Using ultra-sustainable methods, a McClellanville couple harvests a delicious byproduct of the vast Atlantic.
On a small plot of land in McClellanville, South Carolina, the sea breeze whistles through the trees, bringing with it the familiar salty air beloved by coastal residents. As the sun rises, its rays linger on a quaint homestead, the dwelling of Rustin and Teresa Gooden, and the shelters for their animals. The warm rays of sun envelop a shipping container nearby, where a smoky aroma hangs in the air, and pierce the translucent material of a greenhouse filled with rows of black plastic tubs. Here, solar is celebrated; the same sun that lights up the beautiful Carolina morning becomes a workhorse for evaporation, helping to produce some of the finest salt on earth: the products of Bulls Bay Saltworks.
Bulls Bay Saltworks is a physical manifestation of Rustin and Teresa’s shared devotion toward the environment, sustainability, and delectable food. Adventurers at heart, the Goodens met at an international hostel in the Florida Everglades, where they worked as tour guides in Everglades National Park. They hit it off, and when the season was over, Rustin found work as a rafting tour guide in Alaska and invited Teresa to join him. The pair became inseparable, and spent six years working between the two states according to the seasons before moving to Idaho and then to Portland, Oregon for Rustin’s schooling. Shortly before Rustin graduated, they began to talk about their next adventure, and pulled out a map to plan. Teresa grew up on the Chesapeake Bay, while Rustin grew up in Indiana, so they decided to move back to the East coast to be closer to their families. Feeling an inexplicable draw to the Charleston area, Rustin applied for a park ranger job at the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, and he got the call informing him of his acceptance as he was walking in to take his final exam. The Goodens were thrilled, and began house hunting immediately; first in Awendaw, then up and down the surrounding coast, searching for the perfect little plot of land to start anew. They ended up in McClellanville in 2011, and began “homesteading as much as possible while still living on the grid,” as Teresa explains.
For a while, the Goodens settled into a comfortable routine: Teresa grew vegetables to sell to Growfood Carolina, and Rustin enjoyed his park ranger job. But on Memorial Day in 2012, the ongoing adventure of their shared life took on a new path entirely. Rustin and Teresa decided to throw a Memorial Day party to get to know their neighbors and acquaintances better, and while seasoning the hog, Rustin opted to source his salt from boiled down seawater. He smoked the hog for twelve hours, and with it, the salt. When it came time to serve the pork, he scooped some of the smoked salt into bowls and placed them on the table alongside the meat. While the pork was a rousing success, the star of the evening, according to the guests, was the delicious smoked salt. Countless friends asked the couple if they had any extra they could take home, and if they had plans to sell it in the future. The Goodens, ever interested in sustainable practices that put them in close connection to the environment, began experimenting with different methods of evaporation, and it wasn’t long before they ordered simple labels online and officially began their company, Bulls Bay Saltworks.
Four years later, Teresa no longer grows produce to sell, and Rustin quit his part time job. The Goodens now have three employees, a small packaging facility on site, and their products can be purchased in 26 states. They have garnered a dedicated local following among chefs especially, and are featured in over 50 local restaurants, including McCrady’s, Husk, The Vendue, Butcher and Bee, and The Daily. Currently, they offer six products, all of which share the same humble beginnings; as part of the great Atlantic, specifically the waters of the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, which boasts some of the cleanest seawater on the East Coast. The Goodens wait for the perfect moment to harvest based on tides, rainfall, and other factors. In their fledgling days, Teresa and Rustin used five gallon buckets to collect the water, but these days, they rely on a marine pump that pumps and filters water into four 250 gallon tanks. Back in McClellanville, the water is pumped and filtered again, this time into holding tanks. When the time is right, the water is pumped and filtered again, and distributed among dozens of food-grade plastic tubs in the greenhouse. From there, Teresa says, the process becomes a bit “anticlimactic” for a few weeks. The water is left to sit in the sun for as little as two weeks to as long as a month and a half, depending on the weather. The Goodens monitor the bins carefully, removing the chalky calcium sulfate and bitter magnesium sulfate as they form, and as the crystallized salt forms, they sift it through multiple water baths to remove impurities. Once they have harvested the perfect salt, it goes on to be dried, finished and packaged. Some varieties, like the Carolina Flake, Charleston Sea Salt, and Carolina Margarita Salt, are packaged right up after drying, while others endure a few more steps. The Smoked Sea Salt is smoked over hearty chopped oak, while the Red Mash Sea Salt is blended with a fresno pepper mash from Red Clay Hot Sauce. Most interesting of all, perhaps, is the Bourbon Barrel Smoked Flake, which uses thrice-repurposed white oak bourbon barrels sourced from local cocktail mixer company, Bittermilk, lending a distinctive sweet and smoky aroma to the salt. Then, the products rest briefly before retailers, foodies, and chefs from all over the world place their order for a taste of Carolina.
As passionate environmentalists, the Goodens have found a sweet spot with Bulls Bay Saltworks. Taking advantage of a constantly replenishing resource from one of the cleanest sources possible, relying on the power of the sun, and maintaining a minimal carbon footprint, all while offering a sustainable product with just one ingredient would be many an Earth-lover’s version of paradise. For the Goodens, such a privilege does not go unnoticed, and the couple lives and manages their company with gratitude and intention. Conscious to the core, the Lowcountry and its admirers are fortunate that the winds of change brought such salt-of-the-earth people (and their actual salt) to our sandy shores.