rough waters had passed, their oysters thrived once again at the surface of the sound.
In addition to the brutal 2020 hurricane season, the impact of the pandemic has also been felt on this Coastal Mississippi business. With restaurants seeing a decline in customers, by proxy, French Hermit Oyster Co., which provides oysters to many popular Southern eateries, has also taken a hit. “Our survival depends upon their survival,” Anita says of the domino effect. And even though many restaurants shifted to offer pick-up and delivery options when dining-in wasn’t feasible, oysters didn’t necessarily make the most to-go-friendly menu item.
However, Anita knows her business and her restaurant clients can no longer rely upon traditional hospitality and foodservice revenue, and she’s hopeful creativity will yield new opportunities in the future. “We’re in new waters,” she adds. “Luckily, we are small enough. We are nimble. We hope to hang in there.”
French Hermit Oyster Co. continues harvesting thousands of oysters weekly and providing them to some of the South’s more notable restaurants. Check out the French Hermit Oyster Co. Facebook and Instagram accounts each week for a list of restaurants featuring French Hermit oysters on their menus. And then plan to enjoy a meal at one of them to not only support local restaurants but also treasured Southern businesses like French Hermit Oyster Co.
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