I spent my childhood in western Washington State, most of it within 20 miles of the Puget Sound, but somehow, I don't think I ever ate an oyster until I was in my mid-twenties. My brothers and I loved salmon and crab, but were resolutely, wrong headedly disgusted by razor clams (although we happily dug them for our parents). I assumed oysters were similarly yucky until years later, I tried them smoked. The smoky flavor masked what I wrongly assumed would have been a strong fishy flavor, and the texture wasn't as chewy as clams. Smoked led to fried; a few years later, I slurped my first raw oyster, and I finally settled into a long love affair with oysters. Nothing starts off a fancy (or romantic) meal better than a few oysters on the half shell, with their briny sweetness, their incomparable texture and their unique presentation.
Jonathan Swift wrote that "It was a brave man who first ate an oyster" but no matter how many have since gone before, each of us who've looked upon a slimy, grayish, watery bivalve and screwed up the courage to slurp it down in spite of its appearance must be an adventurous sort. To this day, every time I eat them, I still experience a split second of worry. Will it be gross? Amazingly, they've always been delicious.
Just looking at an oyster, I feel a sense of adventure and wonder about a natural world that could produce such a strange and delightful treat. Living as we do in a culture that produces increasingly novel but not very nutritious or interesting foods, oysters are a comforting throwback to an approach to eating at once simpler and more complex.
A Brief History
Oysters are believed to have been imbibed since the dawn of humanity. Several cultures, including the Chinese and Romans, are known to have farmed oysters as early as the 5th century BCE.
Oysters played a huge role in New York City, which grew to be seen as the oyster capital of the world in its early history, chronicled by Mark Kurlansky in The Big Oyster. Manhattan's Pearl Street - named for an oyster - was once paved in oyster shells. The rocky bivalve grew to the size of dinner plates in the Hudson Bay, and immigrants dubbed Ellis and Liberty Islands Little Oyster and Great Oyster Islands, respectively. Eventually, New York's huge population, the waste they created and their appetite for oysters led to shortages from overharvesting and pollution. The city limited their consumption and later, farmers figured out how to take seed stocks to less polluted areas and cultivate them on a commercial level.
They had their rise and fall in Britain, too, and experienced a revival over the past ten years or so, but the industry there (and in other areas around the globe) is threatened by oyster herpes.
Native Americans on both coasts were known to have eaten tons of oysters. On New York's Long Island, the Shinnecock Tribe has resurrected its local oyster industry, with benefit to the local economy and waterways.
- This cool oyster-centric blog overflows with interesting information about oysters - check out this post about a whistling oyster that inspired the name of a bar - and has a collection of links to videos of people performing songs about oysters.
- About.com has a cute little roundup of oyster history factoids, including these: Abraham Lincoln had parties where he served nothing but oysters, and Ancient Greeks served them to get people to drink.
- Thousands, maybe millions of us have laid claim to the world as an oyster, but can you name the reference? (I couldn't.) It's from William Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor: Why then the world's mine oyster/Which I with sword will open.
- In his book On Suicide, Scottish philosopher David Hume wrote that "The life of man is of no greater importance to the universe than that of an oyster."
- Theodore Roosevelt famously said: "Get action. Seize the moment. Man was never intended to become an oyster."
- And who can forget Lewis Carroll's silly and perhaps precautionary tale about oysters, the Walrus and the Carpenter?
- Much has been written about whether or not vegans should eat oysters. Huffington Post says no, Slate says yes. Care to go deeper? Wade into the troubled waters of the oyster pages on just about any vegan message board, because this controversy has been around for awhile.
True oysters (as opposed to pearl or other varieties) belong to the Ostreidae family, which includes the genera Ostrea, Crassostrea, Ostreola and Saccostrea. Like clams, mussels and scallops, oysters are bivalves, or aquatic mollusks with hinged shells. They're found throughout the world's oceans, usually growing in clumps, or reefs, in shallow coastal waters. They are filter feeders (eating mostly phytoplankton, but in the process, filtering and cycling nutrients in the water) and provide habitat for other fish.
Food oysters can grow pearls inside but usually don't - pearl oysters are a different species, but it's likely that oyster farming techniques developed alongside pearl farming.
There are a few different methods of cultivating oysters. All include the same early stage, where oysters grow loose to the size of "spat," at which point they are ready to attach themselves to some form of substrate, referred to as a "cultch," or in some cases, are allowed to grow a little larger, to be used as "seed." This is where farmers come in and methods vary; one is to distribute seed or spat along existing oyster beds, another is to raise them in bags or cages held off the sea floor and the third to raise them in a specially prepared tank optimized for oyster production.
