Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Consider The Oyster.

He was a bold man that first eat [sic] an oyster.
-Polite Conversation, Jonathon Swift 

You know the Hawthornes love their oysters.  Normally, during the season, we go through about 5 bushels between the two of us.  This year, oyster pickin's have been slim.  Our usual suppliers are simply not supplying and the two bushels we've gone through contained a lot of undersized oysters.

I was happily surprised when Mr. H. and I stopped by Coastal Provisions Oyster Bar and Wine Café  and were confronted with a virtual smorgasbord of these briny delights.  We were like bulls in a candy shop!  Kids in china store!  We came home with 4 oysters of every type they had.  And they had a lot.  What's an ostreophile to do?

There are 13 types of oysters on the blackboard.
In addition to those 13,
we also came home with Kumamoto Oysters.  

We're in for some serious slurping.

Owner/chef, Daniel Lewis, was kind enough 
to bag and label 14 different types of oysters for us,
all the while explaining the provenance of our oysters.

First, a little oyster information is in order.

An oyster, along with clams, scallops, cockles, and mussels, is a bivalve mollusk.  A hard, external two-part hinged shell (valve) is home to a soft-bodied invertebrate.  If you look at an oyster shell, there will be a rounded shell and a flat shell.  The longer, rounded shell is the left valve and it attaches to an object, where the adult oyster permanently lives.  The shorter, flat shell is the right valve. Since the oyster is immobile, it depends solely on the surrounding water currents for food.  Oysters are filter feeders, straining phytoplankton (free-swimming algae) and other organic matter from the water as it passes through their gills.  The gills themselves have tiny hair-like parts called cilia which create small water currents which pump the surrounding water to the oyster, bringing food and expelling waste.  An adult oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day, improving the water quality by cleaning the water, removing bacteria, reducing nitrogen, enhancing water clarity, thereby allowing more light to penetrate promoting eel grass beds, which in turn provides a habitat for small fish and crustaceans. 

There are over 100 varieties of oysters, generally named from their home waters, but there are only five distinct species:

1) Atlantic oysters - Crassostrea virginicas
2) West Coast oysters - Crassostrea sikamea
3)  Pacific or Japanese oysters - Crassostrea gigas
4)  European oysters - Ostrea edulis
5)  Olympia oysters (West coast) - Ostrea lurida

Three primary species are harvested in the United states - the Kumamoto (Crassostrea sikamea), the Pacific (Crassotrea gigas), and the Atlantic (Crassostrea virginicas).

 An oyster's flavor depends not only upon its species but also upon its natural environment - its location and the conditions of its habitat (water salinity, nutrient content, and temperature)  - let's call it the merroir, similar to the terroir of wine.

 According to author, Rowan Jacobson, in his book, A Geography of Oysters, 
 Oysters are creatures of bays and tidal pools and river inlets, of places where marine and terrestrial communities collide. While they are creatures of the sea, they draw their uniqueness from the land and how it affects their home waters.  In a mass-produced society where most food doesn’t seem to be from anywhere, this makes them special…. Think of an oyster as a lens, its concave shell focusing everything that is unique about a particular body of water into a morsel of flesh.”

I must address that bugaboo about not eating oysters in months without an R - May, June, July, and August.  That rule was true for a while because it was hard to keep oysters from spoiling during the hot summer months before we had modern refrigeration.  Secondly, warmer water temperatures result in higher concentrations of bacteria and of a toxic algae (red tide.) Also, oysters spawn during these months, making them thinner, flimsy, physically weaker, and not as tasty.
Bottom line:  Rosie don't eat no stinkin' ersters in the NON-R Months.

Je vous presentez les huitre de quatres saisons.

And now we come to "triploid" oysters.
"Triploid" oysters are bred to be sterile, so they never produce, and it's OK to eat them during summer months.  Natural oysters, are "diploid,"  meaning their cells contain two sets of chromosomes, one from each parent.  At Williams & Mary's Virginia Institute for Marine Science, they have developed a "triploid" oyster with three sets of chromosomes.  This results in an infertile oyster, which grows bigger and quicker than a "normal" diploid oyster since it doesn't waste time or energy producing eggs and sperm.  No spawning to take up valuable time. 
 This results in higher yields and a plump product available year-round.  And all the time, those poor little diploids during the non-R months are either full of gonads or have become flimsy and weak after spawning.

  I've been reading up on diploid and triploid oysters until my eyes glaze over.  Triploid oysters make marketing sense, but I still worry about our insistence on ecological modification and our attempts at mastering nature.

Personally, I don't know if I want to eat an oyster that's had its basic parts messed with.  And we're talking about basic, basic parts.  At the cellular level. No, more basic than cellular.  Aquaculture, at this level, frightens me.

Let's manipulate oyster sex.  Starting with meiosis.

 I worry about messin' with Mother Nature.  I think oysters taste best out of cold water - they're plumper and sweeter - so I'm adhering to the months without an R adage.  And eating diploids.  For now.

More stuff about oysters:
Oysters are hermaphrodites, their sex changing, based on their life stage, for the betterment of the species.

As the inimitable M.F.K. Fisher wrote:

An oyster leads a dreadful but exciting life.

Indeed, his chance to live at all is slim, and if he should survive the arrows of his own outrageous fortune and in the two weeks of his carefree youth find a clean smooth place to fix on, the years afterwards are full of stress, passion, and danger.

