Nearly four inches long, the "Sand Dune" oyster from Prince Edward Island was so plump, it was bulging out of its shell "like a large breast in a small brassiere," as Rodney Clark, the owner of Rodney's Oyster House in Toronto, put it. Intensely briny and wonderfully sweet, the big, fat, beige-colored oyster tasted like a mouthful of salty butterscotch ice cream.
Clark, an oyster expert, has a lot to say about the oyster's reputation as an aphrodisiac, a subject that often comes up around Valentine's Day. Instead of the usual nod-nod, wink-wink, "let's just say" explanation that most oyster authorities give, Clark launches into an embarrassingly detailed yarn about a hooker nicknamed "the cat woman." She came in all the time and worked the bar at Rodney's. After sharing some oysters with a guy, she would slip a hand into his lap and grope him. "It was quite a floor show for the people at the tables next to the bar," Clark recalls. "We finally had to ask her to leave."
Clark's restaurant has an artful collection of black-and-white bearded oyster photos taken by famous photographers hanging in the oyster bar's men's room. Besides being an oyster expert, Clark's a former art student, and oyster-related erotica is one of his favorite genres.
Valentine's Day is one of the busiest times of the year at Rodney's. Oysters are to Valentine's Day what turkey is to Thanksgiving. And this Valentine's weekend may be the best time to eat oysters in recent American history. There are plenty of oysters on the market, and the recession is keeping prices low. While many restaurants reported dismal holiday sales figures, oyster sales were up.
"We have been riding an oyster high since the turn of the century, and the oyster business is still hot," says Sandy Ingber, head chef and oyster buyer at the Grand Central Oyster Bar in New York. "There doesn't seem to be a letdown in oyster demand." The busiest oyster bar in the country is buying extra supplies for Valentine's weekend — Ingber expects to sell around 10,000 half-shell oysters on Friday and Saturday alone.
On the West Coast, Bill Taylor of Taylor Shellfish in Shelton, Washington, says he can't produce enough oysters to meet the ever-higher demand. And on the Gulf Coast, Jim Gossen at Louisiana Foods reports holiday oyster sales were up around 25 percent over last year and orders for Valentine's Day are brisk.
Better enjoy it while you can. Marine biologists and oyster experts aren't so optimistic about Valentine's Day 2010. Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav and Ike have limited the Gulf oyster harvest and damaged oyster reefs. And failures in West Coast hatcheries may be the result of an even more disturbing problem.
Ocean acidification is a worldwide phenomenon related to the accumulation of excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The ocean absorbs the carbon dioxide, which makes the water more acidic. This increased acidity has myriad effects on ocean chemistry. Among other things, it retards the ability of marine microorganisms to turn calcium into shell. Ocean acidification has already been blamed for a slowdown in the creation of coral reefs. It may also be the reason that oyster larvae in West Coast hatcheries are dying before they form shells.
Oyster lovers could be in for a rough couple of years. When the current crop of mature oysters is sold out, predictions are there won't be enough new oysters to meet demand.
I wish I could tell you where to get a Sand Dune this Valentine's weekend, but you probably wouldn't think much of it anyway. That's because I visited Rodney's Oyster House in the first week of December, the absolute peak of the Canadian oyster season. By mid-December, Canadian waters get so cold that the oysters stop feeding and the bays on Prince Edward Island freeze over. By February, the oysters have shrunk up in their shells.
If you want to eat great oysters, you need to check the weather report, Rodney Clark explained. You hear a lot about how the flavor of an oyster comes from the water where it's grown. But you don't hear much about how dramatically the flavor of every oyster changes with the weather. In fact, seasonality may be as important as geography when it comes to buying oysters.
At their peak of flavor, oysters are bulging with fat and completely opaque, Rodney explained. To pluck them from the water at their maximum "ripeness," you need to understand the life cycle of an oyster. As the water gets colder in the fall, oysters fatten up with a carbohydrate compound called glycogen. To our palate, glycogen tastes like sugar. In the spring, when the water warms, the oyster slowly converts glycogen into gonad in preparation for reproduction. As it does, it begins tasting fishier. Then in the early summer, the oyster spawns and loses much of its mass and nearly all of its flavor.
