Charles Walton IV / Food styling: Vanessa McNeil
Southerners love the taste and lore of oysters. Whether we anoint them with heavy cream, treat them to a steamy, burlap-wrapped sauna, or bathe them in hot peanut oil, we treat oysters with reverence, displaying a nearly cultlike devotion.
Nonetheless, oysters are unlikely culinary icons. They're not exciting to catch, as fish are, nor do they beckon like a shapely crimson tomato. Once you have stabbed, pried, and muscled your way into an oyster's shell, you discover that eye appeal is not one of its qualities either. If there were no one around to tell you how terrific oysters taste, why would you bother?
Fortunately for oyster lovers everywhere, some hungry Neolithic-era soul did bother, and humans have been eating these briny bivalves ever since--nowhere more faithfully than in our region of the country.
Along the Southeast coast, oysters steamed over a blazing fire provide cause for celebration, perfuming chilly nights with their distinctive aroma. Restaurants in Apalachicola, Florida, one of the great oyster-producing bays, serve them fried and on the half shell, satisfying diners year-round. Mid-Atlantic residents favor fritters and oyster stew to chase away winter's chill, while New Orleanians, not surprisingly, enjoy them in a host of richly sauced preparations.
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."
Sharing the Wealth
We have been generous with this tasty resource, at one time shipping huge numbers of oysters from the East Coast and Gulf of Mexico to satisfy the appetites of the country's interior.
Al Sunseri, whose family operates P&J Oyster Company in New Orleans, says that until 1961, "Railway Express shipped our oysters in barrels [with ice] to 48 states, Canada, and Mexico. The trains would pick up barrels three times a day. Now we use trailer trucks--we don't need to be close to the trains to ship. We still sell to a number of states, but not as many as we once did."
The oyster lovers among us must be happy that fewer oysters are being exported. After all, they feel passionately patriotic about these stony emissaries, whether small and salty or large and sweet. And in true Southern style, their popularity is all about loyalty, respect, and, naturally, good food. We presume that being cooked and eaten will be the oysters' finest hour (at least in our eyes), and we will lovingly enjoy every moment with them.
So take time this month (perhaps the best of the year for enjoying oysters) to schedule a small feast.
But Are They Safe?
Cooked oysters are generally safe to eat. Raw oysters, though, can harbor a variety of ills, among them Norwalk virus, which causes stomach upset, and hepatitis (though such occurrences are extremely rare). In the last decade, a naturally occurring bacteria called Vibrio vulnificus has caused serious illness and death in a number of people. The seafood industry has come up with ways to treat raw oysters to kill the bacteria, called post-harvest processing or PHP. Oysters can be frozen, treated with hydrostatic pressure, or pasteurized. Oysters treated this way are designated virtually bacteria-free by the FDA. If you are concerned about eating raw ones, ask your seafood market to order post-harvest processed oysters. In a restaurant, ask if the oysters have been post-harvest processed. If not, order cooked oysters instead.
This article is from the February 2005 issue of Southern Living.