“IT WAS A BOLD MAN that first ate an oyster,” Jonathan Swift wrote in Polite Conversation (c.1738). He got that right, but ancient oyster shell middens (a.k.a. trash heaps) prove that people have been shucking and eating oysters since ancient Roman times, when it would have been gauche to hold a banquet—or orgy—without them.
The Doctrine of Signatures, which has its origins in ancient Greece, posits that a food’s appearance signifies its benefit to humans. Someone, somewhere, apparently thought the oyster bears a resemblance to a certain element of human anatomy, thus, oysters have long been considered an aphrodisiac. It’s said that legendary eighteenth-century lover Casanova ate 50 raw oysters every morning to increase his sexual stamina. A team of American and Italian scientists believes he might have been onto something—they found that oysters were rich in rare amino acids that increase sex hormones in both men and women. Oysters also are high in zinc, which is known to increase testosterone and sperm production.
Oysters are naturally high in protein, as well as many essential vitamins and minerals, including, iron, omega-3 fatty acids, calcium, copper, zinc, magnesium and vitamin B12. They’re also relatively high in cholesterol, though researchers from the University of Washington have found that oysters may actually lower bad while raising good cholesterol.
The Hudson River once was filled with oyster beds that were harvested by the Lenape people long before Henry Hudson appeared on the scene. In the early nineteenth century, oysters were cheap and eaten primarily by working-class people, but by the turn of the twentieth century, they were ubiquitous and served in fine dining restaurants, oyster cellars, and from street vendors alongside hot corn and peanuts.
Oysters can be wild (cultivated) or farmed (cultured). A single oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day, picking up nutrients as the water flows through it. The environment of the water has come to be known as their merroir, a riff on terroir, which denotes the effects that weather and soil have on wine.
While more than 150 varieties of oysters are harvested in the U.S. and Canada, they all stem from five different species.
Atlantic oysters (Crassostrea virginica) and Olympia oysters (Ostrea lurida) are the only two species indigenous to North America. Atlantics are found along the East Coast, from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico—mostly in the Canadian Maritimes, New England, Long Island Sound and the Chesapeake Bay. Atlantic oysters tend to be brinier than other oysters, with a clean flavor and a savory (not sweet) finish. About 85 percent of all oysters harvested in North America are Atlantics; those from Long Island are considered the mildest.
Some of the most popular Atlantic oysters are Wellfleets, from Massachusetts, and Blue Points, originally from Blue Point, Long Island. (Blue Points were all the rage as early as the 1800s; a 1908 law even prohibited calling any oyster a “Blue Point” that hadn’t spent at least three months in the Great South Bay.) Unfortunately, the popularity of Blue Points led to overfishing and near-extinction. Today, “blue point” is almost a generic term for bland, unimpressive, “happy hour” oysters that may have been grown in Connecticut, New Jersey or Virginia. Tasty, original Blue Points are making a comeback, however: Look for Sexton Island True Blues (from Long Island Blue Point) and Genuine Blue Points (from Blue Island Oyster Company).
Olympias—roughly the size of a quarter—are among the smallest oyster species, but their small size belies a potent punch. They have a creamy texture with strong flavors of copper and a metallic finish. When he lived in San Francisco, Mark Twain fell under their spell. He started his day with eggs and Olympia oysters and, in the evening, “move upon the supper works and destroy oysters done up in all kinds of seductive styles.” He referred to his lodging, The Occidental Hotel (well known for its cuisine), as “Heaven on the half shell.” “Olys” have been grown in Puget Sound, Washington, since 1878; today, it’s the only place they still grow—their population was decimated by pollution and overharvesting elsewhere.
Popular oysters introduced to North American waters include the European Flat, Pacific oysters and the Kumamoto.
The European Flat (Ostrea edulis) is from the same family as the Olympia and is the most potent-tasting oyster. The best-known European Flat is the very briny and metallic-tasting Belon, beloved by the oyster-loving French, which is grown exclusively in Brittany’s brackish Belon River estuary. Belons were introduced into Boothbay Harbor, Maine, in the 1950s; now wild Maine Belon oysters are a rare and prized delicacy; it’s estimated that only 5,000 are harvested a year.
Originally from Asia, Pacific oysters (Crassostrea gigas) were introduced to the U.S. in the early 1900s and to France in the 1970s. Today, they’re the most widely cultivated oysters in the world. They grow quickly and many reach market size in 18 months. Pacific oysters tend to be sweet, buttery, and less briny than Atlantics.
Another Asian import, the tiny Kumamoto (or Kumo) oyster (Crassostrea sikamea) originated in southern Japan, where it is considered undesirable because of its size. In 1947, the Kumo was introduced into Washington State waters as a replacement for the endangered Oly. Kumos have a buttery texture with a sweet, almost nutty flavor. Because of their mild flavor and small size, they’re perfect “starter” oysters, though they’re also prized by aficionados. For farmers, the good news is that Kumos can be harvested well into the summer, extending the oyster-growing season. The bad news is that they’re slow—almost glacial—growers and can take three years to reach market size.
Between 1890 and 1910, there were 350 square miles of oyster beds in the lower Hudson estuary—New York Harbor, in fact, was home to half the world’s oysters. By the 1920s, New York’s oyster beds had been destroyed by pollution and disease introduced by foreign oysters brought in to satisfy demand. Today, New York oysters generally come from Long Island Sound, but some naturalists have built artificial reefs in the Hudson and Bronx rivers for oysters. Chris Anderson, lead diver and director of education for the Manhattan-based River Project, is tracking wild oysters at Pier 42. Unfortunately, Anderson estimates, Hurricane Sandy in 2012 destroyed up to 20 percent of the pier’s oyster population.
While we may not reprise the oyster’s heyday, Island Creek Oysters founder Skip Bennett says we are living in “America’s oyster renaissance.” Oyster selections at area restaurants change daily, reflecting the market and availability.
What about the axiom that oysters should only be eaten in months that have an “r” in them? That was true before refrigeration and the development of new varieties of oysters that don’t breed in the summer. (When oysters breed they become milky and mushy and undesirable to all but the most hardcore oyster lovers.) When considering an oyster, make sure that the liquid inside is relatively clear (not cloudy or yellow), the flesh is shiny, and it doesn’t smell rotten or fishy. A bad oyster will result in what competitive oyster eaters quaintly call “a reversal of fortune”—something you don’t want to experience, regardless of the state of your love life.
Conferencing on Oysters
Representatives from 18 countries and 19 U.S. coastal states will gather in October for an international symposium on the economics, politics and science of the global oyster industry and the effects of the industry on the environment and human culture. The sixth biennial conference, October 21-23, will be held at Woods Hole and Falmouth, on Cape Cod. This year marks the first time the conference has been held on U.S. soil. For more information, visit oystersymposium.org.
Call it coincidence or call it design, the oyster symposium wraps up Oyster Week, October 17-24. And it also marks the opening of an exhibit of oyster paintings by Milan (Dutchess County) artist Nadine Robbins, whose work also appears in this issue. Robbins, a graphic design graduate of SUNY New Paltz, is known primarily for her large-scale portraits and nudes, and only recently turned to oysters as a subject. "I'm crazy about food in general," she writes, "and I chose oysters as a subject because they are something I love—I see each oyster as an individual—sculptural and raw, beautiful and abstract." To see more of her work, visit nadinerobbinsart.com.