The Importance of Being Earnest

Photo by Molly Hayden

The eyes of Earnest McIntosh, Sr. seem to reflect the water, even when he’s nowhere near it.

Perhaps it’s because he has spent his life peering into the sparkling tributaries and creeks of coastal Georgia, pulling up crab pots and tending to the oyster beds that feed his clients and family.  

The senior proprietor of E.L. McIntosh & Son Seafood spends most days following the tides that flow off the tip of of the Harris Neck peninsula in Sapelo Sound, close to the land that rightfully belonged to his ancestors until it was appropriated by the local and federal government in the 1940s. 

“It was wrong,” affirms McIntosh with a curt nod. “I don’t get into all that. I want to live now.” 

Fair enough; his work requires a presence of mind and body that leaves time for little else. But he might just be helping the Harris Neck story find larger purchase anyway, now that McIntosh’s oysters are getting famous. “That’s what they’re sayin’,” he chuckles at the suggestion he might be Harris Neck’s biggest celebrity. 

The recent profile boost comes from his relationship with chef, Savannah native and James Beard Award winner Mashama Bailey of the Grey, a champion of preserving the African-American culinary and agricultural legacies in the Lowcountry. Ever since McIntosh and his son, Earnest Jr., were featured in Bailey’s episode of Chef’s Table on Netflix, media folk have been calling two and three times a week, but the elder oysterman isn’t seduced by the newfound fame.

“We want to make sure it’s all in our best interest,” he says. “It’s about the product.”

A recent partnership with scientists at the University of Georgia has allowed the family business to evolve from harvesting clumps of wild oysters to a sustainable farming practice with consistent yields. With their cultivated delicacies now in high demand, McIntosh and son are working to increase their seasonal draw from one million oysters to three million over the next couple of years — and perhaps even lengthen the season itself. 

“They feed off the same water as the wild ones, so they taste exactly the same,” he explains. 

That taste remains unique to these waters — salty, buttery, with the slightest tang of spartina grass — and even as the foodie world clamors for it, McIntosh remains its noble steward.

“I just love this work, this place,” he muses, eyes glinting in the sun. “It’s not about the money — sometimes we break even, sometimes we go in a hole. But I am always looking forward.” 

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