95 percent of the world's oysters are farmed. China leads the world's production, followed by Korea, Japan and the US. The US consumes about 60 percent of the world's oysters.
As the old adage goes, it's best not to eat oysters during months without any "R"s in them - in other words, summer. As mentioned in the nutrition section below, certain dangerous bacteria thrive in warmer weather, and before modern technologies like refrigerated trucks and chilled tanks, summertime oysters were more dangerous. The Pacific oyster in particular is said to be seasonless, after clever breeding created sexless varieties that boast consistent quality year round.
As seafood goes, oysters are among the few species one can ingest without guilt. Other shellfish may vary by region or how they were harvested, but oysters - by and large - are really good for the environment. They provide a good alternative to land-based animal protein, and as bivalves, they help cycle nutrients in the water they live in, cutting down on pollution. Adult oysters filter 2.5 gallons of water an hour, or more than 50 gallons per day! Also, oyster reefs help protect coastal areas from flooding and erosion.
However, overreliance on mechanical harvesting can cause great damage to oyster beds. Even harvesting by hand is tricky - in natural beds (as opposed to tanks or cages), oysters pile up on each other, and when hurried harvesters remove large chunks of oyster bed, they harvest immature oysters and reduce the size of the reef, which also plays a great role in preventing coastal erosion.
Oysters' formidable shell and strong abductor muscle - both of which make it tough to shuck them - keep them safe from predators. They are not the world's prettiest food, with their grayish flesh, rocky-looking shells and fleshy texture. But they smell and taste of the sea, and there's really nothing quite like them.
What to look for
First and foremost, look for oysters with shells that are not broken. If one is open, tap it; if it doesn't close, toss it.
Beyond that, what to look for depends on what type of oyster you like. I mostly prefer mine small and salty, which is lucky, since West coast oysters (the ones I spent my childhood oblivious of) tend toward the sweeter side. You may, like me, want a smaller oyster, especially if you're eating them raw on the shell or even more so, as shooters.
There are some great guides out there - this one urges you to figure out your oyster lover "type" and choose accordingly. Oysterpedia, a cool app, describes various types of East and West coast oysters, and allows you to make notes about varieties you come across.
Nutrition and effects on the body
Oysters are really good for you - rich in protein, phosphorus, iodine, calcium, iron, and vitamins A, B and C.
In a 2005 meeting of the American Chemical Society, scientists announced findings that raw oysters really do have aphrodisiac qualities, and that the amino acids that lead to higher levels of sex hormones is highest in the spring.
Eating raw oysters is not without risk. A really scary-sounding marine bacteria called Vibrio vulnificus occurs naturally, especially in low-saline areas like bays and estuaries, and is most common during warm summer months. The FDA recommends cooking oysters thoroughly to prevent getting sick. Your chances of contracting Vibrio vulnificus are relatively very slim, but they've increased: last summer saw twice as many reported cases than the year before, and affected areas are creeping north due to climate change.
What to Do with It
I prefer oysters raw or fried, and don't tend to seek them out in other preparations, but they're also good grilled, in oyster stew, I've enjoyed oyster stuffing, grilled oysters, oysters Rockefeller, oyster sliders, you name it.
To be sure you're eating them as safely as possible, discard any broken or chipped shells. If an oyster is slightly open, tap it with your fingernail and if it doesn't close itself, toss them.
Probably the most intimidating part of dealing with oysters is shucking them. Their tight, craggy shells can be tricky to open. Using the right knife and the right technique is key. Check out Molly Watson's clear oyster shucking instructions on About.com.
Fresh oysters will keep in the fridge a few days, provided they aren't sealed in plastic, or you'll suffocate them. Once cooked, anything uneaten should go right back to the refrigerator.
In spite of the FDA's recommendations against ingesting raw oysters, it's still my favorite preparation. This mignonette recipe, courtesy of my wonderful husband, is a simple twist on the classic, subbing tarragon for parsley and white pepper for black. This recipe makes plenty for a dozen or more oysters.
2 TBS champagne vinegar
3 TBS dry white wine
2 TBS diced shallots
½ TBS minced fresh tarragon
¼ tsp ground white pepper
Combine all ingredients; let rest in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.
(*Real Food rule of thumb: We think that first and foremost, in terms of nutrition, people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not. The EWG's guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them - agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, tends to have a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry's tendency toward large monocrops.)
This post was originally published in February 2014.