I am not certain when I ate my first oyster, be it cooked or nude (raw). I was born and raised in the Midwest - Wisconsin mostly with its dairy farms and breweries. Lots of cows, hay and corn; plenty of milk, cheese, and beer. You get the picture. We did have the Great Lakes and their bounty, but where I grew up we were hundreds of miles from the closest oyster beds.
This is not to say that oysters did not occasionally pop up on a menu, especially Oysters Rockefeller, or oysters on a half shell (some say "in" a half shell) in some of your fancier restaurants in Milwaukee or Madison, or even Chicago - my hometown - whenever we ventured that far. But folks in Wisconsin seemed to prefer a simple Friday night fish fry and all the yellow perch and walleye you could eat. If I did go somewhere fancy to eat on a holiday or on a special occasion, I was content with a shrimp cocktail or maybe some pickled herring. I even had snails a couple time and enjoyed them just fine. But oysters. They seldom entered the picture.
I attended college for most of my undergraduate career in Florida where my Midwestern culinary horizons were greatly expanded, including an introduction to other types of seafood not sold in supermarkets or served in restaurants back in the Midwest; at least not five decades ago. Grouper, mackerel, red snapper . . . the list goes on. These new discoveries were delicious. It was also during this time when I began to eat lobster, although unless it was a special occasion when the offering was a Maine lobster served at a restaurant, one was more than likely treated to a Caribbean spiny lobster from local waters between midsummer and early spring. Although oysters were harvested in Florida, I would not discover them until later.
It was during the year I attended a German university and traveled throughout Europe in the early 1970s when I began trying all sorts of foods I had never had before. There were fermented Vietnamese century eggs and other street foods consumed in a back street on Paris’ Left Bank. Or sampling live snails although there was some doubt they were still alive when you ate them. Herring in aspic? Oh, the list goes on and on. More importantly, my diet in Europe also included the delicious North Sea flat oysters harvested from the expansive tidal flats along the Dutch, German, and Danish coasts which could be purchased at the daily market in the center of Freiburg where I did most of my shopping. They were over harvested and further thinned out by the invasive Pacific oyster although efforts continue to restore the native flat oysters.
So I had a taste for oysters when I returned from Germany to Florida and discovered that the Sunshine State, as well the Gulf of Mexico coastlines of Mississippi and Louisiana produced some of the finest tasting oysters in North America. Back then oysters grew like weeds down in the Gulf and were still grown wild for the most part versus farmed oysters, and were relatively affordable. The lower salinity levels of the Gulf also protected wild oysters from certain diseases in a way that hasn’t happened in the Chesapeake Bay and elsewhere. My favorite Florida oysters are those from the waters near Apalachicola, on the eastern Panhandle, which is the last place in the United States where, by law, wild oysters are still harvested by tongs from small boats. Still, during frequent visits to north Florida I love to drive over to the Gulf coast at Cedar Key where you can find me slurping down trays of local Pelican Reef (Eastern) oysters on the half shell arrayed over crushed ice . . . with a drop of Tabasco sauce, a dab of horseradish, and a few wedges fresh lemon.
|Pelican Reef Oysters at Cedar Key, Florida|
I moved from Florida to Tucson for graduate school. Yes, it’s in the Arizona desert and it is not known for seafood although there is good seafood not far away in Southern California, and even closer, in Mexico, and some of it made it up to the better restaurants around town. Being a graduate student, I tended to seek out less expensive fare. But no oysters to speak of; at least I never ate them while living out West to my recollection. It was probably not until 1976, shortly after SallyAnn and I moved from Tucson to Maryland with easy access to the Chesapeake Bay, that I finally got into the habit of eating wild oysters . . . and a raw one to boot . . . which were at the time plentiful, harvested by trawl and hand tonging, and relatively cheap. And there has been no looking back since. I will occasionally eat oysters cooked - roasted or fried usually - but my default preference is freshly shucked bivalves served on the half shell . . . and yes . . . with a drop of Tabasco sauce and a little dab of horseradish and some freshly cut lemon wedges. That’s all you really need and we are talking about a feast fit for the gods! I became an official ostreaphile . . . an oyster afficionado.
Chesapeake Bay is not a bay at all but actually a tidal estuary, the largest in the US, where fresh and salt water mix to medium salinity. It was long considered the "Napa Valley of oysters. While wines have terroirs, oysters are defined by "meroirs" determined by water salinity, temperature, the types of algae present in the water, and seabed characteristics. These all factor into an individual oyster’s flavor. There are only five unique species of oysters in the United States – Pacific, Kumamoto, European Flat or Belon, Olympia, and along the Gulf of Mexico, all the way to the waters of Maine and the Canadian Maritime, including the Chesapeake Bay, the best know in the common Eastern Oyster – Crassostrea virginica which has many different market names –"Wellfleets" "Blue Points" "Dodge Coves" – depending where they are harvested. They are all the same species yet oysters differ from state to state, from river to river and even from cove to cove.
The Chesapeake Bay oyster beds were dense throughout, and the local bivalves flourished in the warm waters along the indented shoreline and various tributaries – especially the Susquehanna, the Potomac, and the Choptank in Maryland, and the James and the Rappahanock in Virginia. Oyster rocks, or reefs, were so abundant that they presented a hazard to shipping in and out of Baltimore. Chesapeake oysters grew plump and sweet and forty years ago you could buy a bushel and not break the bank. Alas, the local watermen have harvested this apparently inexhaustible resource for over two centuries until today there are virtually no more wild oysters to harvest in the Chesapeake Bay. All the best now come from aquaculture operations in Virginia tributaries. In fact, 95% of all oysters consumed in the world today are farm-raised. And they are no longer cheap or as easy to come by. You can imagine my consternation.
Part 2 will discuss this Marylander’s thoughts on the evolution the Maine oyster.