Yes, raw oysters taste meh and look worse. So why bother?
By Leslie Bilderback 04/30/2014
Trends come and go, especially in food (a least we hope so — see the cronut). But some trends have persisted. Case in point — the oyster. Perhaps it is because of its much-touted qualities as an aphrodisiac, an idea that sprang from the myth of Aphrodite, who was born from its shell (although Botticelli thought she was the spawn of a scallop). Or perhaps the oyster’s popularity stems from its ubiquity. Every coastal community around the globe since prehistory shows evidence of consumption of this nutritious food. Middens (also called shell heaps), often meters deep and miles long, have been discovered from Korea to Canada, containing debris from human activity. Oyster shells were used as building material and road paving in much of the colonial world. The oyster-paved roads of Williamsburg, Virginia, proved too tempting for my kids, whose pockets were found full of shells once we unpacked from that excursion.
But historical use cannot explain the oyster’s popularity in modern times. Now that we have irrigation, and agriculture, and pizza, why would we need to eat oysters? Because, let’s face it — oysters are not delicious. I am not a timid eater. And yes, I eat oysters. But there are many foods I’d rather eat. Their texture is weird, their flavor unremarkable and they look pretty gross. (I call ’em as I see ’em.)
So what gives?
When Henry Hudson sailed into New York Harbor, the lower estuary held an estimated 350 square miles of oyster beds, now thought to be half the world’s oyster population at the time. Ellis and Liberty islands were first known as Great and Little Oyster islands because of the beds that surrounded them. By the 19th century, New York oysters had become world-renowned for their flavor and size, with some recorded up to a foot in length. (The thought of slurping that down is too horrible for words.) They were exported around the world and remained a cheap and easy food source within the city until the approach of the 20th century, when erosion, disease and pollution reduced the harvest and drove up the price.
Oysters remained a favorite food of the well-to-do and appeared in a variety of forms in all the new restaurants popping up in America’s cities. After terrapin soup, oysters were the era’s most sought-after dish. (Turtles fed on the oysters, so their numbers diminished too.) Abraham Lincoln is known to have hosted oyster parties, and a stagecoach known as “the Oyster Line” exported barrels of them to the frontier. Innkeepers in the mining towns of the West knew they had to stock oysters for those customers who’d struck it rich. For rich and poor, immigrant and “native,” oysters were the symbol of success. Though considered a food of the elite, they meshed nicely with the essence of the American Dream and the fuel behind the settling of the West: the belief that we would all join the elite eventually — all it took was gumption. Even on death row, oysters offered a bump in status. The Gold Rush classic Hangtown Fry, an omelet with bacon and oysters, was created upstate in Placerville (a.k.a. Hangtown) as a last meal request. The hard-to-acquire ingredients added nearly a week to the poor sot’s lifespan.
Photo by Joe Atlas, www.joeatlasphotography.com
My first experience with oysters was at the hands of my grandfather, who considered smoked oysters (or “ersters” as he called them) on a Ritz cracker suitable afternoon fare for a 10-year-old. (He was right — it is still a favorite snack.) Later he advanced me to fried oysters, which I love a little less but will still eat in homage to him. In culinary school, not only was I inclined to proclaim I liked them raw (I refuse to look wimpy), but I had to prove proficiency at shucking. (Insert the oyster knife into the hinge, twist until it pops, then slide the blade along the opening and loosen the muscle to separate the shells — and don’t lose any of the juicy “liquor” in the process.) As a result, I can hold my own at an oyster bar, although, if I had my druthers I would probably not go there in the first place. In my opinion (American Dream, be damned) oyster slurping is a National Pretension.
Sure, you can call me a poseur — or perhaps I am just polite?
Leslie Bilderback, a certified master baker, chef and author of Mug Cakes: 100 Speedy Microwave Treats to Satisfy your Sweet Tooth (St. Martin’s Press), lives in South Pasadena and teaches her techniques online at culinarymasterclass.com.
There are just five oyster species available in the U.S.: Eastern (or Atlantic), Pacific, Kumamoto (formerly considered Pacific, but recently given its own category), European (sometimes called Belon, or European Flats) and Olympia. The various names within each species reflect the area from which they are harvested.
Flavors vary according to water’s temperature, salinity, mineral content and marine vegetation. Oysters feed on plankton by filtering water through the shells and over the muscle, imparting the flavors of the terroir to the meat.
Colder temperatures produce firmer, saltier oysters and are considered the best choice for raw preparation. Months that contain an “R” are traditionally the best oyster months. This is because warmer water temperatures promote spawning, which renders the muscle fatty, watery, soft and less flavorful. This adage also stems from the historical lack of refrigeration needed to preserve oysters in the hot months. Today you can ignore that, as most oysters are imported from cooler climates or raised in farms.
Choose tightly shut oysters. If they are open, they should shut tightly when tapped. If they don’t, they’re dead, and therefore not good to eat. RIP.
Store oysters in the fridge, in an open container with a damp towel placed on top, for up to 48 hours (but consuming within 24 hours of purchase is best).
To relax the oyster muscles before shucking, place them in the freezer for 10 minutes. Just don’t forget about them.
Conscientious eaters take note: Because they feed on plankton, which is low on the food chain, and are not harvested by dredging, oysters are considered a sustainable food source and appear as a best choice on the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s much-praised Seafood Watch List. They are, however, still frequently pried out of their homes and eaten alive — so there’s that.