A Love Letter to Oysters
This post is a love letter to oysters. But you should just read it to yourself. Oysters have mouths but no ears; they won’t hear a thing.
We hosted an oyster roast over the weekend, one in a long string of oyster roasts I’ve hosted, attended, or crashed. Once, I hovered over a table of steaming bivalves and did not know a single person there. I don’t know whose house it was; I’d just heard there was a big roast, invited myself, and brought a knife. Those oysters were delicious.
They’ve all been delicious. I like tiny ones, like last year when a friend emptied out his beds in the sound near us, bringing the last few bushels of the season – singles with deep cups – each a sweet bite of the beach. I like big juicy ones, too, ones as long as my middle finger (or my husband’s pinky – I have tiny hands). I stab them with an oyster knife to let the excess saltwater drain then dip them in cocktail sauce (extra horseradish, please), dangling them shamelessly over my mouth before letting them slide down in one gulp. My favorites, though, are mid-sized, midway done, jiggly but not oozing, firm but not chewy. I’ll eat those without any cocktail sauce, butter, hot vinegar, hot sauce, or whatever other abomination you’re putting on yours, thank you. And with dark beer – it’s winter, after all.
We eat oysters in the “R” months around here, both because there’s less chance of contamination or bacterial growth in cooler (and less touristy) waters, and because the randy little bivalves mate in the warmer months. They turn gamey when they mate, lean and focused on the continuation of generations, releasing seed and eggs into the water. The resultant babies, or “spat,” settle on hard surfaces (preferably other oysters), and everyone plumps up for my winter eating pleasure.
Oysters don’t appeal to everyone. They’re filter-feeders that eat the plankton (tiny floating critters) in the water. I suppose, during mating season, they eat their own babies. They clean the water as they filter – they can clean around a gallon of water an hour, which is not what one generally wants out of their food. No one’s trying to chew my humidifier filter.
But they’ll line up and pay good money for a taste of an oyster’s salty, unique merroir. That’s a real word, and it’s fun to say, if fancy-sounding for a snotty little ocean scrubber. Merroir is the flavor of the sea; it changes depending on the oyster’s source. Oysters from Stump Sound (just north of Wilmington, NC) are much saltier than Rappahannock river oysters (in the Northern Neck of Virginia), for example. If you suck down a VA river oyster after having been raised on NC salty sounders, you might accidentally “act ugly.” It’s not polite to insult someone else’s oysters, but damn – what is there to taste in Virginia?
Now that’s Crassostrea virginica, the Eastern oyster, native to the southeast coast of the US. Sure, it has “virginica” in the name, but Virginia’s doing it wrong. I guess the pilgrims once guzzled down some Virginia bags of bacteria, and the name stuck. But once they tried NC oysters, they knew they’d tasted saline superiority. They’ve been jealous ever since.
They’re not the only species of oyster. There are five species harvested commercially worldwide and hundreds more out there. I wish I could say that I’ve tasted them all, or even one more than Crassotrea shouldbecarolina, but no, I’ve only sampled my own geographically limited merroir. If you have an oyster to send me, I’ll eat it.
I learned a lot about oysters from reading A Geography of Oysters by Rowan Jacobsen (also, I cheated – I was a marine science teacher). Rowan ate all the oyster species, lucky fella. Before reading his book, I was content with my gnarly gray goobers. Now, I will spend my life wondering what I could be missing.
I was missing their potential for ecological art, that’s for sure, but others found it. In the North River of Carteret County, Carolyn Henne created a 3D art installation from a special material made to grow oysters; you can see it from the air or a boat. She colored and sculpted the material to create an octopus and several large sea stars. As oysters grow, the structures will be altered – like those art-that-interacts-with-its-environment projects you learned about during “Intro to Art” class.
Oysters are surprisingly hard to grow – they need just the right salinity, intertidal range, wave action, water quality, temperatures, and then, if you want to eat them, about two years of waiting time. A storm or any disruption in their needs can ruin the harvest – not that harvesting them is easy. They’re sharp, muddy, heavy, and cemented to each other and their substrate.
Still, people do it anyways, because oysters sell ($60-100/bushel – about 100 oysters depending on size). Oysters are good for water quality, they protect shorelines, and they create habitat. Oysters are sexy. Living shorelines, oyster farming, and name-brand oysters are trending. Plus, they’re supposed to make you feel sexy. But that could be the beer talking.
If you want to host a roast, invite whoever you want, but jot down how many oysters they will eat. There’s a big difference in preparing for a 1/2-busheler like myself versus a “maybe 6 or so” saltine sampler. Get your oysters, ice them, keep the raccoons and possums out, then spray them off with the hose before cooking, so your hands and mouth don’t get so muddy.
You have several options. One option is not to cook at all and crack those calcified fortresses open with sheer willpower (and maybe throwing them onto a hard surface; I think it disorients them and makes them easier to crack. Also, it’s fun.). They will be cold and extra snotty, but you won’t lose any flavor or texture to the fire.
If you’re just feeding a few pigeons, throw them in a deep pan (not your favorite pan) in the oven with a half-inch of water or so in the bottom. Cook them until they open, adding water if it dries out and turning on the exhaust fan.
Don’t want them in the house? Do the same thing but on the grill. Benefit: you can put wet oyster rags on the grill top to dry while they cook.
Because you need rags, a big pile of cut-up old towels, to lay across one hand while the other hand wields the knife. The rags will protect you (from the oyster but more importantly from your own knife), catch some of the leftover marsh muck, and allow you to handle the shells hot off the grill. If you wait any longer, I’ll eat them all first.
More people? Get a steam pot. We got a 53qt one this time; your ability to lift it while full of oysters is your limiting factor here. Rags can also dry on the pot lid.
About a hundred people? Invite me. Hell, might as well; I’ll show up anyways.
You need a pit (and a keg). Stack cinder blocks to make a rectangle or square, leaving spaces between them for airflow. It doesn’t have to be very high.
Steal a large metal street sign or wait for a hurricane to knock one down. Have a teenager stab holes in it with his/her unfocused rage. Put your oysters on that, over a low fire in the pit (again, wait for a hurricane for firewood). Throw a few wet burlap sacks over the oysters (you can get these at the feed store) until they open
Pour out your oysters onto a table, break out the knives (I’ll bring my own), and dig in.
They may have better oysters in France. But at my house last weekend, I got tiny plump pea crabs in at least one out of every ten I opened. I love their quick crunch. I got three half-inch long cuts on my right hand, four dark craft beers, a half-bushel of friends, and I got to laugh loudly over a table full of Carolina’s finest. Lucky gal.