In far northern oyster regions, oysters start tasting great in September. But when the water temperature dips below 40 degrees Fahrenheit in December or January, the oyster goes into a sort of hibernation and stops feeding until the water warms up again. Northern oyster experts talk about peak "shoulder seasons" of late November and early April. In between, during the January-to-March lull, Rodney's Oyster House shops for oysters farther south. In March of last year, Rodney Clark brought a couple of shipments of plump Gulf oysters to Toronto for the first time. In the summer, he buys winter oysters from New Zealand and Australia.
So what's the best oyster to eat right now? If the water temperature in Puget Sound holds, Valentine's weekend might be a great time to try the Totten Inlet Virginica (TIV), the hottest oyster in the country. Virginica is short for the Latin Crassostrea virginica, the scientific name for the oyster that's native to the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Virginicas are harvested from Canada all the way to Mexico. But oddly, the Totten Inlet Virginica comes from Washington State.
Washington virginicas are left over from an old oystering tradition. They were first transplanted to Washington after the native Olympias died out in the late 1800s. They were eventually replaced by the faster-growing Pacific oyster — Crassostrea gigas — a Japanese transplant. But a few virginicas remained.
Jon Rowley is the man who made the TIV famous. The tall, muscular, white-haired Rowley is a former Alaska fisherman who's been called the P.T. Barnum of the oyster industry. He's the guy who coined the term "Great American Oyster Renaissance." He's also the guy who thought there was something unique about Copper River salmon and started bringing the fish to market unfrozen in 1983. When he talks about seafood, people listen.
I met Rowley on the front porch of Fairview Grange Hall on Washington's Olympia Peninsula a couple of years ago while he was shucking oysters for a holiday party. His little washtub oyster bar had Pacific oysters and tiny Kumamoto oysters, but the ones he was keen on talking about were the Totten Inlet Virginicas. "They are Eastern oysters that are born and raised in Washington State," he would explain to the partygoers who came over to check out the oysters. Then he'd say, "They are my nominee for best oyster on the planet." It's hard to resist a come-on like that. But the TIV delivered on the promise. Every TIV was a large, meaty specimen with the opaque, creamy-beige color that indicates a very sweet oyster.
In April 2008, the East Coast Shellfish Growers Association held a blind tasting of virginicas. Oysters from nineteen different appellations on the East, West and Gulf coasts were judged. The Duxbury oyster from Massachusetts won the overall category. But the TIV was judged the best-tasting virginica oyster.
"TIVs are one of our most popular oysters. We go through around 1,800 regular-size and 250 extra-large ones every week," Sandy Ingber says. While the local Blue Points are selling for $1.75 each at Grand Central Oyster Bar, the regular three-and-a-quarter-inch TIVs are going for $2.95 each and the four-to-five-inch "Titan"-size TIVs are selling for $3.50. Most oyster connoisseurs insist they are worth every penny.
I got some TIVs by mail order and did a tasting in my back yard in Houston. I shucked some TIVs, some five-inch Texas oysters and some three-inch Apalachicola oysters and asked Gulf oyster dealer Jim Gossen to join me in tasting all three side by side. I knew which was which, but he didn't.
First he pulled a refractometer out of his pocket and tested all three for salinity. The TIV had the highest saline content at close to 50 parts per 1,000, versus about 45 parts per 1,000 for the other two. Then Gossen ate all three. He liked the TIV the best. So did I. It wasn't just saltier, it was also sweeter.
It seemed odd to see TIVs and Gulf oysters side by side. Outside of Rodney's, you seldom find them both in the same oyster bar. There are two oyster cultures in America. In Houston, where I live, the two cultures overlap. Gulf oysters sell for an average of $7 to $12 a dozen in old-fashioned oyster saloons. These oysters are the product of an oyster-fishing industry that goes back many generations. Meanwhile, gourmet oysters like TIVs, Duxburys and Malpeques go for $2 to $3 apiece in upscale seafood restaurants. These oysters are produced by a new generation of cultivators who are reviving the oyster industry in areas where oyster fishing long ago died out.
If you ask the shucker in a Gulf Coast oyster saloon about gourmet oysters, he'll laugh at how much money those rich suckers are paying for their itty-bitty oysters. And if you ask the shucker about Gulf oysters in an upscale oyster bar, he'll tell you they are lethal. If you eat oysters, you have probably already been pressured into taking sides.