He - but why make him a he, except for clarity?  Almost any normal oyster never knows from one year to the next whether he is he or she, and may start at any moment, after the first year, to lay eggs where before he spent his sexual energies in being exceptionally masculine.  if he is a she, her energies are equally feminine, so that in a single summer, if all goes well, and the temperature of the water is somewhere around or above seventy degrees, she may spawn several hundred million eggs, fifty to one hundred million at a time, with commendable pride.

American oysters differ as much as American people, so that the Atlantic Coast inhabitants spend their childhood and adolescence floating free and unprotected with the tides, conceived far from their mothers and their fathers too by milt let loose in the water near the eggs, while the Western oysters lie within special brood-chambers of the maternal shell, inseminated and secure, until they are some two weeks old.  The Easterners seem more daring.

A little oyster is born, then, in the water.  At first, about five to ten hours after he and at least a few hundred thousand of his mother's eggs have been fertilized by his potent and unknown sire, he is merely a larva.  He is small, but he is free-swimming...and he swims thus freely for about two weeks, wherever the tides and his peculiar whims may lead him.  He is called a spat.

It is to be hoped, sentimentally at least, that the spat - our spat - enjoys himself.  Those two weeks are his one taste of vagabondage, of devil-may-care free roaming.  And even they are not quite free, for during all his youth he is busy growing a strong foot and a large supply of sticky, cement-like stuff.  If he thought, he might wonder why.

The two weeks up, he suddenly attaches himself to the first clean hard object he bumps into.  His fifty million brothers who have not been eaten by fish may or may not bump into anything clean and hard, and those who do not, die.  But our spat has been lucky, and in great good spirits he clamps himself firmly to his home, probably forever.  He is by now about one-seventy-fifth of an inch long, whatever that may be ... and he is an oyster.

There he rest, tied firmly by his left foot, which seems to have become a valve in the immutable way of all oyster feet.  He devotes himself to drinking, and rapidly develops an envious capacity, so that in good weather, when the temperature stays near seventy-eight degrees, he can easily handle twenty-six or -seven quarts an hour.  He manages better than most creatures to combine business with pleasure, and from this stream of water that passes through his gills he strains out all the delicious little diatoms and peridia that are his food.

...Whatever the anchorage, spat-dom is over and done with.  The two fine free-swimming weeks are forever gone, maturity with all its cares has come, and an oyster ... may be crossed in love.

For about a year this oyster - our oyster - is a male, fertilizing a few hundred thousand eggs as best he can without ever knowing whether they swim by or not.  Then one day, maternal longings surge between his two valves in his cold guts and gills and all his crinkly fringes.  Necessity, that well-known mother, makes him one.  He is a she.

From then on she, with occasional vacations of being masculine just to keep her hand in, bears her millions yearly.  She is in the full bloom of womanhood when she is about seven.

Did I ever show you how Mr. Hawthorne and I met?
Once it is seen, it cannot be unseen.


  Eating an oyster is like kissing the sea on the lips.
Léon-Paul Fargue
 The Hawthornes enjoy their oysters.

I'm doing a scientific sensory experiment today.
I'm eating a slew of oysters.

Now, let's go kiss some sea on the lips!

  We have our Outer Banks oysters here.
Clockwise from top left:
Hatteras Salts
Bodie Island
Devil Shoals


North Carolina, Virginia, and Maryland oysters. 
Clockwise from top, going around the clock, to center:
Choptank Sweets
Ruby Salts
Stones Bay
Carolina Pearl
Tangier Island
Olde Salts 



 Elsewhere oysters.

Clockwise from top left:
Pink Ribbon




Bottom line:
 The Hawthornes happily went through every oyster on our plates and we made notes.

Thankfully, all oysters were perfectly fresh and tasted like ocean - just like an oyster is supposed to taste.
We put no accoutrements on our oysters.  We ate them raw.  And, again, no.  Rosie didn't have a drop of lemon juice.  We joyously accepted the plain diploidic essence of basic oyster and brine.

We tasted happy ocean in each bite. 
Rosie's favorites were the Pamlico and the Carolina Pearl oysters
Mr. H.'s favorites were the Hatteras Salts and the Carolina Pearl.

The salinity seemed to be an influencing factor.

The Pamlicos were meaty, plump, mildly salty, and had lots of liquor.
The Hatteras Salts were real salty and tasty, but drier and thinner.
The Bodie Island had the least salty taste.  Drier, thinner, and flimsy.
The Devil Shoals were bland and not salty.
The Carolina Pearl was lovely - plump, juicy, and salty.
The Stones Bay, thinner, flimsy, with some other back-taste coming through.  Was it minerality?
The Tangier was smaller and plump, mild and juicy. 
The Olde Salts was plump and salty.
The Choptank was mild and sweet.
The Ruby Salts.  Hmmmm.  Not much likker.  And there was a flavor there.  Couldn't pinpoint it, but I would call it "earthy."  Yeah... "Earthy."  For an oyster.  Go figger.  I tasted truffle flavor there.  Crazy.
The Pink Ribbon was plump, salty, and juicy.
The Malpeque was small, with a strong, good flavor.
The Kumamoto was thin and flimsy with a strong fishy flavor.  My least favorite
The Belon was huge with a strong flavor which left a definite aftertaste. Jury is out.  Until I had it steamed the next day and dipped in melted butter and it was grand.

And there you have it!
The Hawthornes' Highly Scientific Oyster Tasting.

We look forward to more oysters.

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