Owner of WhiteHouse Seafood, Karen met her husband when he moved next door to her off exit 7. Thinking he was just another retired man who enjoyed time out on the coastal Georgia waters, she agreed on a boat ride and oyster gathering. She laughs when sharing the memories of their first date with me and the sparkle in her eyes tells me it is one of her most cherished ones.
She recalls that she was so excited about this beautiful boat ride and envisioned walking on the beach at sunset, the breeze in her hair, holding hands, and picking up an oyster here and there. Little did she know that the beautiful dress and new shoes she bought for this “romantic” first date would be discarded for a pair of water boots and that he would have her up to her thighs in mud digging for oysters by the end of the day. When they got back on the boat he said “so you want to do it again?” Of course, I said yes. “He was like Forest Gump,” she says smiling, “he was so excited to be out there learning about the river and the oyster harvesting he knew nothing about.
“Back then they paid 10 cents an oyster and he would come home so excited that he found 10-12 of them. I recently found his old payout receipts, $1.20 his first week.” She shares with me how they started the fish market together and how scared she was not knowing what any of the fish were, wish ones you could eat, and how she didn’t know that blue crabs could bite. He would be out of the river and she was stuck selling at the fish market, selling creatures from the ocean that she didn’t even know if you could eat or not. “I would cry every night, I was up to my elbows every day in mullet, covered in fish stink and he was getting to be out on the river, but I had help, I was learning from Kath and Bruce, the ones we purchased the market from. Every day I would walk back to her house on the property 15-20 times a day and show her a fish and she would tell me its name and what it was good for. When the knocking became lesser and lesser, she knew I was learning the ways.”
Kathy wasn’t the only one who taught Karen the girl from up North who had never been on the waters before; her customers taught her everything she says with affection in her voice. “They taught me how to butterfly shrimp and they taught me how to filet a fish. I had the menu of what we had in stock and they would point to what they wanted since I couldn’t match the names of the fish to what they looked like. My customers would come in to buy something and then sit down and tell me how they prepared and cooked it. Honestly, I have the best customers, they are the reason I know all that I do.” In 2011 Karen and her husband were ready to build on the land they had invested their savings in, but the city permits were very hard to get approved. “They didn’t want a fish market here, they wanted a gas station or other business but we appealed and finally we built.” Karen and her husband not only built the seafood market we enjoy today but started the Crooked River Oyster culture, harvesting local oysters and building oyster beds. They were able to purchase one of the rare leases for Crooked River and worked with the University on creating Oyster farms and expanding the culture. If you walk into White House, Karen is going to tell you about how special the locally picked oysters are and if you have never eaten a raw oyster, she is going to teach you the right way to eat one, a way that will make you appreciate the oyster and river it came from. It’s the closest you can get to drinking the ocean.
Now carrying on the legacy of working the river Karen’s two sons work side by side with her picking the oysters and running the market.
Visit the market on Harrietts Bluff Rd, Woodbine, GA 31569
From Our Rivers
“Our oysters are special; there is nothing like a Crooked River, Coastal Georgia river, and if we don’t invest in the future, they won’t be there forever.”