Oysters Have Reputation for Spurring Passions

By Patricia B. Mitchell

Oysters at Tassey's Pier, Savannah, Georgia

Oysters at Tassey's Pier, Savannah, Georgia, 1985.

Oysters get skinny from over-exertion during their mating season. This takes place in the warm months, which is why oysters are traditionally not eaten in May, June, July, and August (months without the letter ”r” in them).

Oysters during the summer are safe to eat, assuming they are fresh and have been kept chilled. They will just not be as plump. Neutered oysters (there is such a thing!) are fine year-round.

The now-classic bumper sticker says “Eat fish, live longer. Eat oysters, love longer.” Whether or not there is any truth to the idea, promoted by Casanova, that the crusty-shelled creatures are “a spur to the spirits and to love,” these “saline jewels” (as food writer Cecille Lamalle calls the bivalves) arouse gastronomic if not erotic passions.

Christopher Sullivan described this reaction succinctly: “Yum or yuk.” You love 'em or hate 'em, or as Jonathan Swift commented, “He was a bold man that first ate an oyster.”

Once when President Franklin Roosevelt dined on Oysters Rockefeller, the appetizer creation of Antoine's Restaurant in New Orleans (and thought to be America's single greatest contribution to haute cuisine), New Orleans Mayor Robert Maestri leaned over, and in typical Ninth Ward New Orleans-ese convivially queried the President, "How ya like dem ersters?" Richard and Pat Nixon enjoyed Antoine's Oysters Rockefeller while in New Orleans celebrating their first wedding anniversary.

Oysters Rockefeller at Antoine's are splendid, but my husband and I prefer to walk four blocks from Antoine's and sidle up to the oyster bar at Acme or slide into the booths at Felix's and watch the shuckers nimbly pop open the fresh raw (live!) oysters.

We each spear a dozen of the little beauties on their half-shells, pausing just long enough to bathe them lightly in our own mixtures of cocktail sauce, horseradish, and lemon juice before swallowing them whole (no chewing, please, just squeeze them with your tongue!). It is said that a desirable raw oyster has a flavor just like saliva, so you don't so much taste them as feel them.

Famous oyster types include Chicoteagues and Kents; Malpeques from Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia; Bon Secours from Mobile Bay; English Colchesters; French belons; etc. Despite the variety and range of supply, it is being outstripped by demand, and occasional ecological disasters deny harvests from certain oyster beds. As a result, oysters are becoming an expensive delicacy.

In 1853 Mrs. J. Chadwick's Home Cooking spoke of “enhancing” a Gumbo Soup with one hundred oysters as if she were writing “season to taste.” Out of 100,000 baby oyster larvae, only a dozen survive. In 3 to 4 years these youngsters reach eating size. What vast oyster beds it would take to feed the world in the style of Mrs. Chadwick!

Today's prices, though high, don't match those of the California gold rush, when a sort of oyster cult developed in San Francisco and gold miners making an average daily wage of $10-$20 readily paid $6 apiece for fresh East Coast oysters arriving in barrels.

— How about 2 dozen on the half shell?