John Finger is the founder of Hog Island Oyster Company on Tomales Bay just north of San Francisco. A trained marine biologist and a thin, wiry guy in a gray hoodie, Finger has a rack-and-bag oyster-farming operation planted close to the mouth of the bay, where the salinity is the highest.
"Gulf oyster fishermen are a bunch of cowboys. They don't care what happens to the oysters after they leave their docks," Finger said during a tour. "Oyster farmers have a different mentality; they are more nurturing." You hear a lot of these kinds of sentiments from oyster farmers, and they are understandable. Gulf oystermen are exploiting a public resource, while oyster farmers are caring for a crop.
Hog Island Oyster Company uses state-of-the-art Stanley racks. The racks have swivels that allow the sacks of oysters to flip back and forth as the tide goes in and out, giving the oysters a more regular shape. To guard against contamination, the oysters are purified with an expensive UV filtering system. The company, which produces several species of oysters as well as other shellfish, is helping to restore the Olympia oyster to its native habitat. The operation is on par with the best in the world, and Hog Island is one of the most famous oyster brand names in the country.
After our tour, I joined a group of friends for lunch in Hog Island's idyllic picnic grove. It was a gorgeous afternoon, and we sat at a table overlooking the calm blue waters of Tomales Bay shucking our own oysters and drinking wine. Some of the hipsters eating lunch nearby had decorated their tables with linen, flower arrangements and expensive-looking crystal. It was one of the most memorable oyster lunches I've ever had.
One year later, I had another memorable oyster lunch with fellow members of the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA) at 13 Mile Oyster Company, where we hunkered down at picnic tables overlooking the muddy waters of Apalachicola Bay on Florida's Gulf Coast. Apalachicola is the premier oyster appellation on the Gulf. The rapid flow of the nutrient-rich Apalachicola River creates an ideal oyster-growing environment. While virginica oysters take two to three years to reach a three-inch size in other parts of the country, Apalachicola oysters grow to maturity in an average of eighteen months.
But the most remarkable thing about Apalachicola oysters is that they are still harvested by tongs the way oysters were harvested a hundred years ago. In between eating oysters and crabs, SFA members took turns taking boat rides out to meet the oyster-tongers at work on the bay and trying their hand at tonging.
"We're glad our children didn't follow in our footsteps," Mary Green said as she culled oysters that her husband, Tom Green, brought to the surface. "This is a hard way to make a living." Mary and Tom Green are a husband-and-wife team who have been tonging for decades. Tom walked the deck of their small boat with the tongs in the water while Mary sat and sorted the keepers out of the muddy debris.
Tom dunked the fourteen-foot joined rakes into the water and snipped at the oysters below, then slowly raised a load to the surface. It's a lot slower than dredging oysters from an oyster lug with a diesel winch the way they do it in Texas and Louisiana, but tongers do less damage to the oyster reefs. Tom shucked an oyster and handed it to me. It was very soft and creamy, with hardly any salinity. It tasted as warm as the water.
Oyster tonging is a disappearing way of life. Ask me to choose between dripping-wet Pacific oysters from the state-of-the-art Hog Island Oyster Company on gorgeous Tomales Bay and creamy, freshly shucked virginicas in Apalachicola, a place where an older American food culture is still struggling to survive, and I have to go with "all of the above."
In the past few years, the oyster wars have gotten out of hand. In 2003, after several deaths were blamed on Gulf oysters in California, that state passed a law making it illegal to buy, sell or transport Gulf oysters in California during the summer months. And Texas, in turn, cracked down on exotic-species regulations to make it illegal for Texas oyster bars to sell the Pacific oysters and Kumamotos that are grown on the West Coast. Both states claim to be motivated by high ideals, and each has been accused of protectionism on behalf of their local oyster industries.
In the summer, Gulf oysters have high levels of Vibrio vulnificus, a naturally occurring bacteria that was first identified in the 1970s and is now blamed for causing illnesses and deaths. A few big Gulf oyster companies that harvest on private leases have fought a ban on summer oyster sales, arguing that Vibrio is harmless to the vast majority of the population.
