Ben “Moody” Harney is the founder of Brooklyn’s The Real Mother Shuckers oyster cart, and an authority on both New York shellfish and the city’s food carts, trucks, and pop-up restaurants. He’s even appeared on Netflix’s High on the Hog to talk about the deep history of oysters relating to Black food culture. As a native New Yorker who worked several kitchens in other states, it took him a while to find his calling though.
For a long time, Harney saw working in restaurant kitchens as merely a means to an end. It was steady work, he enjoyed it, and he was good at it. But like many in the business, he often felt underappreciated, overworked, and underpaid. “Like getting called in on my day off to come to quote-unquote ‘train.’” he recalls, “and they put me into the busy station. And then the person who’s supposed to be doing the busy station—who was my boss—goes to what’s supposed to be my station to do oysters, and acts like it’s nothing. And then a knife went through the middle of my boss’s’ hand, and he had to go to the hospital. So I have to carry both positions by myself.”
Harney had plenty of experience with oysters as he followed work around the country. When working in New Orleans, he loved fried oysters. “Po’boys, gumbo, grilled oyster with some cheese on top or some garlic butter, I would lose my mind on those.” Harney also tried raw oysters while at a stint in Florida. “I tried them naked, and it was so disgusting,” he says. “I tried them several times, and each time I did, I almost regurgitated.”
But it wasn’t until he returned to New York that Harney really began to appreciate oysters in all their briny glory. “I started working at this place called Maison Premiere, which closed down for business during the pandemic,” he says. “They’ve opened back up now. But previous to that, they were the oyster king of New York as far as I’m concerned. It’s a Louisiana-style restaurant—they had all these Prohibition-style drinks, but they also had like 30 different oysters available at all times.”
The Maison Premiere experience proved both formative and inspirational. “That was where I learned basically to give a sh*t about oysters. Previous to that, I really didn’t care. I was good at shucking. I was fast at it. Nobody, nobody wanted to mess with me. At Maison, I got an eye opener. They gave me this practice where I had to flip and smell every oyster. I started to actually be able to smell and identify different regions, such as the East Coast, West Coast, just by smelling them. A northern oyster versus a southern oyster, just by smelling them. It’s because of different salinity profiles.”
It wasn’t long before smelling oysters lead to eating them. “I started tasting them again, and the ones that I was having, they were not the same mushy, flavorless, southern oysters that I had been given in Florida,” Harney recalls. “It was the first time I tried the oysters and I was like, ‘Oh this is why rich people come here and run to the dollar Happy Hour.’ When I worked at a steakhouse, I used to have these two old ladies that would come in for this dollar Happy Hour, and they would buy 100 oysters between the two of them, and sit there and throw them back.”
He realized he loved running the oyster station by himself. The oyster bar felt like his own business, and he liked talking to guests. Harney was subconsciously building his Mother Shuckers brand even before the idea formally formulated.
Harney’s attraction to oysters was amplified when he read The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell by Mark Kurlansky and learned how oysters fueled New York’s economy during the 1800s. “Everybody in the city was relying on the oysters and oyster culture at a certain time period,” notes Harney. “There were African-Americans who made themselves very wealthy through oystering, when elsewhere they were enslaved. … Thomas Downing … he was one of the most influential people in building the economy for New York City at that time period and was also an abolitionist. He had one of the most important oyster restaurants in the city, but was also hiding runaway slaves.”
Downing’s Oyster House was on Pearl Street, now known as Wall Street. Harney explains, “Thomas Downing was a mind blow for me because I didn’t know that it was a Black guy who had made fine-dining oysters. I just assumed that white people were like, ‘Let’s keep this to ourselves’ and Blacks were not allowed inside of their establishments. But it was kind of the opposite—[white people] didn’t know anything about these different recipes that Downing was coming up with.”
Harney believes that it made sense for Downing to create a fine-dining oyster experience during the 1800s, but now it’s time to make oysters on the half shell accessible to everyone. Armed with a cart, the knowledge of oysters, and how to create an oyster program, Harney has been introducing oysters to those who would have never thought to try them for the past three and a half years.
Since it’s an outdoor business, Harney was open during lockdown. He has partnerships with Tailfeather Bar in Bed-Stuy, and at Sahadi’s in Industry City in Sunset Park. Both spots kept him working throughout the pandemic. Pandemic indoor dining restrictions didn’t affect The Real Mother Shuckers too badly. “I haven’t dropped any of my commitments because of the pandemic,” he says. “There was only a little while when people were not going to restaurants. It was only a few months, four months. This year was the first year that people were actually eating outside in the cold intentionally.”
“I want to do a bunch of carts before I do a brick-and-mortar,” says Harney when talking about the future. “The brick-and-mortar idea that I have is very, very specific, and specific to a location. I’m developing a program right now for inner-city youth so that they can learn how to shuck, learn about creating a business for themselves … basically how to build a business from the ground up. I’m going to give kids from the hood the opportunity I didn’t really have—the ability to see themselves as their own boss.”
Harney knows a thing or two about food on the go, so here’s a short list of his favorite food carts and pop-ups in the city.
Ingredients for the Beaucoup bánh mì are all house-made, from the cha lua ham to the spiced liver paté. Speaking of owner Nancy Nguyen, Harney says, “Her bánh mì sandwich is just ridiculous. It’s probably the best I ever had. And then all of her sides? Whatever she does, whatever the side, it’s always special.” Beaucoup is currently roving as a residency in various bars around town, as well as selling food and meal kits online.
“I started out with a taco stand. That was my first venture into food,” says Harney. “I like the uniqueness of the tacos.” As a transplant from Austin, King David’s Liz Solomon is on a mission to overthrow NYC’s beloved bodega breakfast sandwiches with breakfast tacos. Harney is all for it. “Her recipes are really doing something special within that circle. Try the NO. 5 taco”—vegan chili and potato. KDT has two taco carts around the city as well as a brick-and-mortar shop in Brooklyn.
The Halal Guys might be the most famous food cart in the city. Started as a hot dog cart in the 1990s, they pivoted to selling halal food to Muslim taxi drivers, who had few food options. “Lamb over rice,” recommends Harney without hesitation. “White and red sauce.” Halal Guys carts can be found all around the city, with most still in Midtown (as well as around the country).
Makina Cafe founder Eden G. Egziabher is the first Eritrean-American female entrepreneur in NYC with a food truck serving Habesha food, distinguishing the different tribes of Eritrea and Ethiopia while celebrating the unity of people of the same region. “They got some really good, substantial, vegan food options,” says Harney. “Savory, filling, all the stuff that I’m looking for. Get the tikel goman and the mushroom bits with makina sauce. I love it.” Makina has a truck serving Brooklyn and a pick-up kitchen in Queens.
Catch Empire BBQ if you can—their big black truck sometimes operates around Midtown in the vicinity of West 56th Street, but they can be found parked at events in Far Rockaway and Staten Island. Call 732-955-7273 for their current and upcoming locations. They serve chicken sandwiches, pulled pork, and smoked brisket. “Get the ‘Garson,’” recommends Harney. “It’s a crispy chicken sandwich with fries, chorizo, and queso.”