Freshly opened oysters on the half shell are broiled with garlic butter at Drago's Restaurant in Metairie Louisiana.
Charles Walton IV / Food styling: Vanessa McNeil
The Shell Game
Whether they are Virginia's Chincoteagues; plump Apalachicola singles; or small, tangy Texas clusters, native oysters are the same species--Crassostrea virginica, the Eastern oyster. Where they live determines whether they will be salty or mild, large or small, and they run the gamut. "Oysters taste like where they're grown," says Shirley Estes, executive director of the Virginia Marine Products Board and an oyster fan. "In the Chesapeake, we like medium-size, salty oysters, called Seasides, that come from the Eastern Shore. But when we get very little rainfall, the salinity of the brackish rivers increases, so all the oysters around here taste saltier."
Most oysters spend their entire lives submerged, growing fat on plankton they filter from the water. A few grow in the space between high and low tides, producing irregular-size oysters that are harvested in clusters. In South Carolina, where intertidal oysters abound, Lowcountry locals swear by their salty, metallic tang, but they often cook singles, which are larger and easier to open.
Gulf oysters, which account for two-thirds of the nation's 750-million-pound harvest, set the taste standard by virtue of sheer numbers. Mike Voisin, owner of Motivatit Seafood in Houma, Louisiana, and chairman of the Oyster Task Force says, "We like an oyster that's 3 to 4 inches, with a shell that's cupped on the bottom. The oyster should taste mild, sweet, and salty. It has a meaty texture with enough saltwater in the shell to be juicy but leave a sweet aftertaste."