It's a stupid argument. The public oyster season in the Gulf states has always been closed during the summer anyway. Regular oyster fishermen and tongers like Tom and Mary Green aren't doing any fishing. But the Vibrio problem will soon be solved thanks to global warming. Oyster-borne Vibrio bacterias are now causing illnesses and closing oyster beds in the summer months as far north as Washington and Alaska. That's why regulatory agencies are considering banning the summer sale of oysters in all parts of the country. "Don't eat oysters in a month without an 'R'" is not an outdated adage after all. But there are other good reasons to avoid oysters in the summer besides the health risks.
Americans seem to have lost touch with the fact that oysters are a seasonal food. In France, the largest oyster-producing country in the Western world, 80 percent of the entire oyster harvest is consumed in one week between Christmas and New Year's Day. The best reason not to eat oysters in the summer is that they don't taste very good — unless you import them from the Southern Hemisphere.
It was the Clean Water Act of 1972 that got the "Great American Oyster Renaissance" started. Once we cleaned up our rivers and streams, salt marshes and estuaries that had been stagnant and clogged with algae cleared up. Crabs and fish began to appear where they hadn't been seen in decades. Natural oyster reefs came back and tidelands where oysters had once been cultivated were viable again.
There have been problems along the way. And now the oyster industry is responding to a new set of challenges. Texas Parks & Wildlife's Lance Robinson says the state will spend some $2 million to restore oyster reefs in Galveston Bay damaged by Hurricane Ike. About half the money will be spent to dredge up oyster shells from under the debris to provide hard surfaces for oyster spats to adhere to. The other half will go to creating artificial reefs by dropping concrete chunks and other hard materials to form new substrate. But the reefs will be closed for several years after the restoration project to give the new oysters a chance to grow.
In the short term, there will be fewer oysters. But hurricanes have been pounding the Gulf Coast since the beginning of time. Oysters are resilient. Whenever they sense changes in water temperature or salinity, they go into a reproductive orgy, ensuring their survival by spawning enormous clouds of offspring. Hopeful oyster-industry experts say there is every reason to expect that, two years from now, the Texas oyster harvest will be bigger than ever. Louisiana, the nation's largest oyster-producing state, could return to full production in two years as well.
Meanwhile, some other oyster areas are taking up the slack. Bright spots include New Jersey, Florida and Mississippi, all of which have dramatically increased their production in the last three years.
But the problems with oyster larvae in Washington State hatcheries are a much more frightening situation. The failure was originally attributed to an oyster pathogen called Vibrio tubiashii. Last summer, newspaper stories reported that a $200,000 filtering system installed on one large hatchery would restore production to normal. But according to Bill Taylor, president of Taylor Shellfish, the oyster larvae are still dying despite the fact that Vibrio tubiashii is no longer present.
Marine biologists suspect that the larvae are being affected by changes in the pH level of the seawater being pumped into the hatchery. Typically, seawater has a pH between 8.1 and 8.3. Taylor says the water at Taylor's Quilcene hatchery on the Hood Canal is testing at levels as low as 7.2. (Lower pH equals higher acid.) The acidity is highest within a hundred miles of the Pacific Coast of North America. It hasn't affected seed oysters that are already growing, but there is a shortage of new seed as fewer spats are forming in the hatchery.
And it's not just the hatchery that's affected. "We used to see a natural spat set in places in like Willapa Bay," Taylor says. "But there hasn't been a spat set in Willapa Bay in four years now."
Taylor Shellfish has another hatchery, in Hawaii, that hasn't been affected yet, so there will still be a source of seed for half-shell oysters for a while to come, Taylor says. But if ocean acidification turns out to be the root cause of the hatchery failures, the future of the American oyster industry may depend on how fast we can reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
A shortage of oysters over the next couple of years may be inevitable. But will it be a temporary dip in a generally upward curve? Or are we at the pinnacle of the "Great American Oyster Renaissance," looking at a long downhill slide?
"I have my fingers crossed," Taylor says. "Ocean acidification has the potential to be worse than the pollution problems we solved with the Clean Water Act."
Robb Walsh is the author of Sex, Death and Oysters: A Half-Shell Lover's World Tour, which was released January 20.