Jasmine Norton slurped her first oyster at age 7.
Too young to handle a blade, she watched as her father pried open the shell over the kitchen sink, revealing the pale meat inside. It looked foreign — a gooey creature forced to meet its demise in their Pikesville home.
He doused the oyster in hot sauce and lemon, then lifted it to her lips. Inside her mouth, the alien substance transformed, the additions providing flavors even a child could recognize.
Now, almost three decades later, Chef Norton has made a career out of turning the once-intimidating seafood into palatable fare for all ages. Her Urban Oyster eatery seasons their mollusks with everything from goat cheese and rosemary to barbecue sauce and bacon. The business, born in 2017, will open their latest brick and mortar in Hampden on Feb. 2.
The new location will be Norton’s second go at a restaurant since her spot at McHenry Row in Locust Point shuttered during the pandemic in 2020. She hopes to show the business has evolved, trading in its signature baby blue hue for a deeper shade and exchanging high-top seating for a dining area and 30-foot-long bar. A menu once limited to oysters and deviled eggs has since grown to offer oxtail lasagna, lobster cavatelli pasta and much more.
Such an expansion was previously thought to be impossible for Norton, who said she began The Urban Oyster as an act of defiance. The business is one of the few prominent Black-owned oyster bars in the country, alongside Boston’s The Pearl and the Union District Oyster Bar & Lounge in Washington, D.C.
Despite her father’s love of oysters, many around Norton saw them as a pretentious dish for wealthy customers. There was a literacy around oysters, knowing which shorelines produce the largest shells or the saltiest meat. They can be pricy, and in the opinion of some, boast a slimy, unfamiliar texture.
But to Norton, oysters are misunderstood. She says the slippery bivalves are similar to eggs: the beauty is in the preparation. Like your cheese scrambled or over-easy purists, Norton’s oysters come in all phases, from the New Orleans-inspired charbroiled to the freshly shucked garlic and cheese concoctions.
“People most times are closed-minded because there’s nothing for them to relate to,” she said.
“But if you meet them halfway and you incorporate something that does resonate with them, then they’re like, ‘You know what, alright, I’ll try it.’”
Although oysters are often associated with raw bars and fine dining, Norton aims to remind Baltimoreans of a time when they were once a food for the masses.
By the early 1900s, oysters flooded the market, costing about half as much as beef per pound; more than 150 million pounds of oyster meat were harvested annually. Not quite a delicacy, they were used as a source of protein from breakfast and lunch through dinner, according to a Michigan State University report.
A century earlier, oyster production buoyed economies around the Chesapeake Bay, largely due to the labor of enslaved Black Americans. Barred from operating their own fishing vessels, these Black oystermen took on the labor of shucking and harvesting the shelled creatures. As railroads expanded and the number of oyster industry jobs multiplied, so did the opportunities for Black oystermen, according to an Ocean Conservancy report.
Over the years, the profile of oysters shifted. What was originally marketed as a fertilizer for plantation owners had become a staple in the American diet, according to an article by the American Littoral Society. Abolitionists like Thomas Downing saw the evolution as a chance to elevate the status of the oyster, and thereby the status of oystermen, The New York Times reported.
Downing’s New York-based oyster saloon, which was also a stop along the Underground Railroad, used the mollusks to create a path to freedom for enslaved Americans. The trend continued after the Civil War, as the income from oystering became a source of funding for free Black settlements in Staten Island.
Norton knew little of the history until she visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
“As much as we put the labor behind it, many Black people don’t like them,” she said.
While other Black chefs like Norton have risen to the challenge, the Pikesville native claims to have opened the first, and still one of the few, Black- and women-owned oyster bars in the country.
She describes the oystering industry as a space in need of improvement when it comes to diversity and accessibility. Upon opening The Urban Oyster in 2019, she said, no one could point her to a Black farmer or grower to help source her beloved bivalves. Now, with the brick-and-mortar reopening more than three years later, she still has not found a Black-owned company to partner with.
“I know that they exist, but it’s kind of muted. There’s no real exposure or knowledge of it,” she said.
“That’s why my position has always been to try and exist in places that we are not expected to be in.”
The Urban Oyster
As she had hoped, Norton’s entry into the oyster industry made a statement.
Some have tried to discount her success, she said, though she is unsure whether it stems from her race, gender or self-described “in-your-face” personality.
“You can’t deny me,” she said of the naysayers. “That’s been my energy, that’s how I pursue anything.”
The 36-year-old is not a professionally trained chef. She moved to Manhattan in 2016 as a technician for a hotel group, and months later climbed her way to a sales manager role. But nothing stuck like the culinary scene.
On weekends, she ventured into Williamsburg’s Smorgasburg food festival, yearning to try unorthodox fare. She still remembers her first bite of a shoyu-glazed burger prepared with bunches of ramen in lieu of buns. The vendors all gave her the same advice: Skip culinary school and dive into a family cookbook instead — set yourself apart.
She went to YouTube to learn how to wield a knife to make a clean julienne cut. Then, to her father for oyster-shucking lessons. By May 2017, she was mixing oysters and flavors in a way she had never thought possible, on one occasion combining them with pineapple, teriyaki sauce, scallion and a wonton crumble.
Around the same time, she discovered she had a uterine fibroid about the size of a grapefruit. She returned to the Baltimore area and, between iron and blood transfusions, began to give away samples of the oysters at local farmer’s markets and the Artscape festival.
The success grew into a stint cooking for the James Beard Foundation and a Locust Point brick-and-mortar restaurant that closed just after a year due to the pandemic. But the Hampden location will be different, she said.
For Norton, the move is a “bold statement.” Unlike at the McHenry Row development, she will be surrounded by more of a neighborly community — residents who jog along the street and live only blocks from her storefront. Hampden has had high traffic since Norton was young, she said, a huge opportunity for a business like The Urban Oyster hoping to serve as a sort of watering hole.
Norton aims to make the restaurant “approachable” and a “cozy coastal” respite along a busy street, where neighbors can pop in and lounge for hours, eating catfish tacos and sipping cocktails like the Mother of Pearl, a dirty martini garnished with a pearl onion.
Hampden is also a frontier to be crossed. A few Black business owners have recently spoken out about facing alleged racism in the predominantly white, working-class neighborhood. But to Norton, it’s just another chance to “change the narrative.”
“I love the opportunity of being underestimated,” she said.